WILMINGTON — Opponents to an affordable senior living development planned for Middle Sound Loop Road had to pivot their arguments Wednesday night. While some continued to fight against the project, the Wilmington Planning Commission and developer Blue Ridge Atlantic clarified, as of last month, the project was already approved by the county and received the go-ahead to construct.
The only question now is whether the city should annex the 72-unit apartment complex, as requested by the developer. The hope is to receive financing assistance from the city. Prior to council voting on the annexation, the planning commission must recommend assigning it to a zoning district, which it did unanimously Wednesday.
“We are asking that this site plan, fully vetted by New Hanover County, be built but that it be city property,” attorney representing Blue Ridge Atlantic Amy Schaefer said at the meeting.
With or without the city’s approval for annexation, the Residence at Canopy Pointe is shovel-ready. Developer Chris Eisenzimmer said he is aiming for a July groundbreaking.
The 4.77-acre tract of land, currently vacant and wooded, is located within the unincorporated limits of New Hanover County, across from Publix grocery store at Ogden Market Place (annexed into the city in 2015).
The three-story Residence at Canopy Pointe will offer 36 one-bedroom and 36 two-bedroom apartments. Only individuals ages 55 and over, making 30% to 80% of the area’s median income ($51,137 according to the U.S. Census Bureau), can apply to live there. Rent would range from $367 to $1,050, based on income and available units.
“There is a need for senior living and affordable senior living,” Schaefer said. “This is a small drop in the bucket, but it’s definitely going to that deficit we have in the city.”
Cape Fear Housing Coalition chair Katrina Knight echoed the sentiment.
“This directly addresses the critical gap in our housing stock,” she told the planning board. “Our population is aging and projects like this can help us retain the wisdom and experience of our moderate-income seniors who are too often unable to stay in the community where many of them have spent their whole lives.”
According to Blue Ridge Atlantic Development, four other affordable senior housing properties in Wilmington are at 99% occupancy, with a waiting list of up to 18 months.
The development would include additional conveniences, such as laundry services, a movie room, a lounge with a fireplace, security systems, tenant storage areas and more. The amenities are required per the 9% tax credits the project received from the North Carolina Housing Finance Agency, Eisenzimmer said.
The state financing agency also requires the development to retain its affordability for a minimum of 30 years. Despite the rise in interest rates and price of construction supplies, Eisenzimmer explained, he cannot raise rents to make up the costs as market-rate apartments do. He vowed he is committed to seeing the project through.
In February 2020, Blue Ridge Atlantic Development applied for a conditional rezoning of the Middle Sound Loop land through the county. The planning board unanimously recommended approval of it the following month, ruling it consistent with the county’s comprehensive plan. According to meeting minutes, the board also said the project was in the public interest because it would provide diverse housing.
County commissioners then voted to finalize the rezoning in June 2020. The site was rezoned from R-15 residential — established to accommodate low-density development — to RMF-M, conditional residential multi-family district.
Betsy Albright, resident of Bloomington Lane, sat through the early March 2020 planning commission meeting for at least six hours waiting for the public hearing to begin so she could speak in opposition to the plan. She told Port City Daily the proposed development would obstruct the view from her house where she has lived for 18 years.
She also cited traffic concerns at Market Street, one of the busiest intersections and longest light cycles, as well as flooding and drainage issues.
“From what I understand, the light at Middle Sound Loop and Market Street is one of the longest cycling lights in the entire county,” Albright said. “Stacks and stacks of cars, 20 to 30 deep, pile up. This is a recipe for disaster.”
Ultimately, she thought a high-density property would impact property values and destroy the character of the quiet neighborhood.
According to a report by Ramey-Kemp and Associates, a traffic impact analysis was not needed, as the development is proposed to generate 265 total trips in a 24-hour period.
Albright did not attend the June 2020 commissioners hearing, as meetings had gone virtual at that point.
“The June 2020 meeting was during the height of Covid-19 in-person restrictions and went completely under the radar of the community,” Albright said. “It was approved with no community awareness from the public.”
New Hanover County has similar communication methods to the city, including signage, letters to nearby property owners and online notifications.
Following zoning approval, Wilmington-based engineers McKim & Creed submitted a site plan and development proposal to New Hanover County’s planning department on Jan. 18, 2022 and met with the technical review committee a month later.
The site plan and applicant have “vested rights,” meaning they are legally able to develop the land already. The developer wants to submit that already-approved plan to the City of Wilmington for annexation and has requested a zoning designation that most closely mirrors the county’s.
At this week’s city planning commission meeting, the board voted unanimously to zone the land to MD-17, allowing for 17 dwelling units per acre. This is preemptive to the city voting whether to annex it June 7.
The reasoning behind the annexation request is based on funding options available at the city level.
“The City of Wilmington has really been at the forefront of providing funding for affordable housing,” Schaefer, the developer’s attorney, said. “The county is getting there but the city is much more prepared for this type of project.”
City spokesperson Jennifer Dandron explained the city provides gap financing, as it’s available, to support the creation of affordable housing. Developers may apply to the city for a loan to assist with financing for the projects. The source of funding and loan terms vary and is deemed feasible, city council would vote to approve the money.
The county has similar opportunities, but Eisenzimmer said he was told most of its available gap financing was allocated to the Starway project on Carolina Beach Road, which the city is also a partner in.
Planning commission members expressed excitement about the incoming affordable housing; however, more than 200 residents submitted comments — mostly opposed — to the planning board prior to Wednesday’s meeting. Many cited reasoning for the development to not move forward at all, which is, at this stage, beyond the control of the city.
Three individuals spoke in opposition Wednesday night. One resident provided a petition with a list of signatures for individuals against high-density zoning.
But the complaints began even earlier.
“Apparently word’s gotten out we’re doing a satellite annexation because I got two calls this weekend from people in the Middle Sound area telling the city to stay away,” council member Charlie Rivenbark said at the city’s May 2 agenda briefing. “They like it just the way it is, with the benefit of living here and not paying a single penny toward any upkeep of our fine city.”
Neighbors felt there was a lack of notification from the city.
The city must use three methods of communication to inform the community about public hearings: post a sign on the property, send out letters to property owners within 300 feet of the subject site and advertise public notices in the StarNews. City planning staff also posts the case summaries and relevant documents on the city website prior to the meetings.
“Reading the comments today, it was abundantly clear someone has spread a whole lot of erroneous information and it didn’t help at all,” vice-chair John Lennon said. “I think it’s critical when something like this comes up, all the resources and tools are there for the public to find out what’s going on. It’s not going to be spoon fed to anyone.”
Albright spoke again during this week’s meeting saying the letter from the city did not include a site plan, making it impossible to know what’s being proposed. She also says the developer never held a community meeting for the annexation application, so “residents are mostly in the dark.”
Residents living in the Middle Sound Loop neighborhood called the city at least twice indicating the public hearing sign had been removed. Due to weather conditions, city staff had to reinforce the signs multiple times.
“I can’t go through one more meeting and hear a complaint about a sign,” Lennon said. “We’ve got to get that figured out. That should be the least used argument from anybody.”
The process of putting out signs at proposed sites, as well as the material and size of signs used, is being evaluated for future improvement, interim planning director Ron Satterfield said.
“I am sympathetic to all those people who wrote in the comments today,” commissioner Ron Woodruff said. “If you’ve been in that intersection up there and trying to go down Middle Sound, it’s a nightmare. Seventy-two units is not going to help, but it’s water over the dam now.
The city council will vote on the annexation at its meeting June 7 at 6:30 p.m. at City Hall.
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