NEW HANOVER COUNTY — In Burgaw, when she was planning administrator, it was more likely that Rebekah Roth would encounter a resident hoping to make a change to their property than it was to meet an attorney or consultant attempting to shepherd through a large-scale rezoning request.
Roth, who was appointed as the New Hanover County planning and land use director last week, began working for New Hanover County in 2016 as a senior planner, including for multiple years under then-director Wayne Clark.
Having helmed the planning department on an interim basis since October, Roth will assume permanent control at a time when the county is keying in on ways to effectively guide development in its northern region.
Land in the City of Wilmington is nearly 95% developed, and the unincorporated land south of the city boundaries is not far behind. To the north, however, around 45% of the space is still undeveloped, according to county planning documents from June 2020.
Providing water and sewer access to the territory remains an obstacle to immediate wide-scale growth. As it stands, developers typically front the costs for water and sewer expansions in unincorporated areas, oftentimes leading to piecemeal infrastructure expansions.
As the remaining vacant land continues to dwindle, Roth said one of her priorities will be ensuring existing residents continue to have affordable housing options.
“As there is less land available, or land that has appropriate utilities in place is less available, and there’s growing demand, then your land costs are going to rise,” she said. “And how do we make sure that there’s housing that is affordable for our existing residents?”
Cameron Moore, executive officer of the Wilmington-Cape Fear Home Builders Association, said the drop in available land locally has been accompanied by a widespread rise in material costs, citing a 20% tariff on Canadian softwood lumber and pandemic-related issues.
“Land is scarce in New Hanover County,” he said. “That’s nothing new, and so we’re having to be smarter about our development projects, so we’re having more diversity in the housing options.”
Additional diversity often comes in the form of multi-family developments, sometimes with a commercial component.
“You’re also seeing more vertical construction, more density as well as height in projects, make sure that we use the land and properties that we have in a very efficient manner and to reduce the sprawling pattern as much as we possibly can,” he added.
Tyler Newman, president of Business Alliance for a Sound Economy, added that Wilmington and Jacksonville are merging closer together along the Highway 17 corridor.
“While the residential real estate market is hot right now, the balance is ensuring that business grows along with it,” he said. “We need to have a balanced regional economy that isn’t purely seasonal. The mix of continued business growth and infrastructure investment is really the key to our future.”
Suburban development has spread through northern New Hanover County, Roth said. County leaders hope to attract large-scale developments to the region in order to provide housing to the county’s growing workforce. Otherwise, development in Rocky Point or Hampstead could house New Hanover County commuters, who then wouldn’t be spending as much money locally within New Hanover.
“We are more suburban in unincorporated New Hanover County, so a lot of the trends that we see hit the City of Wilmington first,” she said.
Clark, the former planning director who now works in Florida, previously worked as a top Wilmington planning official during a time when annexations of outlying land into city jurisdiction was standard.
“As things kind of suburbanized on the fringes of the city of Wilmington, the city would then annex, and then come in and retrofit with urban services,” he said.
He added it led to occasions where infrastructure needed to be added to land after the fact, once structures already filled the area.
“We know that people are going to build out there,” he said. “So it’s better to assume that we need to do it better on the front end, rather than waiting on handling it on the back end.”
Involuntary annexation laws were reformed by the N.C. General Assembly in 2011 and 2012.
Roth said it will be years until the available land in the county is exhausted.
“All of the planners in the office, we have a staff with years of experience working with a lot of these players,” she said. “New Hanover County is the job center of the region, and so if we don’t allow more efficient development within our borders, we’re just going to continue pushing development up toward Hampstead, up to Rocky Point, to Leland.”
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