Saturday, April 1, 2023

County reveals five scenarios for CF River western banks, to be presented to commissioners

If commissioners decided upon the conservation route, it would require they maintain the land long-term and would help protect natural habitats and coastal wetlands. (Courtesy NHC)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Since last fall, when word spread about developments pitched for the western and northeast Cape Fear riverbanks, conversation among area leaders, developers and locals has taken many turns into what “should be” and “could be” of downtown growth.

For six months, New Hanover County staff has researched scenarios on how to approach building on a swath of wetlands, some of which inhabit Eagles Island and Point Peter — two areas proposed to house hotels, condos and mixed-use development. 

READ MORE: Explainer: What to know about Battleship Point

One is Battleship Point — three 240-feet towers, 550 condos, 300 apartment units, a hotel and commercial space — on Point Peter, which requires commissioners to change its zoning from industrial use to riverfront urban mixed use.

The proposed Wilmington Hotel and Spa — 290 bedrooms — would be on Eagles Island, between the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge and the U.S.S. North Carolina. It doesn’t need rezoning by commissioners but would require careful attention to ensure appropriate infrastructure is in place to support it.

Yet, the project is paused currently while a nonprofit environmental group, Unique Places to Save, attempts to buy the land for conservation purposes, which include plans for a public park. The nonprofit revealed last month to PCD that the N.C. Battleship site, located just north of Eagles Island, recorded 174 flood events in 2020.

ALSO: What is UP2S? Nonprofit of ‘eternal optimists’ tackling multimillion-dollar initiative to save Eagles Island

On Thursday, Aug. 18 at 2 p.m., county staff will present commissioners with both urban mixed use and conservation options among five scenarios — also including limited use, working waterfront, and small mixed use.

Laden with commercial history, the western banks have been immersed in various industries in the past, from shipbuilding and maritime to manufacturing. To develop the area again would not be new; however, concerns have been raised by many environmentalists, who say development may not be supported by the nursery grounds and the riverfront’s increased flooding.

In a letter to commissioners, planning director Rebekah Roth noted the five options presented are not “necessarily mutually exclusive,” but that “the planning and development framework for this area could provide for multiple options, while mitigating for potential impacts.”

Staff, she said, met with various stakeholders, regulatory agencies, county planners, nearby jurisdictions, developers and property owners to brainstorm.

Thursday’s meeting will go into more detail about the possibilities, though it will only be for the county staff and leaders to speak — no outside stakeholders or agencies will present.

There will not be a public comment period either, as to allow time for commissioners to advise staff. The meeting is open to the public, held at the Lucie Harrell Conference Room, 230 Government Center Dr.

Any direction given by commissioners will be included in future meetings, with a public comment period planned. Here is a rundown of what will be proposed next week.


Considered “the most restrictive in use,” this option would entail restoring and preserving the land, installing nature trails and accesses for canoeing and kayaking.

Because the western banks are zoned industrial use for factories and landfills, it would mandate cleanup and mitigation. The long-term result would protect coastal wetlands and nursery areas, as well as alleviate flooding concerns.

It also could lead to the enrichment of the property’s cultural heritage by partnering with the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor. Many of the marshlands were once home to indigo and rice crops the Gullah Geechee ancestors cultivated. Staff notes it also presents opportunities to utilize green engineering solutions for the U.S.S. Battleship.

However, for the county to obtain the land requires area property owners to cooperate and have a willingness to sell. KFJ Development, behind the Battleship Point proposal, owns Point Peter, while Diamondback Development owns the portion of Eagles Island, proposed to home the hotel and spa unless Unique Places to Save successfully fundraises money to buy the land.

In a deal last month, Diamondback agreed to put 83 acres under contract with the nonprofit, which aims to preserve the land as a park. The group has until the end of the year to raise $16 million to buy the property else developer Bobby Ginn will move forward on constructing the hotel and spa.

Preserving the area would relinquish the county of any investments in utilities and roadways, required for development infrastructure. Yet, staff also noted transportation projects envisioned for Wilmington could become problematic under the conservation status. 

Specifically, it points to the rail realignment project — a potential billion-dollar plan proposed in 2014 to reorient current rail tracks within the city and avoid crossing busy intersections. It also mentions this could diminish options on the replacement of the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge, which is reaching the end of its lifespan according to NCDOT.

The county would have to prepare for long-term management of the land; conservation plans also would reduce the tax burden on residents.

A limited use option would also include preserving the land but would have parks and educational centers included to welcome more people to traverse the natural habitats of the western banks (Courtesy NHC)

Limited Use

Much like the conservation option, limited use includes preserving the land, mitigating flooding intensity and frequency, and offering the public access to a nature park, with hiking trails and water ingress.

The difference is some infrastructure would need to be in place, such as restrooms and recreation centers, to accommodate the public. The limited use option would be open to private, public or nonprofit investment and contribute overall to the tourism base of southeastern North Carolina.

This framework presents some of the same concerns as conservation, in that the county would have to prepare for long-term management of the land, yet it also reduces the tax burden on residents.

The working waterfront would bring in more water industries and may not require rezoning of the western riverbanks, currently mandated industrial use. (Courtesy NHC)

Working Waterfront

An Economic Mobility Report, according to county staff, recommended utilizing the western banks for water-based industries and commercial activities. Ideas include supporting wind-energy commerce, boat building and repairs, offices and other commercial needs, as well as shipping, tourism and the inclusion of public space. Private, public and nonprofit investment would remain viable.

The water industry uses, staff noted, would “be more resilient” to increased and intense flooding by the nature of the business. Cleanup of the site would still be needed; however, the current zoning of the land for industrial use would apply.

Development would impact parts of the coastal wetlands and nursery areas. Staff also noted there is no guarantee it could draw wind-energy companies, as some of the parcels are smaller than offshore wind-related industries might need.

Staff said bringing in more of these productions could impede the visual aesthetic of the downtown riverfront. Also, CAMA permitting may limit some uses.

The county presented a small scale mixed use option for commissioners to consider when it comes to developing the western riverbanks of the Cape Fear, citing riverfronts in Beaufort and Duck as examples. (Courtesy NHC)

Small Scale Mixed Use

A small scale mixed use zoning would allow multi-family residences, lodging accommodations and commercial business, with low-to-moderate height and density. “Water-oriented leisure uses” would be emphasized, staff explained, and the aesthetic would mimic the City of Wilmington’s historic district, as currently seen on the southern portion of the Riverwalk.

Should standards allow, another Riverwalk could be added on the western side, in effect becoming a tourism driver, with entertainment, public-water access and other amenities included. It would increase the tax base and support downtown’s active riverfront.

Downfalls include limited buildable areas to support development without some environmental impacts. The documents detailed that “significant investments would need to be made” to improve infrastructure; in turn, it could limit small-scale private growth without public partnerships.

Emergency management personnel would need to be added to meet the safety needs of residents and visitors on the western riverfront, adding to the cost to taxpayers.

The “most intensive” of the options is urban scale mixed use which would allow higher density and height on the riverbanks, paving the way for Battleship Point. (Courtesy NHC)

Urban Scale Mixed Use

Urban scale mixed use would provide much the same as small scale mixed use but would mirror the northern Riverfront of downtown Wilmington, where larger and taller structures are built.

Staff call it the “most intensive” development option in that it includes greater density and height. It would pave the way for Battleship Point, whose height would eclipse downtown’s tallest building, PPD, which stands at 193 feet.

It would increase the tax base and roll out more employment opportunities, particularly in the hospitality and tourism industries.

While the public would have more access to the area, it would increase traffic, especially for non-industrial travel along 421.

The county also would have to make a hefty investment on needed improvements, such as water and sewer, to support the construction. The “usage could reduce capacity of lines serving Hwy 421 corridor and Wilmington depending on development timing,” staff indicated.

Staff explained in its materials, while urban mixed use would have an effect on coastal wetlands and nursery areas, it would be “no more than small scale mixed use.”

Emergency management personnel would need to be added to meet the safety needs of residents and visitors on the western riverfront.

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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