Tuesday, May 24, 2022

New Hanover still has rewrite of building height caps on drawing board

Hotels and apartment complexes of unprecedented height could be welcomed into zoning districts across New Hanover County if new height standards are approved. (Port City Daily/File)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Planning staff made more headway on edits to building height standards this week, and are again workshopping new language following the New Hanover County Planning Board hearing Thursday. 

Changes to height rules in zoning districts across the county have been anticipated by the development community since the topic landed on the agenda in May. Taller buildings, some never before allowed in the unincorporated county, could be introduced into business and multi-family zoning districts once county officials nail down the final language. 

PREVIOUSLY: New Hanover planning staff floats taller buildings next to residences

At the request of board of commissioners member Deb Hays, an active member in the real estate community, planning staff began to draft language that incorporated new land uses, taller ones, into the county’s zoning districts. 

Market interest in four-story apartment complexes, five-story hotels and 125-foot-tall office buildings is relatively fresh in New Hanover County, said planning director Rebekah Roth, but those trends are here. Taller structures are now potentially attractive to developers working on land north and south of Wilmington, but the county’s zoning code currently includes height caps of three-stories for many districts and uses.

And, pursuant to building codes and the Americans with Disabilities Act, buildings of four stories or more require the extra investment of an elevator system, which could disincentivize a developer from pursuing apartment complexes taller than three stories. But rising land and material costs are precipitating desire among developers for multi-family complexes of higher densities, which puts the four-story apartment complex on everyone’s radar, Roth said. Four-story complexes could also be leveraged to provide more housing options for senior citizens and those for whom trekking up and down stairs in a three-story building isn’t an option, she added.

As recently as a few years ago, “there was the idea that in the unincorporated county, we wouldn’t be seeing four-story, multi-family structures,” Roth said. 

In the language proposed at this time, less-intensive business zoning districts would allow maximum building heights of 40 feet or three-stories, with the neighborhood business district remaining at max heights of two stories. 

“Regional business” districts — the most common business zoning that often appears as big-box stores along major roadways — would permit three-story buildings and hotels as tall as 100 feet.

Planned developments, a sandbox-style district that requires an approved “master development plan,” would have no height limits. Developers negotiate these master plans administratively with the planning department, so visions of a skyscraper on Market Street could be shot down by staff just as easily as they could be proposed. 

The most dense residential zoning district on the books in New Hanover County, RMF-H, currently allows four-story buildings capped at 50-feet tall. The new language would allow five-story complexes, subject to an application, and drops the 50-foot height cap. In response to public concerns over taller buildings, five-story complexes in this district would be accompanied by expanded setbacks.

In the “light industrial” district, most prevalent in the northern unincorporated county, numerous uses would be permitted to construct buildings up to 100-feet tall. 

The maximum allowed height of senior living facilities, banks and government offices would be increased to 75 feet. Hospitals and higher education buildings could be built up to 125 feet tall. 

New Hanover Regional Medical Center — along with parties such as LS3P, the architectural firm working designs of the forthcoming Scotts Hill hospital — previously drew up a text amendment themselves earlier this spring, seeking a specific change for the benefit of “regional medical facilities.” The NHRMC text amendment would have changed the height limits for hospitals in office and institutional districts — the zoning relevant to the NHRMC-Scotts Hill land — from 52-feet tall to a more loose seven stories. 

READ MORE: NHRMC wants to build a taller building, with help from a popular firm

Not long after that text amendment was floated, New Hanover County assumed for itself the role of proposing changes to the height code. NHRMC then pursued rezoning its Scotts Hill land and withdrew its height-related text amendment. (Planning board member Paul Boney, an LS3P senior vice president, has recused himself throughout planning board hearings on the county’s height standards rewrite.)

“It really seemed to make sense that if there was a conversation about a height change, it needed to be something where staff could look at it comprehensively,” Roth said Friday. “Where we could have a conversation with the planning board and with the public about it, and just kind of take the time that was necessary.”

There’s been a back-and-forth between Roth’s planning staff and planning board members, punctuated at the board meetings where everyone can speak their minds about the rewrite and the direction it should take. The conversation at Thursday’s meeting featured setbacks. Part of this process has involved figuring out how to buffer these incoming taller-than-before buildings from residential areas and other types of territories.

At the meeting board member Donna Girardot said some language, like imposing significant setbacks even when neighboring residential land is undeveloped, could penalize the backers of four- and five-story projects. She asked Roth to return to a planning board meeting in the near future with more nuanced language on setbacks. 

Roth and planning staff could make that presentation as soon as October; some board members are eager to roll out the new standards and start monitoring the reaction from the development community. The text amendment still needs a vote from the planning board, and then a favorable vote from the board of commissioners before it’s official.

“It doesn’t look like the days of a three-story hospital are here anymore,” Roth said. “It doesn’t look like the days of three-story hotel buildings are really here anymore. So if we want to see that type of development, our districts need to allow for it.”

Find more information about the new height standards at the Planning Department website.

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