Wednesday, July 24, 2024

City staff recommends withdrawal of legacy district amendment proposal

Wilmington’s planning and land use staff is recommending to withdraw a contentious amendment proposal ahead of the August city council meeting. It comes in response to concerns raised by residents at a recent community meeting. (Courtesy Shea Carver)

WILMINGTON — Wilmington’s planning and land use staff is recommending to withdraw a contentious amendment proposal ahead of the August city council meeting. It comes in response to concerns raised by residents at a recent community meeting.

READ MORE: Autumn Hall residents push back on proposed amendment at community meeting with staff and developer

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Wilmington City Council held a public hearing for a staff-recommended proposal to amend the city’s land code in May but unanimously voted to delay it amid concerns from residents. Many were from neighborhoods surrounding the Autumn Hall area on Eastwood Road, and had bombarded the city leaders’ email inbox against the move and pushed back at the hearing due to long-term ramifications on flooding and environmental preservation. 

The amendment would have allowed legacy districts — zoning districts no longer used by the city — to use “density bonuses” in watershed resource protection or conservation areas. 

The bonus areas utilize a points-based system to increase density in exchange for environmentally friendly designs. Staff emphasized the amendment would maintain limitations for impervious coverage, which they argued is the driving factor causing increased runoff.

In a June 4 email to city council, Headwater Cove Lane resident Patsy Holiday sent numerous pictures of flooding at homes neighboring Autumn Hall and urged the elected officials to vote against the amendment.

“You may think some of the pictures are redundant, but they are not,” she wrote. “They are from various hurricanes, tropical storms, and nor’easters that have hit our community at different times.”

The city hosted a community meeting with staff and Autumn Hall developer Mike Brown at the end of last month to clarify residents’ concerns about the impact of the amendment. The area is zoned as a mixed-use legacy district and is anticipated to expand in commercial and residential development.

Port City Daily received an email sent to community members on Saturday, July 6, from city associate planner Brian Chambers: 

“We hope that everyone had a great 4th of July. City staff would like to thank everyone for taking part in the community meeting held on June 27th to discuss the proposed legacy district amendment. The public hearing for this item will be scheduled for City Council’s second meeting in August (Aug. 20th, 6:30pm, City Hall, 102 N. 3rd Street). Staff will be recommending that this item be withdrawn from consideration.”

Port City Daily asked the city why it had a change of heart to remove the amendment.

“Based in part on the comments and public input received at the community meeting,” city spokesperson Jerod Patterson told Port City Daily Tuesday.

Patterson noted city staff often introduces land code amendments to provide better clarity and consistency, but they generally do not draw significant public attention.

“In this instance, the proposed amendment generated greater public interest than is typically seen on staff generated amendments, including questions that intersect with broader issues like stormwater management,” he said. “For this reason, any future effort related to this part of the code would warrant a broader process.”

Several residents near Autumn Hall — a 236-acre mixed use development on Eastwood Road — brought up at the community meeting the rising costs of flood insurance and the need for impact studies to determine the effect of development in watershed and conservation areas on flood-risk and property values.

The discussion ultimately led staff to change their mind about the proposal.

Autumn Hall development manager Mike Brown — senior vice president at Cape Fear Commercial and partner at its affiliate firm Cape Fear Development — was present at the community meeting to answer residents’ questions. Several residents near Autumn Hall said they originally became aware of the proposed amendment after receiving a letter from the developer regarding a separate request involving the city’s land code.

Cape Fear Development submitted to the city a variance request on April 3 for a 29-acre section of the property where it intends to build multi-family dwelling units, but withdrew it amid consideration of the proposed amendment. While city planning officials and Brown have maintained the proposed amendment was staff-generated, several residents raised questions about a potential connection between the two items.

Councilmember David Joyner attended the community meeting. After a resident asked him about the relationship between the amendment and the withdrawn variance request, he said the question was a core reason he originally pushed to hold a community meeting.

“There’s a perception because of a potential project that may have been on the table or may have not been on the table that these are going hand-in-hand and affecting each other,” Joyner said. “I said the first thing we need to do is figure out why that perception exists.”

Brown told PCD last week CFD was unaware of the proposed amendment until after it had been approved at the April 3 planning board meeting. He said CFD did not provide any input or participate in drafting the amendment.

“I learned later that staff was creating a text amendment to the same area of the code, so we actually postponed the board of adjustment clarification to figure out what they were working on,” Brown said at the community meeting in response to a question about the withdrawn variance.

The variance application stated a significant portion of the parcel is subject to out-of-date watershed and conservation classifications. CFD also emphasized the obstacles presented by Autumn Hall’s zoning as a legacy district, as the current land use fails to include density guidelines and bonuses for areas subject to the outdated code.

“This disparity between the old and new regulatory frameworks underscores the impracticality and unfairness of applying old standards to the current project,” CFD stated.

PCD asked Brown if his firm would resubmit the variance request now that staff is recommending the amendment’s withdrawal but did not receive a response by press.

However, Brown wrote in an email to PCD on Monday the 29-acre area in question would remain under 25% impervious surface limits. He said he did not believe Autumn Hall had contributed to increased runoff or the degradation of nearby watersheds, stating the development’s ponds have the capacity to retain millions of gallons of stormwater. 

“From an environmental protection standpoint, the impervious area ‘density’ does not change,” he said. “The number of residential units, which might sit on that same impervious area has no bearing on the resource being protected.”

Brown also said he believed only a few of the residents at the community meeting lived in Autumn Hall. He argued most communities surrounding Autumn Hall do not have stormwater collection, retention, and treatment measures, which drain directly into the watershed without mitigation. 

“If the surrounding residents are experiencing flooding and water quality issues and if they are concerned about the Bradley Creek watershed, I would suggest that they pursue installing stormwater treatment within their neighborhoods and work with the city to achieve this goal,” he said. “It would create meaningful improvements and greatly alleviate their flooding concerns.”

UNCW geologist Roger Shew said higher density development in environmentally sensitive areas can cause increased runoff even if impervious coverage does not increase. He noted Autumn Hall is adjacent to Bradley Creek and Clear Run Creek and argued removing any natural area that stores water would increase flood-risk.

“This is a classic compound flood zone that requires special consideration,” he said. “These areas have flooded in the past and the community has documentation of these occurrences.”

Shew noted his arguments align with a 2023 study that advocated the use of broader buffer zones and open space in sensitive environmental areas.


Tips or comments? Email journalist Peter Castagno at peter@localdailymedia.com.

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