Sunday, July 14, 2024

Battleship Point zoning application heads to Leland council with favorable recommendation

KFJ Development is proposing new residences, commercial space and a hotel on the west banks of the Cape Fear River. Leland planning board has recommended a new zoning district that would allow for such a project

Leland Planning Board is recommending council create a new riverfront zoning district. (Port City Daily/Alexandria Sands Williams)

LELAND — The Leland Planning Board and town staff are recommending council members sign off on a new riverfront zoning district that would effectively allow for a proposed mixed-use development on the western banks of the Cape Fear River. The vision for the 8-acres on Peter Point, known as Battleship Point, comprises three towers with 850 residences, a hotel and more.

The developers are seeking annexation into Leland to make the project happen after seeing little success getting New Hanover County on board with its plans. The planning board also recommended that the land is zoned to this new riverfront district if the town accepts the voluntary annexation.

Both recommendations were made in a split 4-3 vote. However, it is just that: a recommendation. The town council is not obligated to follow the advice and will have the final say in whether the new riverfront district is integrated into Leland’s books.

Tuesday night was the second time Leland’s planning board had weighed in on the matter. The application for the riverfront urban mixed-use district, or RUMXD, was brought forth to the board last month, but the members had a lot of questions about what it meant for the future of the town. Since then, the members have met in private, small groups — without a quorum, so it’s lawful to do so out of the public eye — to discuss the proposed zoning district in depth with town staff. Leland planning director Ben Andrea indicated the workshops were intended to find compromises that would push the zoning application forward.

Right now, the property slated for Battleship Point is in unincorporated New Hanover County, opposite downtown Wilmington. The surrounding land is mostly undeveloped, so this is potentially a transformational endeavor.

However, the land is also currently zoned heavy industrial — a fact the development team used to its advantage in arguments to the planning board. By right, that zoning allows anyone to build landfills, gas stations, car washes, self storage and airports in the area. With a special permit, it can do even more, from operating a sludge disposal to manufacturing explosives — “even more noxious uses,” Andrea called them. There is no height limit in the county’s heavy industrial district either.

In its arguments, Summit Design and Engineering Services showed a photoshopped image of piping and smoke towers through the site, implying that could be the land’s “fate” if their plans fall through.

Presentation by Summit Design and Engineering Services

“I think Leland has the opportunity here to control the vision for the west bank of the Cape Fear River‚ the opportunity to write the narrative for what the gateway to Leland looks like,” said real estate agent Kirk Pugh, a founding member of KFJ Development Group.

Pugh accused New Hanover County of ignoring the area until now. The developers have submitted a similar application for a riverfront-centric zoning district to the county. After its planning board recommended denial, the board of commissioners tabled the application. Before considering it again, the county is hosting a public work session next week to clarify its intentions for development of the west banks.

The stalled movement provoked KFJ Development Group to seek annexation of the land into Leland. Since the property is within 3 miles of town’s corporate limits, it is eligible for voluntary annexation.

There would be some economic benefit for Leland: Pugh said the construction alone would make a $212-plus million impact annually and could potentially create more than 1,200 jobs.

Some community members, and planning board member Stephen Whitney, asked to table the request until after New Hanover County’s Mar. 31 work session. Leland officials plan to tune into that meeting, but chairman Robert Penwell still didn’t believe it served a purpose for Leland to wait.

“It could put the Town of Leland in a bad light in terms of allowing something that … the existing community in which it resides has raised objections to,” Whitney said. “It’s like, shopping around and see who’s gonna approve it for you.”

The development team fought opposing comments and notions that they were “greedy developers” from out of town, when Lea and Pugh are long-time locals.

“The one thing that has bothered me the most of the last 42 years is driving over that bridge and looking at that site,” said attorney Jim Lea, the “J” in KFJ, of Lea/Schultz Law. “You’ve got to understand that people own that property up there, and they’re not selling it for cheap. They’re not going to sell it for you and put a park in there.”

They also disputed one of the most common arguments: The property will flood. The proposed area is in a special flood hazard area — the same hazard area as Sawmill Point Apartments, Wilmington Convention Center and Pier 33 across the Cape Fear River.

The Battleship Point project would need to abide by regulations in Leland’s flood damage prevention ordinance. It would also require a host of permits, from the N.C. Department of Transportation, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Cape Fear Public Utility Authority and N.C. Division of Coastal Management.

“It is absolutely permissible to build in a designated floodplain as long as we remain subject to regulations of local state and federal guidelines,” Pugh iterated.

The only change the planning board is recommending to KFJ Development’s application is the height. The applicant originally proposed structures could tower 300 feet — double that of Wilmington’s allowable waterfront height.

Opposed to the plans, member ​​Jason Gaver started out the planning board’s discussion by speaking of the Battleship as “one of the greatest sights” traveling toward Leland.

“To me, personally, this text amendment does not make sense given the totality of this situation,” Gaver said. “Furthermore, I believe approval would be the first domino on the path to disaster for the town of Leland and the Cape Fear region.”

The town’s planning staff created a demonstration, with gray blocks inserted into Google Earth images, to show what it would look like to have 300-foot-tall structures in that spot. The gray models were then shrunk to 250, 200, 150 and then 100 feet. Views were shown from the Thomas Rhodes Bridge and across the river, all the way to Dram Tree Park.

Planning board member Debbie Willis was adamant about keeping any structure below the 151-foot height of the Battleship. She studied other riverfront districts’ maximum height allowances, finding most were under 100 feet. (A motion made by Willis later to recommend denial was defeated.)

There was some discussion about implementing a condition for developers to incorporate a certain number of affordable housing units in exchange for building taller — similar to incentives Wilmington has adopted. But nothing came to fruition.

Going around the dais, a majority of other planning board members were agreeable to 240 feet, pointing out the Battleship was further from the property in question than perceived. That’s the same height KFJ Development has envisioned since it went public with its plans, even though it had applied for up to 300 feet.

“From a development standpoint, you do have to understand that what we’re proposing over there is an extremely costly product to build,” Pugh said. “There becomes a tipping point at which it doesn’t make sense anymore … The density is very important to us to be able to get the number of units in there.”

It appeared some members of the planning board did want to see development as opposed to what it is now.

Warren Hodges made the motion to recommend approval of the text amendment application, with a cap on the height at 240 rather than 300 feet. The motion carried 4-3.

The final item on the agenda was the initial zoning recommendation for voluntary annexation of 1100 Point Harbor Dr., the address of the proposed project. Willis briefly suggested it should be zoned instead as the conservation district — Leland’s zoning intended to preserve natural spaces — but that wasn’t seriously considered. A motion to recommend zoning it as the riverfront district, should annexation go through, passed 4-3.

Leland Town Council meets Apr. 14, during which council will consider the new zoning district and hold a public hearing for the voluntary annexation.

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Alexandria Sands
Alexandria Sands
Alexandria Sands is a journalist covering New Hanover County and education. Before Port City Daily, she reported for the award-winning State Port Pilot in Southport. She graduated from UNC Charlotte and wrote for several Charlotte publications while there. When not writing, Williams is most likely in the gym, reading or spending time with her Golden Pyrenees. Reach her at or on Twitter @alexsands_

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