Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Record-breaking Pender County rezoning request: 750 homes and a concerned neighborhood

Northward of Fall Brook neighborhood, a stubbed road will eventually be connected to an adjoining development of 750 homes. The Pender County Board of Commissioners chairman lobbied the developers to keep traffic out of Fall Brook, at least for a time. (Port City Daily/Preston Lennon)

PENDER COUNTY — A 35-house neighborhood is the sticking point for a 300-acre rezoning request, and the 750-home development to follow, in Pender County. 

While most large Pender County developments in recent years have been placed along the U.S. Highway 17 corridor, this project — which was considered at a Jan. 19 board of commissioners meeting but tabled until the applicants produce a revised traffic impact analysis — is situated in Rocky Point, a town with approximately 1,700 residents. 

“It’s a single development that could double the population of Rocky Point,” said Aubrey Harvey, a resident of Fall Brook. 

Fall Brook was conceptualized and constructed as the 2008 recession approached, and borders the proposed development’s southern edge. Fall Brook’s singular entrance and exit, Falls Brook Lane, connects to Highway 117. 

Many Fall Brook residents protested the oncoming development, largely because the project will be interwoven with the stubbed end of Fall Brook Lane, enjoining both neighborhoods and eventually opening up Fall Brook to an influx of traffic. 

This snapshot of Fall Brook shows the single entrance off Highway 117, and the stubbed road on the northern end, designed to be attached to a future project. The applicant’s property is the wooded area in the top left, extending far beyond the boundaries of the photo. (Port City Daily/Courtesy Google Earth)

At the board of commissioners meeting, county leaders peppered planning staff with questions about the project, which is Pender County’s largest conditional zoning request ever heard, according to planning staff. When Sam Potter, the applicant’s attorney, approached the board to make his presentation, he was expecting a candid back-and-forth. 

“I feel like this is probably somewhat walking in front of a firing squad based on what you just said, and I want to address your concerns based on the Fall Brook neighborhood,” he told the board. 

It was no secret the neighborhood’s isolation would eventually be disturbed; Fall Brook Lane is highlighted among the roads county leaders hope will generate additional interconnectivity within Pender. Like other connecting roads, it was stubbed off with the understanding that a new development could pick up where it left off. 

“Everyone likes interconnectivity except in their neighborhoods,” Chairman George Brown said at the meeting.

Brown empathized with the residents, alongside planning staff he devised additional conditions for the developers that would temporarily protect the Fall Brook residents. 

“I’m a little sympathetic to folks who live in a neighborhood where these changes are taking place through no fault of their own, or they weren’t aware these things were going to happen, or the potential for these things,” he said at the meeting. “They thought they had a nice quiet little neighborhood — one way in, one way out — and in this life nothing is sacred. I’m sorry.”

Falls Mist Village 

The northern end of the property — where a collector road would enter from Highway 210 — will pass through 250 single-family homes, a wastewater treatment plant, and connect to an additional 500 single-family homes. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)

Around 100 acres of the site are unbuildable, with large portions covered by wetlands. The territory is split into three different parcels. The largest — around 200 acres — was acquired in 2005 for $700,000, while the other two were purchased in early 2019 for $500,000 and $320,000. 

Wilmington developer Mark Maynard owns all three tracts. Maynard’s Tribute Companies was behind the revitalization of Wilmington’s South Front District, turning the former Block Shirt Factory into an apartment complex that included original concrete floors, floor-to-ceiling windows, brick walls, and concrete countertops.

RELATED: Developer proposes 750-home, 300-acre Falls Mist Garden in Rocky Point

In planning documents the Rocky Point project was called Falls Mist Garden, but because the county’s addressing coordinator deemed the name too similar to others, a name change was required. In other planning documents, it’s referred to as “Falls Mist Village.”

Falls Mist Village can be developed to the tune of 667 homes “by-right,” under the original zoning standard, Potter said. If the rezoning request is successful, 750 single-family homes will be built on the site.

Potter said the project, if rezoned, will be required to provide far more benefits than would be present without a rezoning. Traffic calming elements, sidewalks and bolstered storm planning are all part of the ideal formula, but would not be required if the developers pursued a 667-home project. 

“We are proposing a higher standard than what we would have to do if we just did it under the existing [zoning],” Potter said. “And what we’re requesting in return is an increase in the available density to 750 homes.”

Jesse Harvey, a Fall Brook resident, said the rezoned development plan appears to be the “lesser of two evils.” 

“The developer is going to develop regardless,” he said. “They keep talking about what they can build by-right, which really, it’s almost like a double-edged sword. I have a feeling that the by-right would be worse off for the county than if they would allow them to build more houses.”

A planned public road that was never made public

Fall Brook was constructed over 10 years ago and includes around 35 houses. Residents say a proposed 750-home project will flood their streets with cars, worsen flooding conditions and crowd their schools. (Port City Daily/Preston Lennon)

Travis Henley, director of Pender County planning and community development, wrote in an email: “The context around Fall Brook and Fall Brook Lane is a unique challenge.” 

Though Fall Brook Lane was intended to become a public roadway, it was never handed over to the N.C. Department of Transportation for maintenance, Henley said. A DOT spokesperson confirmed the department approved construction plans in June 2007, but later certifications and approvals were not obtained. 

Even though residents of the neighborhood denied the existence of a homeowners association, multiple parcels in Fall Brook are deeded to an HOA, according to documents submitted in the application. 

“It would appear that the developer of the neighborhood left a couple of strings untied when the neighborhood was completed,” according to an email in the application.

Fall Brook residents driving large cars pull into yards to avoid oncoming vehicles, since the roads are hardly wide enough for two-lane traffic, according to Jesse Harvey, who lives in the neighborhood. 

“You’d be sideswiping each other,” he said. “If another truck identical to mine was coming at me, one of us has to get over.” 

Potter said one component of the conditional rezoning request is ensuring Fall Brook Lane, currently a private road, is taken over by the DOT. 

“It’s our obligation to make sure that happens,” he said.

A new condition

Fall Brook was constructed over 10 years ago and includes around 35 houses. Residents say a proposed 750-home project will flood their streets with cars, worsen flooding conditions and crowd their schools. (Port City Daily/Preston Lennon)

Prior to the board meeting, Chairman Brown worked with planning staff to drum up ways to alleviate some of the pressure on Fall Brook. Originally, the developer’s plan was to hold off on connecting the new neighborhood to Fall Brook Lane until the 601st home was “platted.” 

According to Potter, Brown countered with a new proposal: Construct a gate between the two neighborhoods, and only allow emergency vehicles to cross through it until 701 homes are issued a certificate of occupancy. 

This requires Potter and his clients to go back to the drawing board to make adjustments to their traffic impact analysis — a report prepared by a professional engineer that examines the predicted traffic conditions. Potter said the process could take four-to-eight weeks to complete. 

“You have real people who are having their roads tied into a new neighborhood and the neighbors are understandably concerned about it,” Potter said, “because it’s going to be a change in what they’ve known since they moved there.”

The rezoning request was tabled by the board until the new traffic impact analysis is complete. 

“The commissioners are trying to balance this improvement — offered, not required improvement — in quality, against the impacts on particularly the Falls Brook neighborhood,” Potter said. “And so, where I think they want to hear from us is either we will agree to the security gate up to the 700th [certificate of occupancy] or have a really good reason why we can’t.” 

The Pender County Planning Board gave the project a stamp of approval before the board of commissioners considered it. If approved, the application indicates construction could begin in approximately 18 months, and the first phase of homes built will be in the site’s northern region — the furthest away from Fall Brook. The developer held community meetings with residents, who, beyond traffic, addressed concerns about flooding issues and overcrowding to the school system, according to the application.

“The community meeting was contentious, however, we feel beneficial to the process and the plan,” the application stated. 

Potter will return to the board upon the completion of the updated traffic impact analysis, and inform the board if the emergency-only gate idea is feasible for the project. At the meeting, Brown acknowledged he and his fellow board members were overloading Potter with questions; it was for the sake of the residents, he said. 

“Growth is going to happen in our county, we’re just trying to make sure we do it in a positive way as much as possible,” Brown said. 

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