Friday, March 24, 2023

Single-family development will return as duplexes after candid planning board hearing

An application for 40 single-family lots off S. College Road will return as 20 duplexes after its proposal was met with ambivalence and some criticism by the New Hanover County Planning Board. (Port City Daily/Google Maps)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY –– Last week a developer’s proposal to build a 40-home single-family neighborhood on an infill tract west of S. College Road was met with unease by members of the New Hanover County Planning Board. 

Developer Craig Johnson and his representative Amy Schaefer of Lee Kaess, PLLC requested a continuance at the Aug. 5 meeting after more than an hour of public discussion on the project. The talks included board member Paul Boney’s critical commentary on the site plans and a host of qualms from residents in the neighboring developments to the north and south.

Johnson, whose company Herrington Classic Homes constructs houses on the lots he purchases and develops, initially proposed a linear array of four-bedroom homes, each 30-feet wide. The 5-acre rectangular tract runs roughly perpendicular to S. College, about 1 mile north of the major Carolina Beach Road intersection. 

It’s mostly vacant land that has been cleared. The townhome development to the north has a density of 8.7 units per acre, while the single-family development to the south has a density of 2.6 units per acre. Johnson’s proposal put this project’s density at 7.8 units per acre –– a “missing middle housing opportunity,” as it’s called in the application. The 40 homes would range in price between $250,000 and $300,000. 

Freshman board member Hansen Matthews, a partner at a local commercial real estate firm, and veteran member Boney both said during the hearing they had a “queasy feeling” about aspects of the proposal. 

Matthews had concerns about the parking situation; with 40 driveways for 40 four-bedroom homes on a road approximately a quarter-mile long, and no street parking tolerated, he worried there’d be issues, especially if some of the homes were bought to be rented. 

“The affordability that’s going to benefit a family, a young family, so much, is also going to be a very, very attractive investment for somebody who’d want to rent to three people,” Matthews said. “At some point there’s a tradeoff between affordable housing and value, and a diminution of quality of life, and I don’t know that that line is always clear. But it’s there.”

Boney, an architect entering his sixth year on the board and who spent the previous year as chairman, was unimpressed with the compact side-by-side site plan and its specifications. Each lot was proposed to be 30 feet wide and about 95 feet deep. The houses themselves would be 18 feet wide and 50 feet deep. The design would have distances of 1 or 2 feet separating one owner’s driveway from the beginning of the next owner’s two-story house.

Jasmine South is a proposed neighborhood that plans to stack 40 homes adjacent to one another on a strip of land less than half a mile long. (Port City Daily/Courtesy New Hanover County)

“Very efficient plan,” Boney told Johnson, after reviewing a sheet of paper Schaefer handed to him. It featured a layout of the lot design that was not included in her presentation. 

Johnson responded: “Very efficient plan, i.e. the price point that we’re trying to achieve.”

“I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around 300,000 being affordable housing,” Boney then said. 

Boney later indicated, however, that “I’m a yes” on this project. Still, board members and Schaefer later floated the idea of a continuance to the planning board’s Sept. 2 meeting; the motion was unanimously approved. 

“You’ve got a great reputation. You really do,” Boney said to Johnson, adding that it only takes “one bad job” to diminish a developer’s standing. 

“And that’s something I don’t want for you because you seem like a really nice guy, and you want to do the right thing. And that’s all I’m saying: Give yourself a chance to do the right thing,” Boney said. 

In an interview, Johnson said the project is on track for the Sept. 2 board meeting with a new design. Instead of 40 single-family homes, the new proposal is for 20 duplexes. Underneath the structures will be covered garages. The price range will be similar, $275,000 to $300,000, Johnson said. 

He said he enjoyed the back-and-forth of the development process, replanning and reshaping in response to concerns of the neighboring residents and planning board members. The density sought for the tract, 7.8 units per acre, is in keeping with the surrounding characteristics of that part of the S. College corridor. (New Hanover County’s forward-looking 2016 comprehensive land use plan recommends “lower density housing in this particular area,” up to approximately eight units per acre; planning staff recommended the project be approved.) 

“I’m trying to be as friendly of a neighbor as I can, but still provide much-needed housing,” Johnson said. “That’s what I’m trying to do, and yes, I’m trying to make a profit at this as well.”

Johnson added that regulatory constraints and the increased prices of homebuilding materials can cause rising home prices and make it difficult to build reasonably priced residences. 

“It’s a good process, what we all went through,” he said. “It made me realize a couple things.” 

The duplex plan, he said, is a strong middle path because it allows for robust density without disrupting the character of the surrounding area. The townhome community to the north is denser than his proposal, he noted. 

“I actually enjoy it, and I’m glad it was proposed that I be tabled to work on this,” Johnson said. “I think it’s just going to be a better product for the consumer, a better project for the neighbors.”

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