Saturday, June 15, 2024

Residential component on CF River’s west bank dominates conversation at planning board meeting

After two years discussing changes to the comprehensive plan to include guidelines on how to development the west bank of downtown Wilmington, the planning board tells staff to reconsider adding residential component after it was left out of suggestions during Thursday night’s presentation. (Port City Daily/File)

WILMINGTON — As New Hanover County looks to update its comprehensive plan addressing development on the west bank of the Cape Fear River, planning board members at Thursday’s meeting took issue with a few considerations being left out.

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Rebekah Roth, planning director for the county, suggested to the board a handful of land-use amendments staff thought should be the focus, including industrial, commercial, civic and institutional, as well as agricultural. Residential and mixed-use were not included.

“The challenge with [allowing] commercial but not residential was that you got to have the residential first to have the commercial,” board member and executive officer of the Wilmington-Cape Fear Home Builders Association Cameron Moore said. “And so I’m a little hesitant on saying no residential, particularly knowing the projects that have been floated out there. They were highly residential — no pun intended.”

One of the developments he was speaking about is Battleship Point, put forth in 2021. The land at Point Peter is currently zoned industrial — for manufacturing and maritime needs — but KFJ Development requested a text amendment that would have added a riverfront urban mixed-use district for the project. KFJ planned to build three 240-foot towers with 550 condos, 300 apartment units, a hotel and commercial space. The developer’s application was tabled by NHC commissioners — though the planning board recommended denial. Then KFJ courted Leland to annex the land, which is currently regulated by New Hanover County; that was withdrawn by KFJ. CEO Kirk Pugh told Port City Daily he plans to bring it back to NHC commissioners, even if scaled down.

The project would be located north of the USS North Carolina, while to the south, developer Bobby Ginn proposed Wilmington Hotel and Spa. It’s slated to be a 100-foot complex, featuring 290 bedrooms on 14 acres of Eagle’s Island. This project would be allowed by-right as the land parcel is already zoned for the business. However, the development was withdrawn a few years ago, and a conservation group was looking into obtaining the property but couldn’t raise the $16 million needed to preserve it, so it fell through. Ginn has indicated plans to revive his hotel proposal.

2016’s comprehensive plan applied new commercial zoning to Eagles Island and established a riverfront mixed-use zoning, allowing for intense density.

However, the area consists of wetlands, which flood consistently, and some uplands — higher ground to build on. This has been a main concern of environmentalists and residents pushing back against development in the area. The Battleship North Carolina, located nearby, reported recently it has experienced roughly 1,000 flooding events in the last decade — a 6,200% increase since the 1940s. Tides rise in the area up to 4 or 5 feet, though the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has measured some 5-1/2 feet or higher.

Two years ago, New Hanover County commissioners began conversations on what they want the area from Eagles Island to Point Peter to look like. They instructed staff to conduct more research to achieve a balance among economic viability, conservation and development. An updated comprehensive plan — which helps inform regulation and rezoning decisions — is to be complete in 2025, but the west bank section has been fast-tracked, Roth told the planning board.

Her reasoning for leaving out residential and mixed-use was the burden it would put on the public. In the county’s “Western Bank Study Report” published last fall, staff found development was feasible from an engineering perspective, including mitigation of flooding and extended utilities, but the cost would be extensive. Roth told Port City Daily the study also noted affordable housing, a main concern for commissioners, should be avoided there. 

“Lower-income residents are less able to mitigate their own risk in higher hazard areas than populations with more resources,” she wrote in an email Friday. 

This includes higher insurance premiums and lack of resources to find a place to stay in flooding scenarios. The 2016 comprehensive plan does not specifically address flooding risk, Roth told the planning board, a concern that has bogarted conversations surrounding west bank development. 

As well, improper water and sewer and roads, and concerns of safety due to environmental issues, all could be a burden to taxpayers, due to maintenance costs. In addition to protecting natural resources in the area, which include fisheries and habitat, Roth told the board saltwater also can be more damaging to potential infrastructure and buildings.

County staff monitored flooding along roads in the area, including Point Harbor Road near the Thomas Rhodes Bridge where Battleship Point has been proposed. Staff captured photos of water rising, as presented to the board, but Roth was clear they were taken over a three-day period and not during high tide.

“If you look at verified high-tide data of the period from Aug. 1, 2023 through January 2024,” she explained, “you can see that over that time period, that measure was exceeded several times — 14 times based on my calculation of the data.”

Roth told the board the county is preparing for its own monitoring study. The equipment purchase of $57,500 has been included in the budget.

“Future years of the study would cost an estimated $24,000 annually,” Roth told PCD. “The data for this would not be real-time from my understanding and would have to be gathered and compiled, which would be UNCW’s role in the project.”

Tidal flooding along the wetlands are worse in the west bank areas than anywhere else in New Hanover County, Wrightsville and Carolina beaches included. The only way to counterbalance flooding on the roadways would be to elevate them. They’re owned by the North Carolina Department of Transportation, also involved in the last few years of research.

“And they have no plans to fix their flooded road problem?” chair Jeffrey Petroff asked Roth.

“That is my understanding,” she replied.

NDDOT spokesperson Lauren Haviland confirmed to PCD the roads flood occasionally “due to exceptionally high tides.” 

“These events typically do not last long and do not happen often,” she said. “NCDOT currently does not have plans to raise the grade of the roads.”

However, it will be implementing a $42-million right-of-way project, planned for construction in 2029, to help alleviate traffic around U.S. Highway 421. This would be the only road leading into potential development on the northern parcels of the west bank, according to Roth. 

A loop will be constructed south of the Isabel Holmes Bridge under the Thomas Roads Bridge for drivers making left turns onto U.S. 74 and U.S. 17/421 South. 

“The need for the project comes from heavy traffic volume at this intersection, which is expected to increase,” Haiviland said. 

Planning board chair Petroff was understanding of staff’s concerns regarding public impact to infrastructure. He thought proposed development in compromised areas could be a hindrance on emergency personnel who may be prevented from responding to calls over impassable roadways. However, Petroff also said if developers in the private sector want to construct in the area, they should burden the costs to rectify elevated roadways, build bridges, or install water and sewer needs. 

Petroff, who works for CLD Engineering, surmised the people in his industry would be in agreement. If engineering remediation was negotiated, he asked if concessions could be made to “outdate” what would be stipulated in the county’s plan.

“If you would like for us to draft something, where if a roadway were elevated and that was no longer a concern, then residential could be back on the table,” Roth said.

Board member Clark Hipp, of Hipp Architecture & Development, agreed the public — i.e. the county and its residents — should not carry costly infrastructure. He called it “problematic” and also was concerned for the public safety of west bank residents during hurricanes.

“I think it would be a disservice to promote putting residential in one of the most flood-prone areas in the county,” Hipp said. 

“We encourage that risk everyday with roads we have right now, Clark,” board member Pete Avery, of McKinley Building Corporation, replied. “People can build multi-million dollar houses and big buildings in flood zones … I don’t think that’s problematic. It’s not problematic to me — ‘cause that’s problematic countywide anyway.”

Any development on the nine to 11 parcels that were considered during staff’s research would also have to follow state and federal regulations. However, last fall the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality estimated about 2.5 million acres of wetlands lost protection in the state after two landmark rulings in 2023 removed federal and state jurisdiction of isolated wetlands. This includes thousands of acres in the Cape Fear. 

Roth said the estimated acreage they’re considering on the west bank is roughly 121, though two more parcels total 17.13 acres, located west of Thomas Rhodes Bridge and front the Cape Fear River.

“It sounds like we are talking about massive developments going on the western banks,” Avery said, “but we don’t have that much land to build on anyway; I just have a hard time saying we can’t have residential.”

Moore didn’t think any project would be marketable if the county limited the development to commercial use only. He also pointed out the comprehensive plan update is to provide economic benefit to the county and wanted to know what commercial uses were being assessed.

Roth said those details have yet to be fleshed out, but concepts could include warehousing, light industrial and marine-type needs.

“I’m trying to match up concepts with the real world,” said board member Kevin Hine of PBC Design + Build, “and none of this makes sense to me. I don’t see how we will have economic success. It means the land keeps looking like it is, which is not attractive.”

Petroff added more industrial uses is not what the board wants, also an issue echoed by commissioners in the past.

Currently, some of the sites need brownfield remediation — excavating hazardous materials — with other areas covered in litter, timber and brush. Moore intimated it’s the first line item of expenses for a developer to evaluate and can cost millions of dollars.

“It can make or break a project,” he said.

Pugh previously told Port City Daily that KFJ’s team has already removed 400 tons of trash in preparation for Battleship Point. He said last fall he is waiting on the county’s recommendations to lead the way on the project’s rescaling and has spent “mid-to-high six figures” already.

“A lot of money has to be thrown at this [property] and it has to come from a developer, who will only find it attractive if it’s mixed-use,” Hine reiterated at Thursday’s meeting.

Roth asked the board its thoughts on stand-alone residential versus mixed-use, to which Moore said single-family homes wouldn’t work. A condominium was mentioned; he conceded it may be feasible but only if commercial components surrounded it.

“It’s going to take a pioneer,” Vice Chair Colin Tarrant said of any developer who builds on the west bank. “Until that happens, it’s really hard for any of us to find how that’s going to fit together. Residential by itself is not the end-game.”

A property lawyer for Block, Crout, Keeter, Behm and Sayed, Tarrant suggested a “balance of ingredients” — most developers want a ground-floor commercial component to apartments and condos to make it lucrative.

Roth said there is unlimited residential density currently allowed with urban mixed use zoned along the west banks. Building height has been a prominent feature in the conversation as well, with emphasis on mirroring the east side of the downtown riverfront. Properties on Eagle’s Island are currently allowed up to 100 feet in height, with the northern west bank at Point Peter allowed 150 feet.

Downtown’s current riverwalk has some areas with buildings scaled 36 to 60 feet, while zoning in the riverfront mixed-use district allows 75 feet; variances can be requested of the planning board to exceed height requirements. Seventy-five feet is what staff is considering for Eagle’s Island and Point Peter, equaling roughly a five-story building. 

“The City of Wilmington height restrictions have a lot to do with the residential to the south, and as you move north, you’re allowed to go higher,” Hipp said. “I don’t think this side of the river has that type of gradation, so I don’t think mimicking height at the current riverfront is necessary.”

Roth said one idea was suggested during her research to have the Battleship be the highest point in the skyline; it’s capped at 120 feet, so she based suggestions around it. She also brought up incentives for more height if developers included structured parking or added resiliency features into their plans.

Two board members agreed design should be considered more than height bonuses. 

“From a construction standpoint,” Moore explained, “the higher you go, the more concrete and structuralization you’ll have to put at the base of it — and at some point it’s not worth the capital to put it there. So it caps itself and we won’t know until we get there.”

Moore suggested, instead, staff utilize a “form-based” element, something Hipp added will help mitigate the appearance of a building’s mass. Form-based zoning is a way to regulate the development but not the land, according to Roth. Urban mixed-use zoning includes it as an elective district that the property owner can request in a rezoning application.  

“The only place where it is currently applied is on land in downtown Wrightsboro,” Roth informed PCD.

“If we try too hard to dictate what potential developers can do on potential projects, we’re not going to be able to do it,” Tarrant said at Thursday’s meeting.

The planning board agreed for Roth to take a bit more time working through the updates, taking into account their feedback, rather than bring a public comment draft forward next month, as suggested at first.

Roth told PCD Friday: “Given their request to include residential in the mix of use for the area, as long as the developments were designed to be resilient to flooding hazards, the concept will be modified.”

A public hearing will be held once a draft is finalized to garner more feedback from the community-at-large.


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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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