How Wilmington’s new development code could save trees, polish aesthetics

On the left, greenery around the site of a Walmart in Wilmington is scarce. On the right, trees are abundant at a store location in Hilton Head. What’s the main difference? Deliberate city planning. (Port City Daily/Courtesy of City of Wilmington)

WILMINGTON – Monday morning, the City of Wilmington planning staff presented to council two similar yet drastically different aerial shots of Walmarts: one in Hilton Head, S.C., surrounded by a lush green canopy, and the other on Sigmon Road in Wilmington, surrounded by gray asphalt.

Both buildings were roughly the same in size and age. Yet while one’s developer saved numerous trees, the other spared only a few.

“It’s a shocker,” said Ron Satterfield, Wilmington’s assistant planning director, finishing a council member’s sentence.


Although varying state stormwater regulations or legislation could play a role, the main difference between the two sites comes down to local planning. Satterfield explained when a large corporation like Walmart wants to come to a city such as Wilmington, it initially presents plans for what it prefers to build: “Portfolio A.”

“We know that somewhere they’ve done something else . . . that’s better than what they’re trying to do here,” Satterfield said, “and we want them to get to portfolio E, F, G, H.”

The City of Wilmington is attempting to be “more deliberate” about its design standards as it pens its new land development code (LDC), the document that regulates how land is developed in the city and is currently facing a complete overhaul for the first time in decades.

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On April 1, the city will release an entirely redrafted LDC for the public to review. Rewriting the ordinance is a major task – one seldom undertaken by municipalities but every few decades. It will impact the future of Wilmington for years to come by influencing new construction design, proposing solutions to traffic congestion and promoting affordable housing.

“I’ve said many, many times: It’s like rewriting the DNA of the city,” planning director Glenn Harbeck said. “It has more influence over how the city will look and function than probably any other document that the council can adopt.”

Once the planning department publishes the draft, along with an interactive zoning map, the city will start collecting community feedback. It will advertise multiple public hearings for June, and answer calls and emails on questions and concerns through the spring.

The city is aiming for the council to adopt the document on July 1, with an effective date of Jan. 1, 2022. That allows six months for the development community, the public, and the city’s planning, engineering and legal staff to familiarize themselves with the updated code.

Some of the most significant changes proposed in the new LDC are intended to improve what drivers and pedestrians see as they travel roadways. The code requires varying frontage standards for urban, semi-urban and suburban identified areas.

The new LDC proposes varying frontage standards for urban, semi-urban and suburban identified areas. (Port City Daily/Courtesy of City of Wilmington)

For example, in a suburban part of town (which on Market Street, for example, would extend from the Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard intersection to the city limits), buildings could be pushed further back from the roads than in downtown.

“The Harris Teeter that’s being built on Carolina Beach Road and Independence – that is a suburban model,” Satterfield said. “It’s got the building in the back with the large parking fields in the front.”

To contribute to the “aesthetic of major corridors,” staff is proposing limitations on freestanding signs and heightened landscaping standards in the suburbs.

Businesses and other uses in semi-urban areas would abide by slightly different regulations. (For example, the area between Colonial Drive and the intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard on Market Street would be designated as semi-urban under the new LDC.)

These developments could feature only up to two rows of parking between the building and the street. The restricted setback is intended to increase walkability as the city transitions from suburbia to downtown.

In urban areas (ex. from Colonial Drive to Water Street on Market Street), parking could only be on the rear or side. Buildings would be constructed within 30 feet of the street and would need to face 60% of windows and doors toward the road. Landscapers would need to plant understory trees and shrubs along the exterior walls, except at the access points or where there’s seating.

These rules wouldn’t stop Harris Teeters and other large retailers from opening in the urban and semi-urban areas as they do in suburbs, but their developers would need to find innovative ways to adapt their traditional designs to Wilmington’s unique downtown regulations.

“There’s nothing that would prevent that big box store to be built with an improved façade, within 30- to 50-feet of the right-of-way, parking to the side and the rear,” Satterfield said. “We’re not dictating that they can’t be in the box there, [that] they can’t provide that service. We’re just saying if you want to go here, we need to have some better design. They do it in other communities. They can do it here in Wilmington.”

Satterfield pointed to a Publix grocery store in downtown Raleigh, which recently opened within a new multi-story building with a parking garage and apartments. Satterfield indicated that kind of development is a possibility for Wilmington, with a push by deliberate design standards.

Harbeck said the goal is “building inward and upward, rather than outward.” The revised LDC will encourage vertical development, which saves more trees than wide and expansive buildings. The city is also looking to minimize impervious surfaces in favor of greenery by no longer requiring a minimum number of parking spaces for most projects.

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There are also a few changes written into the new LDC that will make it easier to build affordable homes – and even incentivize it.

The rewritten LDC would allow more duplexes and townhomes in residential zoning districts and increase courtyard housing density for projects similar to Eden Village, a planned tiny home community that will provide low-cost, long-term rentals to chronically homeless people with disabilities.

The city also wants to incentivize workforce housing in its multi-family zoning districts the same way it has in its Commercial District Mixed-Use (CDMU) zoning.

In October council approved changes to its CMDU, capping density at 17 units per acre. However, if a developer designates at least 10% of residential units to workforce housing, the cap could be lifted entirely.

The full revised LDC draft will be published at wilmingtonnc.gov/ldc next month.


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