PENDER COUNTY — After more than half a year of winding through myriad checkpoints of local government, the backers of a mixed-use project in Topsail that aims to station apartments along Highway 17 finally succeeded this week.
Two development proposals — each consisting of around two dozen acres with substantial Highway 17 frontage — previously appeared in April. One was backed by Wilmington developer Mark Maynard and his firm Tribute Companies; the other involved Evolve Acquisitions, LLC and Swain & Associates.
Both projects failed in their initial rezoning attempts, ultimately leading their backers to withdraw the two applications. County commissioners spoke openly at the time about their hesitancy to allow increased density in the community, especially around Highway 17, before substantial progress on the state-led bypass project has been made.
Months later, the projects returned, seeking approval in a new way. As of this week, both projects have been approved.
Attorney Amy Schaefer of Lee Kaess, PLLC, the firm of N.C. Sen. Michael Lee, R-New Hanover, represented both proposed developments during a September planning board meeting in Pender County, according to the minutes.
By that point, Tribute and Evolve had reconfigured their applications: Instead of applying for rezonings, they pursued approval of “master development plans.”
According to planning director Travis Henley, the latter process is more administrative and structured, whereas rezonings are legislative decisions in which elected officials wield wide discretion and leeway. As such, concerns from school officials about the system’s ability to accommodate new students expected from these projects — which weighed heavily in official resistance to both rezonings — were not major factors in the most recent go-rounds.
“Staff’s review of the proposals have found that both cases have met all applicable standards within the Unified Development Ordinance, and thus we are recommending approval of the projects to the Planning Board,” Henley previously told Port City Daily.
On its second attempt in September, Tribute Companies dropped its ask for commercial space, and whittled down its request by eliminating around 30 townhome-style units from the site plans.
Evolve — a vertically integrated multi-family housing firm associated with the Hawthorne Apartments brand — also edited its proposal come September. While the company still wanted rights to develop three commercial outparcels, it lowered its desired apartment unit count from 294 to 174.
The planning board approved the request from Tribute Companies and denied Evolve’s.
Schaefer, former assistant attorney for City of Wilmington, then appealed the planning board’s ruling to the board of adjustment, which held a hearing Wednesday.
Members of the BOA, who are appointed by the board of commissioners, decide on appeals, variances and ordinance interpretations. Their hearings are quasi-judicial, in that only attorneys, expert testimony and sworn-in individuals, who can prove their standing, are able to sway opinion.
There, Schaefer argued the planning board gave no justification in its denial of the project and the board of adjustment needed to examine whether the application met the standards of the county zoning ordinance.
“There was no specific ruling in the planning board’s letter of denial. It just denied,” Schaefer said at the hearing. “But based on some of the conversations that the planning board had during their deliberations — and I think you can see that in the meeting — it sounds like there was some confusion on their part as to the purpose statement.”
One board member asked Henley: “As presented, did this application meet the standards of the ordinance?”
“Yes, it did,” Henley responded.
The board voted 4-1 to approve the development plan, ending months of uncertainty about the project.
“Both Tribute Companies and Swain & Associates have invested so much in our communities,” said Tyler Newman, president of Business Alliance for a Sound Economy, in a statement. “It was frustrating to see their projects get delayed — but gratifying that they both ultimately prevailed. Hopefully, this is an opportunity for Pender County to update its processes and procedures to be more consistent with 160D.”
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