A residents' group has asked the city to rezone a golf course in their neighborhood from a category that allows apartments to a lower-density designation, but how far the request goes remains to be seen.
"Rezoning a tract of land against the landowner's will is extremely rare in North Carolina," local attorney Hal Kitchin of McGuireWoods, who is not involved in the request, said in an email Wednesday.
Last week, the city received an application to rezone the Echo Farms golf course property, which involves about 140 acres at 4114 Echo Farms Blvd. off Carolina Beach Road, from multifamily residential medium density to R15 residential. The change would mean the difference between allowing 17 units per acre and being able to build only three single-family units per acre.
The application was not submitted by the property owners but by attorney Matt Nichols on behalf of the Echo Farms Residents Association Inc., signed by Ed Higgins as president of the association, Henry G. Winters and Iris L. Winters Revocable Living Trust, Samantha Nguyen and Beth Ann Hillman, according to a city news release.
Requests for a comment on the potential rezoning from a representative of the property owner, Matrix Development Group, were not immediately successful Wednesday. It's unclear what a potential redevelopment plan might be, as the owner and developer have not officially submitted site plans to the city.
But traffic impact analysis (TIA) conversations via email with city staff members have shown a potential neighborhood called The Woodlands at Echo Farms. According to the TIA documents, the redevelopment could have the potential to include a mix of housing types - single-family homes, townhomes and hundreds of apartment units.
The city is currently reviewing the request in an effort to determine any potential legal or financial impacts to the city.
"While there are several ways a property within the city can be rezoned, a request that is not submitted by the property owner is unusual," the release said.
Kitchin said state law "does not have a blanket prohibition which prevents cities or counties rezoning a property over the property owner's objection. Whether or not it is good policy is a separate question, but state law generally leaves that decision to each local government's own zoning rules.
"Unlike the zoning ordinances of many other local governments, which specifically limit the right to ask for a zoning map amendment (also known as a rezoning) to the planning staff or the landowner, Wilmington's Land Development Code allows any interested party to initiate a zoning map amendment. Although 'interested party' doesn't appear to be defined in the Code, I'd imagine that the neighbors take the position that they have standing to request a rezoning based on their view that they have a direct interest in how this land gets redeveloped."
Kitchin said the issue tends to arise more frequently in rural counties where local government officials are enacting zoning rules and districts for the first time.
"In those instances, there are often fights about what kind of zoning district will be applied to specific parcels of previously-unzoned land. But since most cities and counties in North Carolina already have zoning rules, these kinds of fights are also pretty rare," he said.
Because of the property's current by-right zoning, the city council would not be involved with a site plan review for a redevelopment at this point, the city's news release said.
Henry Winters, treasurer of the Echo Farms Residents Association, said Wednesday, "We really want to work with the city and the planning department on this matter. We’re not against development per se in the city, but we certainly want to protect our golf course."
Echo Farms residents have been working on ways to prevent the high-density development of the golf course for the past couple of months, forming the groups Echo Farms Preservation and Save Echo Farms to address the issue.
"This process [the rezoning request] gives us as the opportunity to ask the Planning Commission and City Council to rezone the course to align with the Comprehensive City Plan and city polices," says a post on the Echo Farms Preservation Facebook page. "As part of the process the Planning Commission will hold a public hearing about the rezoning request. Signs will be posted. Some 600+ of you will receive notices in the mail from the City about the meeting. After the Planning Commission holds its hearing and either recommends for or against the rezoning the matter will move to the City Council. Signs will again be posted. 600+ letters will again be sent ... and the full City Council will hear the matter."
One reason such requests might be rare is that they don't come cheap or easily, requiring in this case what the Echo Farms Preservation post described as a "Herculean" effort.
"In order to complete this [the application for the rezoning request] as economically as possible, 3 volunteers spent well over 40 hours preparing the required paperwork. Even with the volunteer labor the effort has been costly: the filing fee alone (charged by the acre) was $3200. Envelopes, postage, ink, etc. added nearly $900. And while the team of 3 did the bulk of the work, we still incurred legal expenses to make sure we got it right, bringing the total cost of this effort upwards of $10,000," the post says.
In the city release, Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo said, “The city wants to do everything we can to promote positive growth for our community. The Echo Farms property is an example of the struggles we face as our city continues to grow.
“The Echo Farms group requesting this rezoning clearly cares about our growing city and they are to be commended for that," the mayor said. "At the same time, we must continue to look overall at the rights of individual property owners and also look at any precedent that could be made depending of what types of decisions the city could make – not only on the Echo Farms property – but other potential properties."