Saturday, February 4, 2023

City inches closer to LDC adoption, officials debate in-law quarters, tree policy

Wilmington's draft Land Development Code is 523 pages long and available for public review online. (Port City Daily screenshot)
Wilmington’s draft Land Development Code is 523 pages long and available for public review online. (Port City Daily screenshot)

WILMINGTON –– City planners and public officials are slowly closing in on an overhauled Land Development Code (LDC), the city’s first rewrite in 40 years. 

At a joint city council and planning commission meeting Thursday, planning staff gave officials an overview of the topline changes the new code presents and talked through sticking points that don’t seem to have garnered full consensus. 

RELATED: City offers more density and mixed-use opportunities in rare zoning code rewrite Land Development Code

The planning department is eyeing an early 2022 adoption, but this may shift depending on council or planning commission feedback. After garnering thousands of comments, the new code is modeled around the prospect of making Wilmington a more walkable, accessible, and attractive city. 

Aside from the perfunctory changes, the city is also enhancing the look of the codebook; pages and pages of text have frequently been condensed into more digestible tables in the LDC, preventing confusion by presenting all information in one place, cutting down on the need to flip back and forth to find answers. 

Lessons learned

Many of the changes proposed are shaped by lessons learned. As staff has said in previous LDC presentations (of which at least 20 have occurred thus far), if nothing else, their task was to improve the city’s major corridors. 

Reflecting on tree loss and unsightly development patterns, councilmember Neil Anderson encapsulated the feeling: “You drive in, you go, what have we done wrong?”

With a full composite draft released April 21, the new code includes corridor-specific rules to enhance the appeal of the city’s most well-traveled routes: Military Cutoff, Eastwood Road, Market Street, Oleander Drive, College Road, South 17th Street, Carolina Beach Road, and Wrightsville Avenue. 

Frontage requirements are categorized either urban, semi-urban, or suburban along the corridors, each carrying different parking, landscaping, and building requirements. Collectively, the requirements encourage more landscaping, sidewalks, and interesting architectural features, while discouraging a sea of parking lots (think: the infamous K-Mart). 

The city proposes to eliminate minimum parking standards for non-residential uses entirely, only requiring them for residential projects outside the city’s 1945 corporate limits. For most uses, the city will allow fewer spaces when parking is necessary through its adjusted maximum standards.

“We believe the majority of our retail centers, banking, and some of the others are over-parked,” Ron Satterfield, assistant planning director told the boards at the joint meeting. Studies conducted on parking use showed 60% to 70% of many lots were not being used on a regular basis, Satterfield said. 

Restaurants are about the only use where parking lots stay full, he explained. 

The proposed removal of parking space requirements for accessory dwelling units (ADUs) elicited a spirited debate among the boards. ADUs, also known as in-law quarters, can help increase density in already built-out regions, such as Wilmington. 

“We are trying to encourage graceful density,” Satterfield said. 

New standards include alleviating many rules that currently burden homeowners from building an ADU; the city will eliminate the lot-size requirement and drop the two parking spaces minimum, as proposed. 

Planning director Glenn Harbeck said ADU advocacy groups see parking requirements as a “poison pill.” Council member Margaret Haynes was skeptical that removing the requirements would naturally solve parking issues. “I think going from two to nothing may be a very radical approach despite what national literature says,” she said.

Planning commissioner John Lennon said he thought most people who couldn’t accommodate additional parking would not seek to build ADUs. “I hate to see us try and stop one thing and inadvertently prevent a great way to provide housing for a lot of people,” he said. 

Council member Kevin O’Grady concurred with Haynes. “Parking’s an issue,” he said. “You’re not going to have enough parking on the street.”

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

Tree regulations also elicited deepend discussion out of the boards, with the new LDC proposing to introduce a new category of regulated 24-inch-or larger “specimen” trees, the largest category, modeled after New Hanover County’s designation. 

“It’s ending up more restrictive than what we even talked about in January,” Satterfield said of the tree ordinance.

The county’s specimen tree designation, at a minimum of 36 inches, was introduced after the public fallout surrounding the redevelopment of the old Island’s Fresh Mex Grill into a car wash. Plans would have removed several hundred-year-old trees visible from a major corridor on Market Street. 

Wilmington’s version of the “specimen” tree designation would include added disincentives to remove trees 12 inches smaller in diameter compared to when the county’s protections kick in.  

“So what if somebody has to jump through some hoops to save a tree? They ought to,” Haynes said. “We’ve got to not just roll over and play dead for developers. We’ve got to set the parameters so that as we grow, we become an even more beautiful city. The trees help do that. So I don’t feel sorry for a developer that has to move their driveway in order to save nice trees.”

The code is getting more restrictive for individual small property owners as well. Under the new LDC, specimen trees could only be removed by residential property owners with 1-acre lots or by obtaining a variance through the Board of Adjustment. Previously, residential property owners with 2-acre lots could remove any tree without notice to the city. 

New rules could soon incentivize the removal of invasive trees, like mimosas or Bradford pears. It would also amend how significant and specimen trees get replaced when plans call for their removal. Currently, code requires developers to double the width in inches (measured at breast height) of trees removed and divide by three, equaling the number of trees required to be planted in their place. The effect of this rule is an abundance of 2-inch trees –– the minimum size permitted in mitigation. 

The new rule would permit developers to simply replace the inches lost; this would provide flexibility for developers to include larger trees as opposed to scattering lots with tiny saplings. 

Anderson asked planning staff to make sure the reshaped tree code would not create a path for new loopholes.

“They’ll go, let’s just chop it down ‘cause all I gotta do is plant a 2-inch tree,” Anderson said. “You got to be willing to make it so that cutting those down is not some terribly cheaper option not to plant a little twig.”

New standards also include incentives for infill redevelopment, including flexibility for building height and added lot coverage.  

Residential zoning districts dominated by single-family housing will soon see more diverse products permitted by-right: Townhomes will be permitted in R-5 and R-3 and duplexes, triplexes, and quadruplexes will be allowed in R-7. Setbacks will scale back in each of the residential districts.

The goal in creating a smoother pathway for missing middle housing is “to open up the opportunity to allow additional density where we have the infrastructure to handle it,” Satterfield said.

Front and rear setbacks are reduced in the new multi-family district, renamed multiple dwelling. The new districts, condensed from four to two, include the opportunity to increase density to 36 units per acre if developers commit to offering at least 10% of workforce housing for at least a 15-year period. This offering is similar to the city’s first-ever workforce housing incentive passed in the fall of 2020 as part of closing a loophole in the community district mixed-use district. 

As the boards worked out the kinks, Harbeck warned them not to get too caught up in a couple of rules here and there, but to instead consider the code as a comprehensive endeavor. “We are not going to achieve perfection,” he said. “Anytime you adopt a new code of this order of magnitude, you will have bugs in it that are going to have to be debugged over the course of three to four years following its adoption.”

The city will host its first public hearing on the LDC rewrite June 24 at 8:30 a.m. at Union Station. A second public hearing will take place July 23, beginning at 8:30 a.m. at the Wilmington Convention Center.

Read through a draft version of the LDC or check out an interactive zoning map that includes a before-and-after visualization.

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