Tuesday, August 9, 2022

Paving the way for new development with denser zoning districts could help with affordable housing

A map of the different zoning districts in New Hanover County (Port City Daily/Courtesy New Hanover County)
A map of the different zoning districts in New Hanover County (Port City Daily/Courtesy New Hanover County)

New Hanover County has been working to update its Unified Development Ordinance and last night commissioners approved the biggest change to zoning in the county since the 1960s, approved eight new districts.

WILMINGTON — Affordable housing has been a hot topic, not just in the Cape Fear region but, nationally as well. But in places like Wilmington and New Hanover County, steep land prices coupled with strict zoning regulations make it difficult for developers to construct less-expensive homes — it’s worth noting that flexible zoning options won’t guarantee more affordable housing, but it will mean the option isn’t automatically off the table.

New Hanover County has been working for some time on updating its Unified Development Ordinance and on Tuesday, the Board of Commissioners approved the biggest change to the county zoning in over half a century.

“Commissioners approved the biggest change in the county’s zoning ordinance since the 1960s, adding eight new zoning districts for residential, commercial and mixed-use in the unincorporated county. This does not change the zoning of any property, but provides additional tools that property owners can request through the rezoning process,” according to a county statement.

While the cost of land is dictated by supply and demand and local government has little control over pricing, they do have the ability to allow for more dense development.

One of the most common themes amongst developers is the need for more dense zoning districts to allow the construction of smaller, and less expensive homes.

Newly approved residential districts (in blue) will allow for more dense, by-right, development (Port City Daily/Courtesy NHC)
Newly approved residential districts (in blue) will allow for more dense, by-right, development (Port City Daily/Courtesy NHC)

Of the eight new proposed districts, five of them are residential in nature, and all five of those are towards the higher end of density charts.

The changes will be an important step in aiding new, more dense development since current zoning districts only allow up to six units per acre by right.

There are, of course, special use permits that are granted in the county, like R-15 and R-10, which allow for more dense properties but by allowing multi-family zoning and denser residential, developers won’t need to go through the arduous special use permit process.

The other new districts will include two new commercial districts as well as a mixed-use district and will increase the number of zoning districts in the county from 18 to 25, for comparison, the City of Wilmington has 31, according to the County Commissioner’s meeting agenda.

“The new residential districts will allow the full range of housing types and densities outlined on the 2016 Comprehensive Plan’s Future Land Use Map and will support the county’s goals of increasing the supply of workforce housing,” according to the staff report and county agenda.

So how exactly would these new districts be put into place? Well, it would not change the official zoning map or draw new districts, instead, property owners wanting to use these new districts would have to apply for a rezoning and hold additional public hearings.

The county took some tips from the City of Wilmington with the new districts and the newly approved ones are based on the standards of the City.

The new districts

The five new residential districts include: R-5 or moderate-high residential districts; RMF-L residential multi-family low density district; RMF-M residential multi-family moderate density district; RMF-MH residential multi-family moderate-high density district; RMF-H residential multi-family high density district.

“The intent of the new districts is to allow for the full range of residential densities and housing types outlined in the 2016 Comprehensive Plan. The zoning ordinance’s existing residential district line-up currently only allows very low and low-density residential development by-right. Moderate density projects are allowed only with a high-density development special use permit, which requires a quasi-judicial public hearing,” according to the request approved by the County Commissioners on Tuesday.

The two new business districts, CB community business district and CS commercial services district, will provide alternatives to the more commonly used B-2 district.

“One is designed to be appropriate closer to residential neighborhoods, and the other provides an alternative zoning designation for the B-2 uses that can be less desirable on high-visibility corridors,” according to the staff report.

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