Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Lewis Creek project, narrowly approved in 2017, asks New Hanover for more units

Developers behind The Landing at Lewis Creek are asking to increase density. (Port City Daily photo / File)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — The owner of an 85-acre property on Gordon Road in northern New Hanover County is applying for a Special Use Permit (SUP) to increase density. The request comes three years after a hard-fought victory won following a split vote by county commissioners to ignore objections of planning staff and the county’s planning board.

Related: County commissioners approve 400-plus residential units off Gordon Road despite opposition by planners

The SUP request asks to add an additional 18 single-family lots to the project, which was originally approved for 236 single-family homes as well as 192 apartment units. According to that request, the additional density would conform with the county’s updated development ordinances. As a condition of the request, the owner — McAdams Homes, LCC — will add buffering landscaping and dedicate a 20-foot path for a future county-city greenway.

The SUP application notes that the project is still at around half of the maximum density allowed under the R-15 zoning, roughly five units per acre — that’s the zoning the county approved during a 2017 meeting which shifted nearly 3.5 million square feet from Office and Industrial and Business zoning to residential.

2017 rezoning

The 2017 rezoning process was contentious: planning staff found the project didn’t fit with the county’s development plan and, in a split vote, the planning commission recommended denying the application; both cited the fact that the properties involved were some of the only business-zoned land in the area, surrounded by residential. Staff noted the area was prime for mixed-use developments, but the Lewis Creek project was all residential. While developers held out the possibility that future projects in the area could include mixed-use of business aspects, there were no guarantees, and no mixed-use plans have materialized in the last three years.

(Find complete minutes of the September 5, 2017 meeting here)

A county planner also expressed concern that another apartment complex, 328 units located just across from Lewis Creek on the other side of Gordon Road, had already been approved but had passed the build-out date. At the meeting, Commissioner Jonathan Barfield, Jr. noted that he had personally spoken to developer David Swain, who still planned to move forward with the project.

Barfield argued that, official or not, the board could assume the neighboring development — and more traffic — were coming to Gordon Road. Commissioner Woody White noted that the project hadn’t broken ground yet, effectively arguing that it couldn’t be considered as ‘evidence.’ The project — the Hawthorne at Smith Creek — has since been completed.

Commissioners Rob Zapple and Barfield both expressed concerns about traffic generated by the project, specifically given the low level of service on Gordon Road. At the time, the thoroughfare had recently been knocked off the list of NCDOT priority projects. Last year, NCDOT moved the project up from 2029 to 2025, it’s not clear how the department’s current financial crisis will affect that.

The issue of traffic was muddled by several factors. First, the future stress on Gordon Road was obscured by the absence of a finalized traffic-impact analysis (TIA). According to planning staff at the time, the project did require a TIA, but it was still under review by state and local transportation authorities at the time. The TIA, notably, did not include the then-planned (now complete) Hawthorne project across the street.

Attorney Michael Lee, who represented the developers at the time, said he had originally thought NCDOT would have completed its review of the TIA by the time of the meeting; although that had not happened, he told the board he didn’t want to inconvenience the speakers who had come out for the hearing by continuing it to a later date.

A second issue was, as Lee argued, that the developer believed that traffic on Gordon would get worse if the project wasn’t approved, since the developers were offering to include traffic-mitigation in the project — a claim that was difficult to evaluate without a TIA.

Lee also noted that the developers were not pursuing the maximum density allowed under the zoning they were requesting (which would have been roughly double the number of units). However, the project would not have been allowed without a rezoning.

Commissioner Skip Watkins cited the need for affordable housing. Financially speaking, density is one of the only ways developers can the housing costs of their projects. According to the development’s website, single-family homes are currently selling for between $245,000 and $283,000 and townhomes from between $205,000 and $225,000.

White, who was then Chair, asked Lee if he wanted to continue the meeting or a call a vote based on the evidence at hand; Lee asked the board to proceed.

Ultimately the plan passed, with White, Watkins, and Commissioner Pat Kusek voting in favor, and Zapple and Barfield opposing.

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