Tuesday, January 18, 2022

First-time developers vs. the old guard: A battle for Augusta St. in Wrightsville Beach

Editor's note: This article was awarded first place in city, county government reporting in the North Carolina Press Association's 2020 editorial contest.

Construction on Augusta Street in Wrightsville Beach. (Port City Daily photo / Preston Lennon)

WRIGHTSVILLE BEACH — A group of Wrightsville Beach homeowners — members of an old guard, many of whom have owned houses in the area since the mid-1900s — are working together to ward off the maneuverings of two brothers who want to change a local ordinance in order to benefit their real estate enterprise. 

The disagreement is about a technical requirement called a ‘setback’ but, in the grander scheme of things, it’s also a battle over something less quantifiable, what you might call the ‘feel’ of Wrightsville Beach.

In Wrightsville Beach, there is a town-wide rule that requires 15 feet of space between the edge of the street and the beginning of the home in residential areas; this space is called a setback. The higher the setback requirement, the less base square-footage a building can have on any given property. Thus, developers looking to maximize their investments tend to favor smaller setbacks. At the same time, long-time residents often favor larger setbacks, which can help preserve views of the beach and Intracoastal from other properties.

Augusta Street

Timothy and Thomas Conley own at least 10 properties on the beach, most of which were acquired in mid- to late-2018, valued collectively at nearly $15 million. They hold two oceanfront lots on Augusta Street — the former homes on both lots were torn down, and a new house is under construction on one while the other remains vacant. The Conleys have been lobbying the town to allow them to decrease the width of the setback zone, which would give them extra space to build on the still-vacant lot. 

“We’re just asking for everybody to play by the same rules,” neighbor Alexander Arab said. Arab owns the house on Augusta St. directly behind the Conleys’ two lots. 

Arab’s house was built before the setback rule was codified by the town. After his home sustained damage from multiple hurricanes over the years, Arab said he decided to rebuild the property, and was told by town officials when doing so that he would need to make sure his reconstructed house complied with the 15-foot setback. 

“If the town was going to change the rules, it would have been nice to know ten years ago,” Arab said. “We would not have had to move our house back when we moved it up.” 

The Conleys have been pushing this proposed rule change through town channels for many months, and after they twice earned the consent of the Wrightsville Beach Planning Board, the proposal was heard by the Board of Aldermen. At an Aug. 13 meeting where the matter was discussed, representatives from multiple homes on Augusta St. rallied in opposition to the Conleys’ proposal. 

“We owners and visitors at Wrightsville Beach are proud that our town leaders have been able to keep us from becoming like Myrtle Beach or other high density and commercialized beach towns,” Augusta St. resident Susan Prickett said. “There’s just a lot of feeling out there that if you all let this one go, it’s going to come at you again and again and again.”

One by one, the homeowners went to the podium to speak their minds in front of the beach town board members.

“We are creating the Great Wall of China on the beach, and it’s harmful to the neighbors,” Halbert Jones said. “We’re not opposed to development, but we are opposed to it when it’s a zero-sum game.”

Building in NC’s most expensive Zip code

In defense of their plea, the Conleys argued that Wrightsville Beach’s status as N.C.’s most expensive Zip code justified their aspirations to maximizing the lot’s value. 

“Most of the houses are 65-plus years old,” Timothy Conley said at the meeting. “In reality, if any of those houses were to sell, my guess is they would be razed and something new would come in.”

In an interview with Port City Daily, Timothy Conley said this opposition has not only embattled the brothers’ campaign to extract more space out of their to-be-constructed oceanfront lot, but it has also muddled their plans and left them jaded about their once-hopeful future in beach construction.

“We’re still not sure what we’re going to do with this lot. It’s unfortunate that the neighbors are upset about what we feel is progress,” Timothy said. “We spent a lot of money on the lot in question.” 

Thomas Conley, in an interview, said both he and his brother had a recent sit-down with residents of the street, in which he offered to sell them the vacant lot for the exact cost that had been invested in it — but it didn’t pan out.

“Otherwise, we’re going to build a house that we think is going to be the most attractive and possibly get us the best ROI,” Thomas said. “And one of the neighbors turned to me and said, ‘We don’t care about your money at all, so let’s get that straight,’ and I said ‘O.K. well I kind of do.’”

Throughout the summer, the Conleys sent emails to town officials, asking for updates and guidance on the town’s thinking as it related to their proposed rule change.

On May 15, town officials received an email from Timothy, who said it had been more than 10 months since the proposal was first submitted, “and we, along with our local builders and contractors are sustaining a pretty significant hardship as time continues to drag on … ”

On June 1, he wrote again: “It has been over two weeks and still no direction on next steps to this matter?”

And again on June 8: “I’m trying to be as patient as possible but that is running thin. A response with an update would be appreciated.”

On June 9, Town Manager Timothy Owens emailed Conley: “Hello. We will consider placing this on the Board agenda in July for discussion.”

‘The issues come in when you get individuals that have never developed or built in the town.’

As the bustle of construction continues on Augusta Street, the neighbors have launched a counter-offensive on the Conleys, arguing that allowing them to get their way would open up Pandora’s box on Wrightsville Beach. (Port City Daily photo / Preston Lennon)

Timothy said he and his brother are mostly rentors, not developers, and that they don’t have much experience in building homes with the intention of selling outside of their family. 

Rajah and Jamale Arab, Alexander’s parents, live in the house directly behind the Conley lots. They said the new construction will hurt their property values and impact their view of the ocean, a concern shared by other Augusta St. residents. 

“I do understand the Arabs’ position, and I do say that we’re going to build whatever the town allows us to build,” Timothy said. “This is the most expensive zip code in North Carolina, and if you were to rent or go to a hotel in La Jolla, California or Newport Beach or West Palm in Florida, or go up to the Hamptons in New York — what would you be expecting as some of the most expensive places in the country?”

Pandora’s box

At the Board of Alderman meeting earlier this month, Timothy Conley argued that his actions are simpatico with the overall vibe of contemporary construction projects on the beach. Conley said his interpretation of the setback rule is that the 15-ft requirement pertains to the west side of the lot — which runs perpendicular to Augusta St.

Town officials said the ordinance’s language and past precedent make it clear that new houses are expected to comply with a 15-ft setback on the street side of the home, which in this case is the south-facing lawn between the house and Augusta St.

“I’ve been in development and construction business my whole life and I’ve never bought a piece of property thinking I could do something different than what was allowed,” Mayor Pro Tem Hank Miller said after listening to public discussion on the setback change proposal. “To me, we’re opening up Pandora’s Box.”

After hearing the thoughts of the other residents, the board decided to not introduce a motion regarding the proposal, which in effect meant the amendment failed to pass.

“If y’all want to just let it die then it dies,” Alderman Ken Dull said, speaking to other board members. “Nothing changes.” 

Augusta St. resident Elizabeth Jones said she believes that the Conleys were expecting to breeze through the processes of the Wrightsville Beach bureaucracy, not to have their path hindered by constant obstacles in the form of outspoken dissent from residents. Once the homeowners became aware of the Conleys’ rule-change proposal, they sent emails to board members, urging the Aldermen to maintain the status quo.

“I think they thought it was already a done deal,” Jones said. “They weren’t worried at all.” 

A changing scene

Timothy said he wants to collect the maximum potential value from both lots, for which he and his brother paid a combined $1.74 million. 

“The fact of the matter is this beach is changing,” he said. “They’ve been fortunate not to have a lot of development and they’d all be more than happy to not have us build anything on that lot so they can maintain their views.”

Thomas said he thinks this wave of criticism contains a degree of hypocrisy, given that many Augusta St. homeowners have altered their houses over the years, but then complained to him about how their views would be affected, he said.

“They’ve all added on to their houses. They’ve all lifted them up and put them on stilts,” he said. “If they can come in there with an argument that shouldn’t exist and win, like they did in this situation, then there’s an issue, and it absolutely does and should scare good developers and builders on Wrightsville Beach. 

For the Conleys’ Augusta St. house that is currently under construction, a significant percentage of the second floor is “unusable space,” said residents at the meeting. This tactic allows for the floor plan to accentuate the home’s higher stories, because the unused space on the second floor doesn’t count against the square footage limits imposed by the town. Also, residents say that to comply with the town’s 40-ft height limit for new homes, developers are forgoing architectural elegance for flat roofs, doing everything possible to procure high-altitude views.

“Why should I sacrifice the size of my top floor for my first floor, when it’s not nearly as nice?” Thomas said. “So yeah, we did do that. There’s nothing wrong with that.”

Residents say maneuvers like these are tricks that go against the character and established ambiance of Wrightsville Beach, whereas the Conleys say they’re simply trying to build a home within the parameters laid out by the town. 

Christopher Parker has been involved in the construction of many homes on Wrightsville Beach, including an opulent project adjacent to the Banks Channel Bridge, which is now listed on the market for $16.5 million — the most expensive listing in N.C. He said success in the art of developing on Wrightsville Beach largely depends on one’s familiarity with the rules of the game. In his opinion, the municipal authorities on the island are professional and easy to work with. 

“I think the established developers that have been working out here and developing out here for a long period of time, I don’t believe that they have issues,” Parker said. “I think the issues come in when you get individuals that have never developed or built in the town, and they don’t understand the town’s goals and insights for the future of the town. And that’s where they have issues understanding the regulations.”

Timothy Conley, a permanent Wrightsville Beach resident, is the Chief Operating Officer of technological solutions company Allbridge, of which his brother is the president, according to his LinkedIn profile.

“We purchased properties to make sure our kids could live here, regardless of what professions they chose, so we’ve got some under trusts, and some other regular businesses,” Timothy said. “Our intentions when we first purchased it were to build and hold so I’m not sure what we’re going to do at this point. Obviously we have issues down on Augusta Street, so, trying to be amicable.”

After the residents of Augusta St. successfully staved off the Conleys from securing an amendment to the setback ordinance, Timothy said that he and his brother’s next steps are up in the air.

“To do it all over again, we probably would not. It’s a thorn in our side at this point,” he said.

Thomas added that in his mind, what he and Timothy tried to pull off was nothing that Wrightsville Beach hasn’t seen before.

“It’s not like we’re doing anything different than what’s been happening down there for the past 40 years,” Thomas said. “We just hit a street of neighbors that got together and forced the hand of the town.”

Send tips and comments to Preston Lennon at preston@localdailymedia.com

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