Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Attorneys and developers spar over ‘ghost road’ during rezoning bid

In an undeveloped area of northern Wilmington, two neighboring landowners are feuding over a roadway connection that would be crucial to a State Street Companies development. The other side, heirs to county land who sought a rezoning, don’t want to be tied to agreements early on. (Port City Daily/Preston Lennon)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — A real estate agent who was once mayor of Wilmington, Hamilton Hicks Jr., has clients who inherited land northwest of the Target off Market Street. To increase their property value and entice buyers, he filed a rezoning application that would allow a future developer to build 62 more units than currently permitted on the parcel. 

The 8-acre site is under New Hanover County’s jurisdiction, but is unincorporated land enclosed within the borders of the City of Wilmington. Hicks’ clients own neighboring parcels in Wilmington, too, but opted to pursue approvals for the New Hanover County land first, after the city wanted him to consent to conditions on his rezoning request and an annexation application, according to planning documents.

Hours before Hicks was scheduled to appear at a planning board meeting last month, lawyers representing the owner of the neighboring parcel entered the fray. They sent a letter to county leaders, asserting planning staff had neglected to account for a decade-old street plan when preparing the Hicks application, which would harm their clients’ interests. 

Previously: Heirs to New Hanover County land hope to increase sale value through rezoning application

The neighboring landowner to the east of Hicks’ clients — who plans to begin construction on the 42-acre site this year — is a limited liability corporation, called 5016 Hunters Trail, LLC, with links to Jeffery Kentner, the developer behind the Galleria project and president of State Street Companies. 

Read More: Wilmington heading into the red on Galleria land deal, if nothing is built

Kentner has license to build at maximum 742 multifamily units on his property, which is bordered to the north by Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway and to the south by Target. In previous weeks, as Hicks worked to move his application through county government channels, people working on behalf of Kentner’s interests have imposed at multiple turns, working to ensure that a road ending on the State Street property is connected and extended through the property owned by Hicks’ clients. 

At a board of commissioners meeting Monday, attorneys representing the interests of 5016 Hunters Trail, LLC urged commissioners to acknowledge the need for connectivity. Wilmington embarked on a road plan in 2009 designed to ease the overloaded traffic conditions of Market Street, the attorneys said, and this road connection, involving both their parcel and that of Hicks’ clients, is a critical part of that goal. 

Hicks fought back, along with an attorney representing the applicants. 

“My clients are not developers,” attorney Steve Culbreth said. “They’re the grandchildren of the original owners.” 

It was not the time to discuss responsibility over future road connections, Hicks argued, as such a thing would be ironed out in later stages of the process. After all, there are no current plans to develop the property, he said at the meeting. 

The board agreed. Despite the pleas from Kentner’s affiliates, who wanted Hicks to guarantee the connecting road would be built, the board approved the rezoning request unanimously. 

State Street makes a play for the road

Hunters Trail ends abruptly on State Street’s property. A Wilmington road plan would have it run through the property of Hicks’ clients, but Hicks is hesitant to make an early deal with State Street. (Port City Daily/Preston Lennon)

“My client supports the proposed land use requested by the Applicant,” attorney Jennifer Scott, representing 5016 Hunters Trail LLC, wrote in a letter to county leaders last week. “But we submit that, based on the County’s own policies, there must be some mechanism in place to provide for the westward extension of Hunters Trail through the Applicant’s property in order for the requested zoning change to be granted …”

Based on advice from the N.C. Department of Transportation and the Wilmington Metropolitan Planning Organization, the Wilmington City Council amended the Gingerwood Connector Street Plan in April 2009. It called for the unfinished Hunters Trail to be routed west and linked to Marjoram Way — via the property owned by Hicks’ clients. The connection could take traffic from Market Street to MLK Parkway, and capitalize on the taxpayer investment of the now-completed Kerr Avenue road-widening project.

The wooded area in the top left is the property of the applicant (left) and State Street (right of the woods). The Hunters Trail extension would pick up at the yellow, over the applicants property, and link to Marjoram Way. (Port City Daily/Applicant submittal to planning staff)

“The problem with punting this issue to an uncertain future [Technical Review Committee] date is that my client will begin construction of an apartment community on its 42-acre adjacent site in 2021,” Scott wrote to the board.

David Novotny, a project manager for State Street, also contacted the board multiple times, even sending a “memorandum of understanding” after last week’s agenda review, to “organize our thoughts by category.” 

He balked at county planning staff for neglecting to factor the Gingerwood plan into discussions. 

“We believe the Staff unintentionally failed to research the case thoroughly and, in fact, was not aware of the existence of the Gingerwood Collector Street Plan or the applicable [Traffic Impact Assessments],” Novotny wrote. “Mistakes do happen. However, when mistakes are unveiled, the Staff has a fiduciary duty to acknowledge and address its mistakes.”

5016 Hunters Trail LLC proposed an alternate route for the Hunters Trail extension, which would run along the borders of the applicant’s parcel, rather than through the middle, as outlined in the city plan. They offered to take some of the neighboring property for an easement, and even to pay for the connection.

In a letter representing the heirs to the parcel subject to the rezoning, Culbreth informed the board the land had been in his clients’ family since the 1930s, and a previous DOT condemnation led to the demolition of their birth home.

“The owner of the property immediately to the east and adjoining this property has come forward stating that there is a future ‘Ghost Road,’” Culbreth wrote. “There is no doubt that the proposed extension of Hunter’s Trail to connect with the traffic circle on Marjoram Way would take an additional part of the subject property and therefore reduce the value.”  

Members of the board said it was not their role to impose road building upon developers. They agreed with Hicks that these details would be ironed out in future stages, not in the absence of a development plan. They all agreed the road connection would be desirable for boosting traffic conditions.  

Barfield keyed in on State Street’s past developments in Wilmington.  

“I guess my challenge for me is: The developer that you’re representing, I think we’ve worked with them on more than one occasion,” he said at the meeting. “Whether it be the Galleria project when the ABC board somehow found itself in the business of selling their current location to build another one because someone wanted that particular property, and they found a way to make that happen — that I didn’t particularly agree with.” 

Read More: After developer request, ABC spending $3 million to move Wrightsville Ave store a quarter-mile

“The method of operation with what you represent challenges me, because I can’t forget several things that I’ve seen transpire from this dais,” he said. 

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