A Closer Look At Riverfront Development

By Cece Nunn, posted Aug 18, 2022
New Hanover County's staff provided examples of "Urban Scale Mixed-Use" projects as a possibility for the west bank of the Cape Fear River, including (at right) current proposals by developers. (Illustration courtesy of New Hanover County)
New Hanover County's staff likely will recommend denying a request from would-be developers of riverfront property, the county manager said Thursday, as officials continue to study the future of the Cape Fear River's west bank.

Wilmington-based KFJ Development Group has been looking at building condos, apartments, a hotel and other commercial space on 8 acres on Point Peter, land that extends into the Cape Fear and Northeast Cape Fear rivers across from downtown Wilmington. 

At the end of the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners' west bank work session Thursday afternoon, County Manager Chris Coudriet advised "bringing closure" to a request from KFJ related to the Point Peter proposal. KFJ had been seeking a riverfront urban mixed-use zoning to be able to move forward with the development they dubbed Battleship Point, but commissioners previously held off on making a decision. 

Coudriet brought up the request Thursday afternoon after commissioners asked the county's staff to pursue technical studies of the west bank land within New Hanover's jurisdiction, about 70 acres. Members of the board said they wanted more technical details, including how much flooding will impact the property in the future, along with emergency services and infrastructure the county could be expected to provide to potentially problematic developments.

Referring to the Point Peter request, Coudriet said to the commissioners, "I don't think you're in a position of wanting to make a decision before the technical analysis about approval or otherwise, but I would like some direction from the board, if I could work with Rebekah [Roth, the county's planning and land use director] to bring that item back to you, likely with a recommendation to deny, so that we can clean that up ... and focus on the technical review and putting you in a position to make longer-term decisions about policy."

Kirk Pugh of KFJ Development attended the work session, and asked Thursday evening about his reaction to Coudriet's statement, Pugh said in a text that he did not have a comment "right now."

Although KFJ withdrew its request to be annexed by the town of Leland as a means of moving Battleship Point forward, the Leland annexation remains a possibility, county officials explained when Commissioner Rob Zapple asked about that prospect.

The Point Peter project wasn't the only potential west bank development on the minds of officials Thursday during the discussion. A hotel and spa proposed on Eagles Island south of the Battleship North Carolina is also factoring into the equation as county officials take a look at potential policy change.

Unlike Battleship Point, the hotel and spa proposal does not require new zoning.

During the discussion Thursday, Roth emphasized to commissioners that there are limits to what local governments can do when it comes to property rights despite, for example, predictions about what could happen with flooding on the property.

"The way that zoning and development regulations are currently geared, we can't really say you cannot use your property for any reasonable means because there are models showing this," Roth said.

Regardless, commissioners said technical studies might help them, and potentially state and federal regulators, get a clearer picture.

Commissioner Jonathan Barfield drew a parallel to the industry he works in.

"As a Realtor, you can have your seller-client do a home inspection beforehand to determine what's there. ... I would rather know, on the front end, what we're getting into," Barfield said. "I think that would probably inform our decisions down the road on what we would or would not approve and give us some scope as opposed to throwing darts in the dark."

One of those decisions could be, in some way, to participate in the conservation of the Eagles Island land where the hotel and spa project is proposed. 

In July, a Chapel Hill-based nonprofit organization announced that it had entered into a tentative purchase agreement with the owner of the hotel and spa project site and more on Eagles Island. 

Owner Diamondback Development entered into a purchase contract with Unique Places to Save regarding 83 acres south of the battleship in both Brunswick and New Hanover counties. Aiming to potentially create a park, the nonprofit group would need to secure $16 million to close the deal, $12 million of which could come from a state grant.

Not including the Brunswick County potion of the Eagles Island property, the total acreage of all of the western bank land in New Hanover's jurisdiction has an assessed tax value of $16 million, according to Roth's calculations, Roth said after the discussion Thursday. Some of that land includes areas that may be marsh or submerged, she said.

"While much of this area has been undeveloped in recent decades, the buildable areas aren't pristine, natural areas, pristine, natural habitat," Roth told commissioners. "These are currently or formerly industrial sites with known or likely contamination and brownfields concerns."

Roth presented detailed profiles to commissioners of potential west bank land uses: 
  • Conservation –preservation/restoration of the land in a natural state
  • Limited Use – restriction of high-impact activities
  • Working Waterfront –continuation of existing waterfront businesses and similar operations
  • Small Scale Mixed-Use – a mix of nonresidential and residential uses at low to moderate height and density
  • Urban Scale Mixed-Use –a mix of nonresidential and residential uses at moderate to high height and density.

Roth noted that single-family homes as a development type "was taken off the table and wasn't really considered as single-family homeowners are the ones who will be most individually vulnerable to some of the flood risks that we've described. The required investment even for that level of development would be hard to offset in terms of the actual value that would be provided by those homes. Environmental regulations aren't really designed to work for individual single-family lots."
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