Sunday, February 5, 2023

New Hanover planning staff floats taller buildings next to residences

The areas in red are properties adjacent to existing, general residential districts that may receive greater height allowances through a text amendment proposed by the county’s planning staff. (Port City Daily/New Hanover County)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY –– New Hanover County is considering changes to its height rules that planning staff say are currently deterring developers from building.

Proposed amendments to the county’s unified development ordinance were presented to the planning board earlier this month. The changes would impact height standards in four multi-family residential zoning districts, two mixed-use districts and five nonresidential districts. Many of the properties that would be impacted are adjacent to residential areas.

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In the Aug. 5 presentation, planning director Rebekah Roth explained the county’s current height limits have “come up as barriers several times” for projects.

She explained some property owners considered applying for text amendments. However, Roth said staff is initiating the amendments to avoid basing changes on one particular project.

“I think you’re definitely on the right track. Offering more flexibility is what we’ve got to do,” planning board member Donna Girardot said after the presentation. “As the land is more limited and more expensive, obviously we’re looking at more vertical construction.”

Taller buildings allowed on certain conditions

Among the changes, the county is considering adding height allowances –– conditions in which builders can exceed the zone’s allotted height –– to several districts.

“There are a few types of uses that, just based on the way they are currently built, would regularly look for more height,” Roth said.

When the additional height is permitted next to a residential zone, builders would need to meet certain conditions, such as greater setbacks or vegetative buffers. The extra steps are expected to reduce the impacts of buildings towering over existing neighborhoods.

A large number of districts in question contain properties adjacent to residentially zoned land, meaning developers would need to comply with the extra setbacks or wider buffers quite often if they wanted to take advantage of the height allowances.

“This is definitely one of the areas where public and stakeholder feedback may provide some additional considerations and guidance,” Roth said.

Below are the districts that may get height allowances if the draft text amendment is adopted:

Four-story buildings in residential multi-family zones

One of the most significant changes up for consideration would create more opportunities for four-story buildings in the county’s residential multi-family (RMF) districts, first established in 2019 to promote a range of densities, and in turn, spur more affordable housing options.

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The RMF low density (10 units per acre) and RMF moderate density (17 units per acre) districts were originally intended for smaller-scale buildings, no greater than three stories, but staff is now vouching to expand that option to four floors.

“Four-story structures require elevators, which really open up a larger number of units for our senior population, and for any people with disabilities, or mobility issues,” Roth said.

The draft amendment would allow four-story structures in RMF low density, moderate density as well as medium-high density and high-density districts, as long as there is a 25-foot setback from adjacent residential districts.

(Currently RMF medium-high density and RMF high density both allow four-story structures but require no setback from neighboring residential properties.)

Regional business

The regional business (B-2) is the county’s most popular commercial district, encompassing retail, auto-oriented sales, offices, lodging, manufacturing and other uses.

In B-2, Roth explained, hotels and motels are the only permitted uses likely to call for three-plus stories.

The draft amendment would increase the height limit from 40 feet to 50 feet. It would also add a height allowance of 100 feet for three-story structures and five-story hotels or motels. However, when next to a residential property, anything above 50 feet would require a setback between 40 to 50 feet or significant vegetative buffering.

Office and institutional

The office and institutional (O&I) district is dedicated to offices, medical space and institutional facilities, including the north campus of Cape Fear Community College.

Among the proposed changes, residential uses could build up to 45 feet (instead of the current 40-foot limit) or, if the design can accommodate certain setbacks and buffering when near homes, it could go up to 50 feet. But residential buildings could never exceed three stories.

Nonresidential and mixed-use structures could go up to 75 feet (instead of the current 52-foot limit) or as high as 125 feet if it is no more than five stories and complies with extra standards when neighboring residentially zoned land. Colleges and hospitals could build up to seven stories, but no more than 125 feet.

Light industrial

Largely situated in northern New Hanover County, the light industrial (l-1) district features offices, businesses, and waste and salvage uses. The current standards, however, are designed primarily for manufacturing and wholesaling.

Roth indicated the county would like to entice the technology sector to build there. The proposed height changes would make the district more accommodating “for the types of employment uses that support the industries the county wants,” Roth said.

“Maybe some more tech-related or lighter industrial uses might be preferable in this district moving forward,” she said.

The height maximum is set at 50 feet in the draft, a 5-foot increase from the current standard. However, if the amendment is adopted as drafted, buildings could receive an allowance to go as high as 100 feet, as long as it is still less than four stories. Government offices, hotels and motels, business offices and research facilities could go up to seven floors –– and wouldn’t need to meet any other additional standards to do so.

“Because the district’s existing setbacks from adjacent residences are so large, no additional standards for these taller buildings are outlined,” Roth said.

Neighborhood business

The neighborhood business (B-1) district is made up of small scale commercial development, not exceeding two stories.

The proposed amendment would increase its height maximum from 35 to 40 feet.

Additionally, builders could receive an allowance to go up to 50 feet –– as long as the structure is still under three stories.

Community business

Only three properties in New Hanover County are zoned community business (CB).

The proposed amendment would establish its height maximum as 50 feet. Currently, buildings cannot exceed 45 feet.

Additionally, builders could receive a height allowance of up to 65 feet (but no more than three stories).

Height to be determined in development plan for UMXZ, planned development

The planning staff is also looking to remove height rules from urban mixed-use zoning or planned development –– the two districts in which developers must submit a master development plan, subject to the planning board and commissioners’ review and approval.

The comprehensive plan already recommends heights for specific uses, which can guide officials in determining whether to accept or reject the number of floors proposed in a project’s master development plan.

How to comment

Before the proposed changes are codified, the planning board still must vote before the board of commissioners weighs in with a final say. 

Until then, New Hanover County is accepting feedback from the public on the proposed changes through Aug. 23 at 8 a.m. via email to Marty Little,

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Alexandria Sands
Alexandria Sands
Alexandria Sands is a journalist covering New Hanover County and education. Before Port City Daily, she reported for the award-winning State Port Pilot in Southport. She graduated from UNC Charlotte and wrote for several Charlotte publications while there. When not writing, Williams is most likely in the gym, reading or spending time with her Golden Pyrenees. Reach her at or on Twitter @alexsands_

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