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Chief Planner Shares Development Update

By Cece Nunn, posted Aug 19, 2022
Photo C/O NHC
Rebekah Roth has a front-seat view when it comes to development unfolding now – and coming soon – in New Hanover County.
 
Roth became the county’s planning and land use director last year, having served as interim director since October 2020. Prior to that, she was senior planner for the county for four years.

Roth recently answered questions about what she’s observed in her leadership role as New Hanover continues to grow.
 
GWBJ: Have you seen any preliminary signs (inquiries before submitting applications, for example) of development slowing down because of the economy? 
 
Roth: “For the past few months, we have received fewer applications for rezonings, but the number of cases submitted for technical review are still strong. We are still being contacted regularly for pre-development conversations and inquiries, and rezoning community meetings have been held that haven’t resulted in applications at this time.”
 
GWBJ: What is the latest update on addressing the infrastructure needs in unincorporated areas?
 
Roth: “New Hanover County is continuing to work with CFPUA [Cape Fear Public Utility Authority] on preparing for the extension of infrastructure to the northern parts of the county. In 2020, a preliminary engineering report outlining the system needs in that area of the county was developed, and since then the two organizations have been working together to identify funding options for the project. Design funds for the northeastern infrastructure were included in this year’s county budget.”
 
GWBJ: What is the single biggest challenge facing New Hanover County Planning daily? Long term?
 
Roth: “Both the biggest daily and long-term challenges facing New Hanover County Planning are related, unsurprisingly, to growth and the increasing complexity of developing in our area.
 
“The biggest daily challenge facing New Hanover County Planning is the different levels of understanding that community stakeholders have about the planning and development framework in our area. People have moved to this area from many different communities, with diverse regulatory authorities, procedures and development challenges. Residents, new and old, also aren’t necessarily familiar with past and ongoing community conversations around different development projects and plans and are caught off-guard when projects move forward. This complicates our planning conversations, as we often have to educate a new group of stakeholders for every project.  
 
“We also work regularly with property or business owners unfamiliar with our development procedures, or the development process in general, so more education is required in order to provide the service they need as a nondeveloper who is suddenly an applicant, especially if they are unable to hire a land planner to assist them with the process. Even experienced developers who generally work in other jurisdictions, applicants we’re seeing more and more of, have a learning curve when it comes to our standards and our processes.
 
“Long-term the biggest issue that New Hanover County Planning faces is that our current planning and development framework was not designed to support the demands of a growing area, especially one on the coast. Funding is limited for infrastructure improvements, and there are limits to what developers can be responsible for, both from a regulatory perspective and from what they can afford to pay. This is intensified because of the high cost to go through the process to just ask for the needed zoning or special use permit, as the upfront engineering and design work necessary to apply is expensive and time-consuming.  
 
“This impacts housing costs, the livelihoods of many of our citizens and the availability of services. And it’s not as easy as just removing regulations to reduce barriers – they are often in place purposefully based on the concerns our boards, citizens, and stakeholders have about new development’s impact on infrastructure, environmental resources and community livability. So we at the county are persistently working to gather more and better data to support decision-makers, to identify new tools that fall within the authorities granted by the state that can alleviate citizens’ concerns and support high-quality development, and are working with our partners to make the necessary infrastructure improvements by leveraging funding.”
 
GWBJ: During a recent Wilmington-Cape Fear Home Builders Association event, you mentioned a slowdown in apartment developments in the city. Do you expect apartment development to pick back up in the county?
 
Roth: “The number of new multifamily units permitted within the city in 2021 was quite a bit lower than in previous years.  We did see an increase in multifamily in unincorporated New Hanover County last year, but it is not clear at this point whether this trend will continue.  Theoretically, multi-family projects are possible through much of the county’s planning jurisdiction, but in order to get to the type of residential density required for a multifamily project to make financial sense, a rezoning is often necessary.  These requests are still being made, and there are projects already approved that have not been constructed yet, so new units are likely to occur over the next few years.  Our current permissions do reduce the pace and likelihood of seeing a large pick up, though, because requests for higher density trigger public concerns regarding traffic and other impacts.   
 
GWBJ: What kinds of uses are you seeing in terms of commercial development plans you’ve seen picking back up? 
 
Roth: “We have seen an uptick in commercial development this past year – we have received more commercial submittals for technical review so far this year than we did for all of 2021.  Primarily, what we’re seeing are light industrial uses this year, such as warehouses, flex space and equipment yards, though larger projects like the ILM Crowne Plaza Hotel have been submitted and the gas station/car wash/self-storage submittals have continued.”
 
GWBJ: Any other trends you’re seeing in development?

Roth: “We are seeing a growing interest and demand in what is generally considered ‘missing middle housing’– townhouses, accessory dwelling units and so on – as housing affordability becomes more of a concern and development costs continue to rise (I’ve heard that it’s taking around $500,000 per lot for single family projects these days).  This is not necessarily a new trend, but project conversations are shifting more in the attached unit/townhouse direction and we have received a text amendment application to allow accessory dwelling units in all the county’s residential districts, so the force of the trend seems to be increasing.”
 
GWBJ: What’s your take on proposals submitted so far for projects using new affordable housing funds allocated by county officials? What’s your expectation on how much can be accomplished in one year?
 
Roth: “The deadline for proposals for our first cycle of funding closed on Monday [Aug. 8], and we’re in the process of reviewing those, so I can’t really provide a take at this point. We know how much the county has generally provided per unit to support affordable housing projects in the past – about $15,000 – so we’re setting that as our initial baseline.  We know that growing construction costs may have increased the financial support needed to make numbers work, but we also have the opportunity to compare projects side-by-side with this program, which may impact the number of units we’re able to fund.  We’ll have more information on the status of the program in early September.”
 
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