Sunday, July 14, 2024

Second across-the-river hotel proposal has easier path toward finish line than first

Developers and backers of the proposed Wilmington Hotel and Spa faced comments from the technical review committee on Wednesday. (Port City Daily/Courtesy New Hanover County)

WILMINGTON ⁠— Developers behind the proposed 100-foot hotel on land south of the Battleship, across the Cape Fear River from downtown Wilmington, will not need to face public hearings or obtain legislative approval before construction on the project can commence. 

Because the site currently exists under a business zoning district, backers of the Wilmington Hotel and Spa can begin seeking the local and state permits necessary for construction, following a meeting of the technical review committee meeting Wednesday. 

The technical review committee is made up of regulatory agency representatives that have a say in construction permitting and oversight. The process offers regulators the chance to comment on site plans, with the development team on the call ready to respond to any concerns. 

Once the site plans are gelled with the comments of participating agencies, developers of by-right projects like this one — where rezonings or other land-use maneuvers are not needed — can move into the permitting process. 

On the technical review committee call, Raymond Griswold of New Hanover County Fire Services mentioned the commonplace flooding known to occur in the region. “I’m sure that’s going to come up as other agencies are reviewing this,” he said.

The property, situated on Eagles Island, is around one-half wetlands located within a FEMA floodplain. The land is also subject to a Brownfields Agreement that limits acceptable development on the site to a number of options, including a hotel. It’s been a four-year process to get up to the technical review committee meeting Wednesday, according to a member of the development team.

READ MORE: Another proposal for across-the-river hotel is in the pipeline

Frank Braxton, an engineer working on behalf of the project, declined to comment on future plans. The team is solely focused on updating the site plans in accordance with comments from the technical review committee, he said.

The Cape Fear Public Utility Authority representative said water and sewer service to the site could be accomplished through line extensions, and the county engineering rep questioned whether the design was sufficient to handle a 25-year storm event as stated; a project engineer assured him it was. The agent for N.C. Department of Transportation was a no-show.

On Eagles Island, the coastal expanse of thousands of acres between New Hanover and Brunswick counties, a group that includes N.C. State University academics and the Eagles Island Central Park Task Force has been championing a vision for building a nature park on the land. 

The species-rich island has ties to Wilmington’s history as a shipbuilding hub. It’s also included in the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, a designation that recognizes descendants of enslaved West Africans whose transformative rice cultivation techniques created massive wealth in coastal plantation economies.  

The New Hanover Soil and Water Conservation District holds around 520 acres of Eagles Island land in conservation easements. Another 485 acres are held in conservation easements by state agencies. The landowner with the most Eagles Island property is the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which uses most of its space for dredge spoil storage.

Shown are the various public and private landowners with a stake in Eagles Island. (Port City Daily/Courtesy Eagles Island Central Park Task Force)

According to a vision document for the Eagles Island nature park, released this autumn, the smaller parcels along the eastern shore of the island — the west banks of the Cape Fear River — are privately owned. This area, which includes the site of the proposed Wilmington Hotel and Spa, “is essentially the only part of the island with soils and elevation suitable for development,” according to the vision document. (The current landowner of the Wilmington Hotel site is Holdings of TCM, Inc.)

“The patchwork of ownership on Eagles Island is a significant constraint concerning the establishment of Eagles Island Nature Park,” according to the vision document. “The division of parcels on the Island represents a vast array of public and private ownership conditions and varying degrees of land use and management.”

Proposals to develop the across-the-river territory have been floated in past years, but there has been an acute surge of interest in recent months. Shortly before the Wilmington Hotel project appeared on the radar, an application for a high-density residential project that also includes a hotel was filed for a site just further north, at the point where the Cape Fear River converges with the Northeast Cape Fear River. 

The proposed site for Battleship Point, backed by a retired developer from New Jersey in concert with a local real estate agent and attorney, demands more rigorous approvals from county leaders, including the creation of a brand new zoning district proposed by the developers themselves. 

READ MORE: Proposed across-the-river towers put on back burner by county planning board

As it stands, the new zoning district necessary for the Battleship Point concept to survive was dealt a blow by the planning board, which recommended the proposal be denied at its most recent meeting. 

The planning board’s ruling acts as a non-binding recommendation to the board of commissioners, so the development team for Battleship Point could still find luck with the county’s top legislators in January even after the negative review from the planning board.

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