SOUTHEASTERN N.C. — Bounded by water on three sides, New Hanover County has only one direction, north, in which it can freely grow. This year proposals to develop pockets of the unincorporated county between Wilmington and the Pender County line have been a mainstay.
Once rural areas are now on the heels of growth. In 2021, large-scale residential projects moved forward in the Castle Hayne and Murrayville areas, and additional proposals came forward involving untapped land along the corridors of I-40 and Highway 17.
To the south of Wilmington, where vacant land is less abundant, the largest projects considered this year concentrated around Monkey Junction and Carolina Beach Road.
And, more recently, there has been a resurgence of interest in New Hanover County’s western border: the coastal lands along the Cape Fear River. Across the water from downtown Wilmington, two separate hotel proposals have been brought forth this year.
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In 2021, the New Hanover County Planning Board considered around 20 rezoning requests, which form the backbone of many major projects. When property owners, for example, have designs on an apartment complex in an area of town zoned for warehouses or single-family homes, he or she can ask the board of commissioners to legislate changes to the zoning map. Before arriving on the commissioners’ agenda, the commissioner-appointed planning board scopes out these projects first.
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The rezonings of 2021 included one of the last remaining big tracts of land on S. College Road, a new hospital for New Hanover Regional Medical Center in Scotts Hill, and more than 100 acres in Castle Hayne.
Two formal applications were approved to build cell towers, one of them prominently visible throughout a residential area. Those needed special use permits — a less-common device reserved for less-common land uses. The special use permit process is meant to have the gravitas of a courtroom, where only the word of attorneys and subject experts can sway the board of commissioners. The story of one prominent denial of a special use permit request concluded earlier this year, with an N.C. Court of Appeals ruling that gives Tribute Companies the right to move forward on an Ogden area project. (Rezoning requests are not anywhere near as strict: Applicants can talk to public officials about site plans in advance of votes, and members of the public can address the board of commissioners minutes before decision time — perhaps even making the speech that sways the vote.)
New Hanover overhauled its land use rulebook in 2019 and is wielding a unified development ordinance built to guide its evolution decades into the future; earlier this month, the City of Wilmington officially rolled out its re-write. This year the county introduced new provisions that open doors for four-story buildings and taller ones where they weren’t previously thought to go, and made additional tweaks to its ordinances based on changes in state law.
Rebekah Roth, county planning director, pointed at two ventures approved in 2021 that she said exemplify how a sharper ordinance leads to commendable projects. Both of them were mixed-use projects approved as planned developments, which are expected to offer a variety of services in addition to dwellings, and even improve the connectivity of surrounding road networks: the 64-acre S. College Road parcel, and a mixed-use proposal in a similar vein positioned at a key juncture in the N.C. Department of Transportation’s forthcoming Military Cutoff Road extension project.
“I think it’s an exciting time to see some of these projects that will really shape the future of New Hanover County moving forward,” Roth said, “now that we have these new tools in place.”
Many times, if a site’s zoning tag already gels with its intended use, prospective developers are not required to go through the gauntlet of public hearings. The county committee that reviews these “by-right” projects examined around a dozen site plans related to substantial residential projects in 2021; it also reviewed another two dozen or so small-scale and commercial works. Together, the screened projects amounted to upwards of 1,000 approved, future residential units.
Land availability necessitates that the appetite for large, single-family subdivisions is dwindling — both from the perspective of money-makers and county planners. Multi-family complexes are increasingly standard; developers offer concessions, like building a traffic signal or road improvements, in exchange for more density. Only in northern pockets of the county — where, for generations, legacy families have owned massive tracts of forests and farmland — is there enough space for additional sprawling subdivisions.
Tyler Newman, president of Business Alliance for a Sound Economy, said the industry found successes within the city and county this year through infill development projects and adaptive reuse proposals — which become increasingly necessary in the absence of virgin land. Newman added, too, that “what happens around the region impacts investment in the city and county.”
“On one hand you have Brunswick county investing in infrastructure and approving new developments,” Newman wrote in an email to Port City Daily. “On the other end of the spectrum, you have projects getting turned down in Pender County, then ultimately prevailing in court.”
Housing affordability took center stage at times this year, as county leaders collaborated publicly with their City of Wilmington counterparts on addressing the lack of housing options for those in the Cape Fear region not earning top dollar. On the list of potential measures is a $50 million housing bond.
The county planning department houses a staff liaison to the workforce housing advisory committee, which was created in response to area officials’ recognition of a housing affordability crisis. Roth said, “Moving forward we will definitely be an active partner in whatever programmatic components the county decides to proceed with.”
The county’s Workforce Housing Gap Rental Assistance Program launched earlier this year using federal Covid-19 relief money. It provides financing through monthly increments of two or three hundred dollars, helping eligible renters make payments without becoming cost-burdened.
Nobody in the development scene faced more public hearings this year than Cindee Wolf. She authored at least nine rezoning requests to New Hanover County in 2021. Most of her clients in the rezoning arena this year were citizen business owners in need of help overcoming unfamiliar red tape, though she was also tapped to handle the application for a 256-unit apartment building in Scotts Hill, adjacent to NHRMC’s future facility.
Early this year, NHRMC was seemingly roadblocked in its effort to build the hospital, but on appeal, the state gave necessary permissions to the healthcare provider. So NHRMC — by this point under the control of Novant Health — set forward on pursuing local regulatory approvals too. LS3P, the design firm at work on Project Grace, has been involved in the medical facility project (an NHRMC spokesperson said Scotts Hill construction is slated for 2022 and expected to wrap by late 2024).
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As a place grows, Wolf said, market forces come in waves, as growth cycles repeat themselves in different parts of the county. In areas previously undeveloped, oftentimes the subdivision came first. “But after they got out there,” Wolf said, “you’d start seeing a couple offices buffer them from the road, and then all of a sudden you’d start seeing some retail.”
Then comes the cycle. “For about two or three years, storage facilities were du jour,” Wolf said. “Then the past couple years, before now, it became car washes. Now it’s townhomes.”
She predicts more action next year: “I think you’re going to start seeing the retail, plus the multi-family, plus the townhomes, plus the single-family out in the Castle Hayne area.”
Expansion into Castle Hayne and the rest of the northern county is intertwined with the mission of Cape Fear Public Utility Authority to widen the reach of its own services. When developers propose plans for substantial projects on untapped land, they’re often tasked with fronting costs for the expansion of water and utility services in the area — meaning the systemic availability of water and sewer utility services in undeveloped areas hinges on negotiations between the public and private sectors.
East of Castle Hayne, on Sidbury Road, such growth is currently underway. Cameron Moore, executive officer of the Wilmington Cape Fear Home Builders Association, said the northern county is sparking much interest.
“There’s been a lot of conversations, and at the end of the day, that is where a lot of the development community is looking at,” Moore said.
Despite months-long delays to home completion timelines wrought by supply-chain issues, the project pipeline is holding steam in the Monkey Junction and River Road areas, too, he said. Though subdivisions may be going out of style, DR Horton is at work on a relatively massive single-family project on Sidbury Road. Down the road, hundreds of acres of Trask family land rezoned in 2020 are in the queue, and dozens of Cameron family acres on the I-40 corridor are currently in between public hearings. To handle the rezoning request, the family chose Wolf.
“It is absolutely cyclic, but there’s no rhyme or reason,” Wolf said, talking about the growth waves. “It’s not like any of those cycles will stop.”
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