LELAND — In the first step to possibly bring the town in on its plans, it appeared the team behind Battleship Point may see as slow movement in Leland as it has in New Hanover. KFJ Development Group is attempting to persuade either local government to create a zoning district that will allow for a trio of riverfront towers across the way from downtown Wilmington.
Reviewing the proposed text amendment that would establish the new zoning Tuesday night, Leland planning board members were hesitant while deliberating over the details. They didn’t have specifics of the project in mind or a clear understanding of how the developers planned to prevent floodwaters from inundating the property.
That land in question is also currently unincorporated. Leland has not had any intentions to extend to this part of the riverfront, despite mapping out how it can expand outward in its recently adopted 25-year strategic growth plan by incorporating acres and acres of land.
“I think it’s clear from the discussion this evening that we need more time to dive into this and really understand exactly what’s being asked, the impacts to the current town and the impacts of the future town,” said Jason Gaver, a planning board member who worked on the creation of Leland 2045.
After an hour-long presentation and discussion, the planning board chair acknowledged there are “many, many questions to be answered.” He moved to not approve nor deny any text amendment by the end of the night. Instead, the board will regroup on the item during its Mar. 22 meeting.
It came as a surprise to the community last week when this text amendment request popped up on Leland’s planning board agenda. For months, the Battleship Point team has focused its efforts on convincing New Hanover County to create a riverfront district that would accommodate its mixed-use, hotel-spa vision. But progress recently stalled.
Last month, the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners tabled the developers’ request. The officials are preparing to hold a work session next month to define their preferences for the unincorporated land of the west banks before moving forward.
Exploring all its options, the development group submitted the text amendment to Leland to see how receptive it was to the idea of a riverfront district, one that would make a multi-million economic impact and likely produce more than 1,000 jobs, according to a feasibility memo. Real estate agent Kirk Pugh, a founding member of KFJ Development Group, told Port City Daily potential annexation into the City of Wilmington was also a considered option.
Leland’s proposed riverfront mixed-use district, abbreviated as RUMXD, would span the area between the Isabel Holmes Bridge and the Thomas Rhodes Bridge, along Highway 421. Any land zoned RUMXD would need to abide by supplemental regulations and could only host a list of permissible uses, which, as drafted, ranges from a veggie stand to a skating rink.
Summit Design and Engineering Services is applying for the text amendment to the town’s code of ordinances on behalf of the group. Patrick Cummings, the vice president, assured the board his firm has completed projects of this density and complexity before, but never along this stretch of banks.
If Leland pens the more favorable zoning district over New Hanover (or one sooner than New Hanover) — perhaps one with more flexibility, such as taller building allowance or less restrictive parking standards — the team would likely seek annexation into Leland. That would add a new and significant tax base to the town, and it strips New Hanover County’s say in a project that’s bound to be transformative for the western banks.
However, New Hanover County chair Julia Olson‑Boseman said she doesn’t envision the developers’ newfound interest in Leland affecting discussions, overall.
“I understand the developer wanting to explore all their options, and we will be paying attention to this annexation conversation in Leland to learn all the facts,” Olson-Boseman wrote in an email. “At this time, the Commissioners still plan to continue our conversations about the Western bank of the Cape Fear River. As no vote or action has been taken on the developer’s request of the county, it’s important that our conversations continue as planned.”
Leland’s planning board was not expected to take action Tuesday night, and some members made clear they wouldn’t have wanted to.
“If you were in our seat … given the lack of information and the significant impact to the town, would you feel comfortable making a recommendation one way or the other?” member Gaver asked Cummings.
The vice-chair was somewhat open-minded. Toward the end of the night, Joe Bryant pointed out the land, as of now, is a junkyard, and nobody is rushing to buy it and clean it up.
“Are we so concerned about the development of it, or are we concerned about, you know, that we don’t want nothing there?” Bryant asked. “Those are questions running through my mind.”
Eight community members voiced opposition to the project during the board’s public comment, raising concerns about flooding and adverse environmental impacts. Those issues were top-of-mind as the conversation continued later in the meeting.
Cummings iterated any project associated with the zoning district would need to comply with multiple regulatory state agencies, which he continued to list, from floodplain management to the division of water quality.
“I’m only laboring on to illustrate the fact that the design of any project associated with this district would be subject to the most current floodplain management requirements that the state of North Carolina or the U.S. Army Corps requires of development,” Cummings said.
But when pressed for specifics, he said it would be difficult to “give a flavor of solutions.”
As one of the fastest-growing municipalities in the state, Leland is familiar with the process of annexation. Its future land-use map within the Leland 2045 comprehensive land-use plan outlines areas it wants to absorb and details how those will be developed, ideally. However, that growth plan does not take into consideration this part of the river’s edge.
The town’s priority to preserve natural resources is also a pillar of the plan.
“My initial take is, those were all concerns of our citizens, and expanding over on the other side of the river is kind of going against all of those things that we identified in the 2045 plan,” said member Debbie Willis, whose husband spoke against the project at the start of the meeting. “So I guess I didn’t see it as a key growth area for the town.”
She also argued the town may set a precedent that it will adopt a new zoning district for a developer’s individual project, with buildings up to 300 feet tall.
Ben Andrea, Leland’s planning and inspections director, clarified the town would consider any text amendment application submitted. He also noted the town is about to overhaul the development code and propose a number of new zoning districts.
“I think that it’s hard to separate the concept of the project that’s been discussed in the media and how that relates to the zoning district,” Andrea said. “Whether it’s this zoning district or other changes to the ordinance, it’s not necessarily a bad thing to have additional regulatory options for different styles of development than we currently have.”
The proposed height allowable in the district was also scrutinized. The applicant was requesting buildings in the riverfront mixed-use district be allowed to tower 300 feet in the air — more than five times the tallest building in Leland. Downtown Wilmington’s highest building, the PPD headquarters, is 193 feet tall.
But that’s a numeral the town can also modify before adopting the district. The town doesn’t have to accept the text amendment as put forth by the applicant. It can make its own mutation, one as close to or as far off from the original proposal as council desires.
Once the planning board reaches the point where it feels prepared, which could be as soon as next month, it will vote to recommend to town council whether it should or should not adopt the proposed text amendment. The town planning staff also makes a recommendation (which it hasn’t done yet).
Town council doesn’t have to follow either suggestion. It ultimately has the final say on whether to adopt this riverfront mixed-use district: welcoming the development and being integral to its success or having nothing to do with it, possibly leaving it to up to another jurisdiction.
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