Polly Tait, a school counselor and a resident of Wayne Drive in Wilmington for 17 years, has been battling a redevelopment project that could add 128 housing units next to her home.
The project, put forth by Orange Capital Advisors, would redevelop The Carolinian Inn at 2916 Market St. into apartments and townhomes.
In Tait’s opinion, the number of units proposed is too much.
“I just don’t think a high-density development belongs in this little narrow strip,” she said.
Tait and fellow neighbors on Wayne Drive and 29th Street opposed to the development have made their objections known to city officials and are pursuing legal action. They’re organized to the point of wearing T-shirts that say, “Don’t be so dense, Zoning should make sense.”
Kitty Yerkes, a Wayne Drive resident, said, “Some increased density one would expect, and you can’t stop progress and the city has to grow. And we recognize that, but it’s how it grows.”
With growth can come opposition, and some business leaders say that opposition is increasing.
“There is absolutely more resistance to growth in our region, as it is across much of the U.S.,” said Tyler Newman, president and CEO of Business Alliance for a Sound Economy (BASE). “You can see it firsthand at most any local planning board meeting as projects and investments seeking approval run into the same headwinds. It’s the same NIMBY [Not In My Back Yard] talking points at every meeting: stormwater, traffic, ‘it’s a good project but not for this location.’ Infrequently is the discussion about supply/demand, market economics, the infrastructure the developer is designing and donating or where a growing business’s employees can live.”
In some recent cases, planning officials appointed by elected leaders have sided with residents. The Wilmington Planning Commission in September voted 4-2 in a recommendation not to approve the rezoning necessary for The Carolinian Inn redevelopment to advance. Elected leaders often take that advice.
In Wilmington in fiscal year 2021-22, the planning commission and Wilmington City Council were 100% consistent in their decisions, said city spokeswoman Jennifer Dandron.
“For clarification, we only evaluate approval/denial, we have not considered changes to the approved conditions,” Dandron explained.
During the past three fiscal years, the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners has only disagreed with the New Hanover County Planning Board five times out of the 57 development-related cases heard by both boards, according to statistics provided by the county.
The concerns of residents are considered in the decisions of planning officials, said Donna Girardot, chair of the county planning board.
“I can only speak for myself, but naturally I do observe my fellow board members and I would say that the opinions of residents have a large impact on planning board decisions,” Girardot said. “Is there more of an impact when an organized group turns out in opposition to a specific project or perhaps just one or a handful of people? I would answer that question by saying, ‘Yes’ and ‘Yes.’”
Girardot continued, “When a large group of people turn out in opposition to a project and when I hear solid arguments to support that opposition, that tells me that that project is not welcome in that location and that there is a good reason it is not compatible with its surroundings. Many times, however, when only one or a handful of people speak in opposition to a rezoning I will have an aha moment. I find myself thinking, ‘Interesting. I never thought of that’ or ‘That’s a good point that merits consideration.’”
She said in her experience, the people who come before the planning board to speak aren’t opposed to growth itself.
“I think the majority of people in New Hanover County know that growth is inevitable and is necessary if this region is going to stay dynamic and competitive to other areas. I think what people are asking for is smart growth,” Girardot said.
She said she thinks it’s important for residents to share their concerns. “And I always recommend to developers, whether the county’s ordinances require it or not, to engage with the surrounding community before bringing a project to us,” Girardot said. “Many times, they can assuage the concerns of the adjacent residents merely by answering questions and providing information. And many times, the residents who live in that neighborhood will have an idea or a solution that will enhance that particular project and make it better.
Developer Roy Carroll, who is based in Greensboro but is working on developing a $300 million mixed-use project on Military Cutoff Road in Wilmington, said that matches some of his experience.
“When you sit down with people in the community and you share with them that you’re going to do a quality development, most of the time they become comfortable with it,” he said.
Contradictions crop up in development discussions. “Communities talk about affordable housing but then turn down multifamily projects,” Newman said.
Planning officials also have to take the county’s long-range plan and the commissioners’ priorities into consideration when making a decision, she said.
“For instance, we have a very real shortage of affordable housing in our community as land and construction prices continue to climb. The commissioners have placed a priority on our ability to produce affordable housing to first-time homebuyers, some of our older citizens and those that are financially challenged. That in itself presents difficulties because sometimes the only way we can provide that is by creating more density, multifamily projects and by building higher. The cost of land and construction no longer supports single-story, single-family houses on large lots. And some older, established neighborhoods are opposed to being adjacent to multifamily projects. This is a challenge that we encounter on a regular basis.”
Rebekah Roth, planning and land use director for New Hanover County, said the planning department’s goal is to set expectations before development starts.
“I think it makes it a harder conversation when people are surprised because they just never, never thought that that was going to going to happen. … Change is always going to happen to some extent.”
It’s no secret that Wilmington will continue to grow for years to come, said Cameron Moore, executive officer of the Wilmington-Cape Fear Home Builders Association.
“In hindsight it may not be that residents are more or less resistant to growth; it’s that growth has now pushed out to new undeveloped areas of the region as we refine our cities and town boundaries,” he said. “Much of this is market driven as land supply and prices and constraints on financing all play a role in the viability of a project. This has created change for some, and it’s actually this change that we fear the most.”
In the case of The Carolinian, the developer’s proposal would be “vastly more attractive than what exists today. The newer construction would be in line with the community, combining existing looks with modern architecture,” said Nicholas Silivanch, partner in Eastern Carolinas Commercial Real Estate who is representing the owner of The Carolinian Inn in the potential sale to Orange Capital Advisors. Silivanch points to the motel’s past as what law enforcement has termed a nuisance, contributing to crime.
John Hinnant, another broker at ECCRE, added, “That site’s going to sell.” It’s rare, he said, to find 9 acres on Market Street that is effectively a corner property. “It’s going to eventually get developed.”