Real Estate - Commercial

Battleship Point Team Launches Fact-check Campaign, Narrowly Nears Final Vote

By Johanna F. Still, posted Mar 23, 2022
Battleship Point is a proposed mixed-use development on the west bank of the Cape Fear River. (Photo courtesy of KFJ Development Group)

The controversial Battleship Point development proposed on the west bank of the Cape Fear River across from downtown Wilmington is one step closer to obtaining a key regulatory land-use approval. 

Tuesday, the Leland Planning Board approved a text amendment to create a new Riverfront Urban Mixed-Use District (RUMXD), drafted specifically for the project. Board members approved the amendment 4-3, amending the proposal as presented to allow a maximum height of 240 feet instead of the 300 feet presented. They also approved 4-3 an initial zoning recommendation for the property – which is pending voluntary annexation into town limits – from its current New Hanover County permitted land-use of heavy industrial to the proposed new RUMXD. 

Leland planning staff also recommended approval on both items. Next, Leland Town Council holds the power to create the zoning district, approve the annexation request and zone the 8-acre property RUMXD, allowing the project to be developed in accordance with its proposed plans by right. Other site-related regulatory approvals would still be required.

As planned, the project calls for three structures with multiple stories containing 550 condos, 300 apartments, a luxury hotel and commercial space. Developers said they were willing to make concessions on the reduction in height so long as the math still works out so their ambitious and costly project would remain profitable. 

Council is slated to make its much-anticipated decision April 14. Before then, officials across the river will convene in a March 31 work session to discuss the future land use of the entire west bank of the Cape Fear River within New Hanover County boundaries. While the session was prompted by Battleship Point, the meeting will focus on land uses along the greater western riverbank area within the county's jurisdiction. No action is anticipated to occur at this session, according to a county spokesperson. 

KFJ Development Group, the team behind the project, sought annexation in Leland after hitting a roadblock in New Hanover County; commissioners tabled the request in early January and have not since revisited the topic.

Leland officials have many considerations – some political – to weigh ahead of their decision. As planned, the structure would be the tallest building in the region (PPD holds that claim now at 193 feet). Should Leland permit the development, it would significantly alter Wilmington's riverfront viewshed. 

Last month, following reporting from Port City Daily revealing past misdeeds of one of the group’s founding partners (the “F” in KFJ, Frank Pasquale), the team replaced him with Jacqueline B. Amato. Wilmington attorney Jim Lea is another partner in the project, and Tuesday, he pleaded with those in the planning board audience to recognize they are not “out-of-town developers.” 

“We are local people,” he said. “We're not greedy developers, we raised our family here. We raised our children here.”

Lea added the blighted low-lying property at Point Peter – which has long been home to various marine debris – had been ignored by New Hanover County for decades. “It's embarrassing. It's a disgrace. And it's been 40 years,” he said. 

Monday, the Battleship Point team launched a social media campaign, running targeted ads aiming to fact-check certain notions about the project that have swirled in the public sphere.  Opposition to the project arose quickly after plans were first revealed in the fall, chiefly citing environmental, flooding and cultural resource concerns. 

Kirk Pugh of KBT Realty (a co-founder of KFJ Development Group) described the opposition as a “vocal minority.” 

“We stayed silent for six months now,” he said, addressing why the team initiated the campaign. “And we just felt like there was a lot of misinformation out there.”

The ads address what the team describes as misconceptions: The idea “only wealthy people” can afford to live at Battleship Point is addressed by stating the 300 rental units will be priced in line with current market rates; services “will cost the residents of Leland” is slashed out in favor of a point that the new residents would pay Leland taxes and would generate new revenues for the town; reference to a bulkhead destroying habitats is addressed by making clear the project’s plans won’t add any new hardened shorelines. 

Each ad links to a form that invites feedback and asks whether supporters are willing to speak out in favor of the project at the group’s upcoming Leland approval meeting next month. Pugh said they are aiming to be armed with “documentable support” heading into the meeting, to prove his belief that far more folks support the project than oppose it. 

(At Tuesday’s planning board meeting, all public speakers addressing the project spoke against it: “This is one of the worst places to construct a massive high-density structure,” said UNCW geologist Roger Shew; "It’s hazardous and stupid to build on a river’s edge, especially considering rising sea levels, tidal and storm surges, more flooding and the destruction to our fragile ecosystem,” said Leland resident Elaine Warren.)

“We know a lot of people are busy and it is not the natural inclination of people to want to interrupt their daily lives to go to a planning board meeting,” Pugh said, adding Tuesday's meeting lasted four hours. “We feel like the opposition has some valid science and some valid concerns – concerns that we've agreed with,” he said. “We don't feel like we're being heard.”

New Hanover County won't lose anything financially, should plans progress in Leland, Pugh said. "They don't lose a penny," he said. Under Leland's jurisdiction, the property would also be subject to New Hanover County taxes (even though all of Leland's current corporate limits fall in neighboring Brunswick County), Pugh said. Leland is looking to gain about $2.5 million in added annual tax revenue if the project is built and New Hanover County could gain roughly $5.5 million (the difference due to differing tax rates), according to Pugh. 

KFJ Development Group is under contract to purchase the parcel from DBDL LLC, which was listed for $3.9 million. The pending purchase is not contingent on regulatory approvals, according to Pugh, and will close late April.

Pugh's team has removed roughly 400 tons of debris and trash at the site at its own cost and has committed millions to the project already, he said.

Asked whether the team could still back out of the deal if it doesn’t secure an approval from Leland, Pugh said “we could, but that’s absolutely not our desire. Our desire is to move forward close on the property and see this to fruition.” 

Correction: This article has been corrected to state the upcoming March 31 work session will comprise New Hanover County commissioners and planning staff. It will not also include planning board members, as initially reported. 

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