Saturday, February 4, 2023

Breaking down New Hanover County development activity, from the ‘TRC’ to County Commissioners

Development is a hot topic in New Hanover County, but how does a development actually go from an idea to construction? (Port City Daily/Michael Praats)
Development is a hot topic in New Hanover County, but how does a development actually go from an idea to construction? (Port City Daily/Michael Praats)

WILMINGTON — It’s not always easy living in one of the smallest counties in the state, especially when it also happens to be one of the most popular places to live.

With more new residents choosing to call New Hanover County home and new developments appearing at an unprecedented rate, existing residents fed up with traffic, clear-cutting, and congestion in general, are often quick to comment that development should be stopped — but how does development actually occur?

With the exception of a few public-private projects (think Wilmington’s River Place or the proposed Castle Street development, or New Hanover County’s ) most development projects, be it commercial or residential, are private undertakings. This means private money is invested and profits are earned by developers when these projects succeed.

Since 2017 there have been 39 major subdivisions submitted to New Hanover County for approval, exactly zero of these have been denied, and 10 are currently under review (this does not include projects in Wilmington city limits, which go through a similar but separate process.)

By-right development

A significant amount of development is already allowed on private property by law, but local government does have a role to play, mostly in the form of building requirements, inspections, and zoning.

When a development is proposed for a district that is zoned for that particular type of project — for example, a residential development in an R-15 area, or a combination of apartments and retail in an urban mixed-use area — it is known as by-right development.

“By-right development is a land use that is allowed in the applicable zoning district and that is subject to objective standards administered by staff. Approval or denial of by-right development is an administrative decision, meaning if the property owner meets the requirements of the applicable ordinances, staff issues the permit for the development,” according to New Hanover County staff.

“An example of a by-right use is the development of single-family residence in a residential zoning district. A property owner who wants to build a house in this situation does not have to obtain approval of advisory or elected bodies. Depending on the local government’s zoning regulations, this same type of decision can be applied to larger-scale projects like subdivisions and shopping centers,” according to the county.

But just because there is by-right development happening does not mean the county is completely hands-off.

“While by-right development is allowed in the subject zoning district, it is still subject to the standards of the County’s and State’s and other regulatory agencies’ development regulations, including zoning, building, utility, fire, stormwater and other requirements,” county staff said.

There are different requirements depending on the type of by-right development being proposed. For example, the addition of a detached garage or carriage house will typically only need to go through the building permit process. Other, more significant projects go through different committees.

“Larger developments, like subdivisions or shopping centers, are reviewed by the Technical Review Committee (TRC). The TRC consists of County and State agencies that administer applicable development regulations. Prior to approval of any development, all applicable regulations must be met,” county staff said.

“Generally, zoning standards include land use, density, parking, setbacks, building height, and landscaping requirements. Other standards include roadway improvements, utility infrastructure, environmental protection, and stormwater facilities,” they said.

Along with the TRC, there are several other county bodies that play a role in development. County staff outlined the different boards and their purposes below:

  • TRC: an administrative body made up of county and state agency staff that reviews major developments for compliance with applicable regulations. The TRC can deny a project, but that decision can be appealed.
  • Board of Adjustment: Quasi-Judicial body consisting of citizens appointed by the Board of Commissioners that consider applications for variances and appeals.
  • Planning Board: Advisory body to the Board of Commissioners that provides recommendations on legislative matters like rezonings, ordinance changes, and long-range land use plans. Members are appointed by the Board of Commissioners. The Planning Board (or the Planning Commission, in Wilmington) can decline to approve projects — but developers can still take their case to the Board of Commissioners (or City Council, in Wilmington) for approval.
  • Board of Commissioners: Elected body of the county that makes legislative decisions on the county’s development regulations, including establishing development ordinances like the Zoning and Subdivision Ordinances. Under the standards of the Zoning Ordinance, the Board also make quasi-judicial decisions on Special Use Permit applications.

Rezonings, special use permits, and more

About 15 of 30 acres of land in northern New Hanover County could be rezoned to allow for a new mixed-use development (Port City Daily/Michael Praats)
About 15 of 30 acres of land in northern New Hanover County could be rezoned to allow for a new mixed-use development. (Port City Daily/Michael Praats)

There is plenty of growth and development happening in the region that goes, for the most part, under the radar of the general public — and then there are projects that make headlines and drive residents out in droves to protest them.

Most often these larger projects require special approval from the Planning Board and the Board of County Commissioners. Public hearings are often held for these projects, but what makes these developments different from others?

“Only developments that require a rezoning or Special Use Permit are reviewed by the Planning Board and Board of Commissioners,” according to county staff.

That means elected officials actually have less say in what is built in the county than most people would give them credit for.

Rezoning requests are fairly easy to understand but the same cannot be said for a special use permit.

“A ‘special use’ is a land use that would be appropriate in the applicable zoning district if specified conditions or standards are met (like the use would not substantially injure property values). Examples include a daycare in a residential zoning district or having a convenience store in an area zoned for office-related uses. Both uses may generate additional traffic in the area, so while the use itself is generally appropriate in the subject district, the extra review helps determine the impact to adjacent properties,” according to county staff.

These requests are also quasi-judicial in nature meaning anyone wishing to speak for or against a special use permit must present evidence and have standing (you can read more about the SUP process here).

Because of the quasi-judicial nature, special use permits are also more difficult to deny.

“If the applicant presents substantial, competent, and material evidence that the required standards for a SUP have been satisfied, then the permit must be issued,” according to the county.

Ultimately, development is a much more complicated process than it is often made out to be, but it is unlikely that development will be slowing down anytime soon.

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