Tuesday, August 9, 2022

7 changes in Wilmington’s new land development code that will alter the city’s future

Wilmington City Council repealed its current LDC Tuesday night durings its meeting. A new version, which took eight years to pen, will go into effect this winter. (Port City Daily photo/Alexandria Sands Williams)

WILMINGTON –– Wilmington City Council unanimously approved its new land development code (LDC) Tuesday, repealing the previous 40-year-old version in its entirety.

The living document sets the standards for building within the city limits and promotes a future for the city its residents requested, from regulating tree preservation to incentiving affordable housing. Its guidelines will inevitably shape the future aesthetics and accessibility of the city as it continues to grow.

The new code goes into effect Dec. 1.

This is the first time in more than four decades the City of Wilmington has overhauled its code, which was previously based on the 1980s’ development trends. The city’s planning staff has worked on the rewrite for eight-plus years. Still, it is likely to need some revisions in the coming years.

Until Dec. 1, and likely thereafter, the planning staff is identifying and correcting “bugs,” such as grammatical errors or obstacles found that deter preferable development.

“We know it’s not a perfect code,” assistant city planning director Ron Satterfield told council Tuesday.

The code is designed to meet the desires of residents and enhance the city’s most well-traveled thoroughfares. Those who offered feedback commonly asked for a more walkable, bike-friendly and convenient community –– with far less traffic. The code is designed to reduce the need to drive cross city by encouraging the placement of housing near retail, restaurants and offices.

Here are 7 changes in the land development code that may most impact the city:

1. Some businesses will no longer need to have a certain number of parking spots on site, reducing impervious surfaces citywide.

In a last-minute decision Tuesday, at the request of councilman Kevin O’Grady, council signed off on a change to the LDC that alters the drafted parking requirements.

The new code eliminates minimum parking standards for almost all non-residential uses. However, per the late addition, commercial uses within 650 feet of residentially zoned properties will need to perform a parking study to prove they have adequate spaces, rather than automatically being free of any parking requirements.

The intention of the almost non-existent parking minimums was to promote redevelopment, reduce impervious surface areas and preserve the city’s finite land for greater uses, Satterfield told council. Through studies, the city found 60% to 70% of lots sit empty most of the time.

“I always think of someone trying to open up a restaurant,” Satterfield said. “Maybe the code, if we had a minimum standard, would require 10 parking spaces. There’s six parking spaces on the site. So that restaurant can’t locate there. So they have to go find somewhere else. Then the building sits vacant, derelict.”

O’Grady explained that, without parking minimums, he feared businesses would expand into their lots and direct customers to park on public streets, which in some cases would be in front of homes. Such is already the case on Market Street, he said.

“We’ve heard a lot about noise from Seagate because there’s now a bar there. Suppose the bar closes their parking lot, and says, “Well, we’re a neighborhood business. Go park in the neighborhood,” O’Grady said. “I’m not going to be here. You guys are going to be here when they bring the torches and pitchforks because you pushed all those cars into their neighborhood. You don’t want that problem to happen because that business owner will say, ‘Hey, you allowed me to do that.’”

Asked by councilman Neil Anderson whether this late change is better than what was originally proposed, Satterfield said that is “to be determined.”

2. Wilmington may return to greener days, as the code promises to save trees.

Under the new code, developers are more likely to replace sacrificed trees during the build with larger ones than with a scattering of skinny saplings. The new code calls for developers to replace the width of the trees rather than replanting an explicit number.

Previously, developers had to calculate the width in inches of all the trees removed, then divide that by three to determine the number of trees they were bound to replant.

The city has also introduced a new category of protected trees, designed to disincentivize the oldest and largest trees from being removed without a variance. Property owners with 1-acre lots may still remove any tree without approvals, made more restrictive from the current exemption for lots 2 acres and smaller.

Plus, by reducing parking requirements, the city expects to salvage trees that otherwise would be bulldozed for lots. The LDC also promotes vertical development and allows flexibility to move into setbacks when necessary to save a tree on the land.

3. Developers may be inclined to offer affordable housing.

Under this new code, developers are rewarded for offering workforce housing with either uncapped density in the commercial district mixed-use zoning district or around triple the amount of units it could receive approval for in multiple-dwelling residential districts.

In ​​multiple-dwelling residential districts, if at least 10% of residential units in a project are designated as workforce housing, as defined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, developers may increase the density of their project from 10-17 units to 36 units per acre. They must retain the workforce housing for 15 years.

In the community district mixed-use district, the maximum residential density can be increased from 17 units per acre to an unlimited number if a developer designates 10% of the total units to workforce housing for at least 15 years.

4. Areas deemed “urban,” “semi-urban,” or “suburban” are held to new standards.

Certain parts of Wilmington may appear more urban, suburban or somewhere in the middle in coming years as developers comply with new frontage standards, tailored to each area. Each designation comes with different parking, landscaping and building requirements.

The urban area is designed to appeal to pedestrians and transit. It calls for little landscaping and limited setbacks.

In the semi-urban area, pedestrians will still be able to walk around but will notice deeper setbacks and more parking in front of businesses.

The development appropriate for the suburban area was compared in one meeting to the incoming Harris Teeter on Carolina Beach Road and Independence Boulevard: building pushed to the back, parking in the front.

5. Driving through the city will look prettier in the future.

Popular routes are getting new corridor-specific rules to enhance their appeal.

Military Cutoff, Eastwood Road, Market Street, Oleander Drive, College Road, South 17th Street, Carolina Beach Road, and 17th Street are given unique sets of rules within the code. The regulations correspond to the aforementioned frontage requirements designated in urban, semi-urban, and suburban corridors.

6. There should be less vacant buildings sitting around in the coming years.

For projects that enhance an underutilized site or redevelop a decaying building, applicants can receive approval on more flexible design standards.

If taken advantage of, an uptick in infill development should maximize public infrastructure, enhance roadway aesthetics and preserve even more trees.

In turn, Wilmington will have less sprawl in the future. People will need to travel less on major roads. Neighborhoods will have more convenient access to places they need to go.

7. Townhomes and other types of middle housing will be able to move into single-family neighborhoods.

Various types of middle housing will soon be able to move into residential districts previously restricted to single-family housing.

Townhomes will be permitted by right in R-5 and R-3. Duplexes, triplexes and quadruplexes will be allowed in R-7.

Property owners can see what zoning they are in and whether this could impact them with the city’s interactive zoning map.

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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 alexandria@localdailymedia.com or on Twitter @alexsands_

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