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Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Highway 17 developments in Pender County resurrected after withdrawals months ago

Pender County is looking to drill three wells at a cost of $375,000 to increase water supply in the Hampstead are by roughly 67 percent. The area is currently supplied by two water tanks; one, pictured, is just north of Topsail Middle School. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
The developments are back in Pender County channels after they were received negatively by planning staff earlier this year and withdrawn. (Port City Daily/File)

Check back for updates to this story regarding the Wednesday planning board hearing.

PENDER COUNTY — Earlier this year, developers pitched two mixed-use projects that would add roadside commercial buildings and multi-family residences along the Highway 17 corridor between Wilmington and Hampstead. 

Both developers failed in the initial local government arenas and ended up withdrawing their applications. But updated plans for the two sites, separated by about 1.5 miles on the highway, returned to the planning board Wednesday for another chance.

There was a proposal from Evolve Companies, a force in the Hawthorne brand and other apartment projects, to build nearly 300 apartment units on a 24-acre site, with three commercial parcels fronting Highway 17. 

In an unrelated move, Tribute Companies, helmed by Wilmington developer Mark Maynard, sought to build homes, townhomes and commercial buildings on a 20-acre slice of Corbett family land. (The family holds more than 2,000 acres in an adjacent tract.)

PREVIOUSLY: Growing pains in Pender County are putting local politicians and multi-family developers at an impasse

In their April applications, Evolve and Tribute both pursued conditional rezonings — specific changes to the zoning map that offer a chance for higher densities in exchange for being subject to complicated government review. 

Planning staff assessed in both cases the Pender County Schools system could not withstand the impact of the two projects. County commissioners later expressed hesitancy to approve density increases until progress occurs on the state’s bypass project designed to alleviate traffic on Highway 17.

Both developers withdrew their initial bids after it became apparent they didn’t have the blessing of county officials. 

Now both projects are back. The Pender County Planning Board heard new applications from Evolve and Tribute Wednesday evening. 

The resurrected development proposals feature decreased unit counts and are seeking approvals through a new means. Instead of pursuing conditional rezoning requests like before, the two developers are proposing master development plans, which are reviewed more administratively than the legislative rezoning requests. 

Pender County planning director Travis Henley said planning staff didn’t engage with the developers on the site plan redesigns. 

Both properties are currently zoned with the “planned development” tag, a holdover from previous ownership. This zoning requires an approved master development plan during the stages of county oversight, serving as an agreed-upon look at what will be built out. 

While both Evolve and Tribute tried in their previous bids to switch zonings altogether and start from scratch, their new applications don’t require any code-altering legislative actions from the board of commissioners like conditional rezonings do. Staff review for master development plans “occurs under administrative processes,” Henley said.

In emails to Port City Daily, Henley wrote: “This process is more rigid than a conditional rezoning, and as a result, the level of residential density has been reduced substantially in both projects.”

The Tribute Companies project, before it was previously withdrawn, was proposed as 14 single-family lots, 148 “multiplex units,” and a few commercial buildings with eight residences on the upper floors.

The updated request involves nine single-family lots and 116 townhome units in buildings with three to four units apiece. 

Evolve Companies, represented by Sen. Michael Lee, R-New Hanover, in his role as a private attorney, first wanted to build 294 multi-family units and three commercial outparcels fronting Highway 17. 

“While the request on balance is consistent with the Pender 2.0 Comprehensive Land Use Plan, its inconsistencies lie in the infrastructure needed to support such a proposal,” according to staff review of the original April proposal, which then cited the overcrowded school system as the chief concern.

The new Evolve plans retain the three roadside commercial buildings but scale down the unit count to 174. 

Both companies pledge to build small roads that will intertwine their respective suburban sites east of Highway 17 into the major corridor. Evolve would build sidewalks on both sides of its piece of Highway 17 and bordering streets, while Tribute would be responsible for a multi-use path. 

The school capacity problem, which figured heavily in the previous issues planning staff had with the two proposals, will not present a roadblock under the new path. Master development plan approvals operate under a different set of rules than conditional rezoning requests, Henley said.

“These cases today are operating under the existing zoning of the property and under the review criteria laid out in the Unified Development Ordinance specific to Master Development Plans, and if a project meets those standards, Staff recommends approval as presented,” Henley wrote. “School impacts are not among the review criteria to be considered in this type of case.” 

Update: According to planning director Travis Henley, the planning board voted against the Evolve Companies proposal 5-1, and voted in favor of Tribute Companies 5-1. Tribute’s proposal had eliminated the highway-fronting commercial buildings included in previous plans, while Evolve retained a commercial presence in its latest.

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