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Potential Urban Mixed Use Change Draws Some Opposition

By Cece Nunn, posted Jan 29, 2018
A proposed change to the city’s Land Development Code, which was approved by the Wilmington Planning Commission in a 4-1 vote Monday, has been drawing some opposition.

The change would allow a building within a property zoned Urban Mixed Use (UMX) to be built to a maximum height of 75 feet in lieu of a special use permit if the development is subject to an approved development agreement. 

The current maximum heights are 35-55 feet depending on location and under certain conditions.

Harper Peterson, former Wilmington mayor and a Democrat who announced his state senate campaign against incumbent Sen. Michael Lee (R-New Hanover) in September, said in a news release Sunday that he believes the amendment is “an unnecessary change, designed to circumvent the vital Special Use Permit (SUP) process, stifle public input and benefit developers, specifically the Carroll group behind the project known as ‘The Avenue.’”

First brought to city officials last year by Greensboro-based The Carroll Companies, the proposed The Avenue would be a mixed-use project anchored by a Westin hotel in the 300 block of Military Cutoff Road. The Carroll Companies withdrew its request last year for a rezoning to UMX of the property where The Avenue would be located, which currently has a mobile home park zoning designation.

Asked for an update on The Avenue on Monday, Roy Carroll, president and CEO of The Carroll Companies, wrote in an email, "We have been meeting with community members and various community groups to obtain input on our proposed project. We are currently evaluating our timeline to re-submit our application.  When we do so, we anticipate the same public hearings will be required as with any rezoning -- Planning Commission and City Council.”

Lee, who in addition to representing District 9 in the state Senate is also an attorney, is a legal representative for The Carroll Companies in its anticipated resubmittal of an application for the rezoning. 

Peterson said Monday that he doesn’t object to the project itself but does believe Military Cutoff isn’t the right place for The Avenue because of traffic issues in the corridor.

“I’m not targeting that particular project; it’s where it is and the negative impacts it would have and facilitating it to fruition through an alternative, weakened application process. That concerns me,” Peterson said. “You get a sense in this community that developers get what they want, and the city seems to be complying.”

Peterson said he puts a lot of faith in the SUP process.

“It requires facts in the presence of the public hearing. You have to provide facts, substantiated evidence, and it gives you the standard four findings of fact to address, and I think that’s helpful in sensitive proposals like this that have a history based on the [city] staff’s report that it’s going to increase traffic,” Peterson said.

Asked in an email whether The Avenue prompted the proposed amendment for UMX, the city's Assistant Planning Director Ron Satterfield answered, "The city is the applicant for the amendment. City management, in consultation with the city attorney’s office, determined that the amendment verses the special use permit process provided more flexibility for public input. Whereas public hearings for special use permits require Council action based on evidence presented during the public hearing with Council, public hearings for development agreements and text amendments allow for open discussion by anyone about whatever they wish to convey related to the topic."
 
As far as his opinion about the level of public input that would be allowed under the proposal, Satterfield wrote, "Public hearings for development agreements and text amendments allow citizens, stakeholders, developers, and others to have open discussion with Planning Commission members and City Council members and bring forth whatever they wish to convey about the topic or development. Public hearings for special use permits require City Council only to consider factual evidence, not opinions of others, when making a decision. Their decision is to be based on the evidence presented to them only during the public hearing."
 
Peterson said in the Sunday release, "Although this proposed amendment seems to be directly tied to a specific project, it has great implications for all future UMX development in the City as it opens the door for any developer to move into town and build taller buildings closer to homes, increase density, and impact traffic safety with less input from the public. While this is a great deal for developers and the attorneys that represent them, it is a bad deal for Wilmington."

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to reflect the Wilmington Planning Commission's vote.
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