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Business Community Keeps Eye On Echo Farms Dispute

By Cece Nunn, posted Jan 19, 2017
A usually low-key panel, the city of Wilmington's Subdivision Review Board saw a crowd show up Wednesday as it considered a preliminary plan to redevelop the Echo Farms golf course. (Photo by Cece Nunn)
Could the feud between developers and residents over replacing a golf course with housing have consequences for future projects?
 
Some members of the Wilmington business community fear that it might.
 
A Subdivision Review Board meeting Wednesday, where the board voted to approve the preliminary plan to redevelop much of the Echo Farms golf course, changed from a session on reviewing the technical merits of the proposed Woodlands at Echo Farms into a lengthy public comment session.
 
“We haven't seen third parties try to insert themselves into the process until now. And unfortunately, I think as we grow and as we're trying to put more complicated projects in smaller spaces, we're going to have more conflicts instead of less,” said Tyler Newman, president and CEO of Business Alliance for a Sound Economy, a business advocacy group.

Newman attended the SRB meeting Wednesday afternoon, where he explained his general concerns to the panel. On Thursday, he said, “It's concerning that folks would try to weaponize the public participation process to have hostile rezonings of land that isn't theirs.”
 
By “hostile rezonings,” he was referring to a rezoning request made by residents of Echo Farms, who have also sued in New Hanover County Superior Court to try to halt the redevelopment of the golf course. Residents say they see the rezoning request, lawsuit and other attempts to halt the redevelopment not as hostile measures but as a way to preserve the character of their community.
 
They say the application from Matrix Development Group is incomplete, and previous restrictive covenants should be taken into account, assertions with which the developer disagrees.
 
In his comments Wednesday, an attorney for the Echo Farms Residents Association cited a portion of the city’s Comprehensive Plan that states, “Quality design and site planning should be promoted so that new development, infill and redevelopment is implemented with minimal adverse impacts on desired character of the existing built environment.”
 
The attorney, F. Murphy Averitt III of Marshal, Williams & Gorham, told the board, “It’s a community built around the golf course and centered around the golf course.”
 
Matrix officials say the golf course loses money. The company's preliminary plan for large portions of the golf course approved by the SRB on Wednesday, on a little more than 100 acres of the property off Independence Boulevard, includes 58 single-family lots, 216 apartments and 31 townhomes.
 
“The developer at this point in time is planning multifamily with massive impact on the golf course property,” Averitt said. “It will destroy the character of the Echo Farms development.”
 
An attorney for Matrix, Samuel Franck of Ward and Smith, argued that while the development partnership understands the residents’ concerns, they weren’t relevant to Wednesday’s meeting.
 
“We still welcome the opportunity to have that dialogue with the neighbors, solicit their comment and take their comments into account. This is not the right forum for that conversation,” Franck said toward the end of the session.

Along with the prelminary approval came the estabilshiment of vested rights for the plan, a topic Franck also addressed before Wednesday's vote. The establishment of vested rights means the residents' rezoning request, to change the property's muiltifamily designation to a lower-density category, could be useless.

“Vested rights have a rather torrid history in the common law in North Carolina. It’s been an ambiguous and gray area for some time,” he told the Subdivision Review Board on Wednesday. “Thankfully over the last 10 years, both the state legislature and the city’s Land Development code have started to address that in a way that makes vested rights a far more certain process.

“Our request for vested rights in connection with this preliminary subdivision plan is nothing unusual; in fact, that’s exactly what’s contemplated under your land development code.”

Matrix CEO Joe Taylor said Thursday that the SRB’s preliminary plan vote doesn’t mean construction can begin any time soon. Complete construction drawings still need to be approved by the city’s Technical Review Committee, and other permits issued.

“We have a long ways to go here,” he said.

Taylor said Matrix will continue to work with residents.

“We believe that as the plan evolves through design, it’s going to be an attractive plan that’s well thought-through and sensitive to the neighbors,” he said.

Regarding the SRB decision, Taylor said, "The city has procedures; they’re acting within those procedures. We applaud them for that, but it is doing what they’re supposed to be doing."

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