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New Hanover County commissioners grants rezoning for affordable housing in Castle Hayne

The original concept plans for an affordable housing development at 3100 Blue Clay Rd, alongside county staff markups
New Hanover County
The original concept plans for an affordable housing development at 3100 Blue Clay Rd, alongside county staff markups

The planned development will bring 128 affordable apartments to northern New Hanover County. The project traveled a rocky road to approval, including being rejected by the planning board. Still, during the final vote, the project had significant support in the crowd.

At Monday’s meeting, New Hanover County commissioners approved a major affordable housing project in Castle Hayne.

The 128-apartment complex, located in the northern part of the county, was brought forward by Pastor Robert Campbell from New Beginning Christian Church. He is already building affordable housing for seniors nearby.

This rezoning, aimed at delivering workforce housing, was fraught from the very first community meeting. Neighbors from the nearby Rachel’s Place development protested the project, voicing concerns about crime, flooding, and impacts on the environment and the aesthetics of the area.

The applicant applied with certain conditions included, like an affordability period of at least 15 years with rental limits based upon HUD income limits of 80% AMI. In 2023, HUD set that limit at $50,550 for a single-person household, or $57,750 for a 2-person household: so households couldn't make more than that and qualify to live in the apartments.

The county’s Planning Board unanimously opposed the rezoning, although staff stated they were in favor of it. New Hanover County Commissioners voted 4-1 in favor, allowing the project to move forward.

Campbell has talked for months about the need for “political will” to resolve the affordable housing crisis. And he spoke just as strongly at the hearing.

“When I look at the 2016 Comprehensive Land Use Plan, you all have stated very clearly, right up front, you said workforce housing and economic development was one of your top priorities. You turned around again in your strategic plan in 2024 and said the same thing, that workforce housing and economic development, guess what: They go together. If you have a business and you don't have a place for your teachers to stay, your police officers to stay, then they end up staying in other counties while working here. You've said the right things, you now have a choice to do the right thing,” Campbell said.

Late in the hearing, Campbell asked all who support affordable housing in the community to stand up, and at least 30 in the room did. It was a dramatic shift from the planning board meeting, when the applicant alone spoke in favor.

At a public nearing at the New Hanover County Commission meeting on March 18, 2024, Pastor Robert Campbell asked all those in attendance who support affordable housing to stand, and this was the result.
At a public nearing at the New Hanover County Commission meeting on March 18, 2024, Pastor Robert Campbell asked all those in attendance who support affordable housing to stand, and this was the result.

“Those who do workforce housing and those who qualify, usually they don't come to this meeting. They are working, they can't afford to,” Campbell said.

But on Monday, supporters showed up in force. Seven people spoke in favor compared to six against (the county provided 15 minutes of public comment time for both sides). But dozens stood to show their preference for affordable housing, far outnumbering the opposition.

Tom Gale, the co-chair of the joint city-county Workforce Housing Advisory Committee, spoke in favor and said 53% of county renters are cost-burdened.

“The county should embrace the community partners that are working to help address this issue,” he said. “These 128 workforce housing units will support citizens in our community who otherwise can't afford to live in the same communities where they work. Thank you for your commitment to addressing this affordability crisis.”

Advocates like Gale do come to these hearings on occasion, but in this case, he was joined by average citizens, including members of Pastor Campbell’s congregation. It’s a somewhat rare phenomenon to get pro-development speakers in commission and council meetings, at least in Wilmington. But in places like Portland, Oregon, with a severe and long-lasting housing crisis, astrong YIMBY (Yes in My Backyard) movement has cropped up to support housing development, particularly affordable housing development. As housing prices drive renters and homebuyers alike to the brink in North Carolina, it’s possible for a well-organized YIMBY movement to develop in this state, as well.

Is the YIMBY movement coming to Wilmington?
For more on the YIMBY movement, listen to this newsroom conversation between News Director Ben Schachtman and Reporter Kelly Kenoyer.

None of the speakers at the Commissioner’s meeting identified as explicitly YIMBY, but members of Cape Fear Housing Coalition did show up to support it.

Additionally, John Hinnant, currently a Republican candidate for commissioner, spoke in favor, and pointed out that 28% of workers in New Hanover County commute from other counties.

“It is possible that if we can move those jobs to live closer to their work, it will ease congestion on our roads. So thank you very much. I encourage your support,” he said.

The opposition included several residents who have attended repeated meetings about the project to oppose it, including at the planning board.

Former City Council member Ron Sparks said he was concerned about traffic congestion from adding the apartments.

“I love my neighbors here at New Beginnings, it’s a great church, people, but they don't live in my neighborhood, or are going to have to deal with the traffic and the stormwater problems that come from a project like this,” he said.

Linda Shaw, who lives in nearby Rachel’s Place, spoke against the development. She pointed to existing drainage problems, and said she thought the schools and roads couldn’t support the increase in population.

“I'm not against growth, but the growth cannot have a negative impact on the current community. With all due respect to everyone that supports affordable housing, I do too. They don't live in my neighborhood. I do. And I've lived there for three years now. I do request that this committee denies this proposal to increase to 128,” she said.

While the planning board previously rejected the rezoning request unanimously, county staff say they recommend approval. Staff say the existing plans adequately manage any drainage problems, and that nearby drainage issues are unrelated to the site. The project size is small enough that a traffic impact study isn’t required, and the project is expected to add 13 students to nearby schools.

While the county commission can take staff recommendations and the planning board’s decision into account, it’s ultimately the commissioners who hold the final decision-making authority. They are not beholden to either staff or the planning board, but Commissioner Rob Zapple did ask Planning Board Member Clark Hipp to explain the board’s rationale. His stated concerns were largely related to scale and aesthetics.

“They are quite massive compared to the other houses, they tend to be inward-looking. They front the street. They don't really have a front yard along the street or any real, you know, separation from the street,” Hipp said. He did favorably compare the resubmittal to the original plan, which included only 3-story buildings and 180 units of housing.

Commissioner Bill Rivenbark responded to his remarks, “I think it's, at some point in time, if you're gonna build affordable housing, you’ve got to give up something.”

Commissioner LeAnn Pierce asked questions about the funding for the project, and whether it already has the Low Income Housing Tax Credit that would help keep it affordable while paying for construction. Campbell replied that it isn’t possible to apply for it without the zoning being in place.

She also echoed her concerns about the scale of the development, and told WHQR in a later interview that she voted against it because its scale doesn’t match the surrounding neighborhoods.

Democratic Commissioner Jonathan Barfield spoke very strongly in favor of the project.

“Even a county employee making $17 an hour will be hard pressed to afford an apartment or community if they're a single individual. Think about that for a moment.”

He even directly addressed one of the opponents, former Councilman Sparks. “When you look at the cost of housing in our community, it's gone up, up, and up. The first house that my wife and I bought in 1994, brand new construction was $80,000. Those numbers don't exist anymore. The neighborhood where you bought at Mr. Sparks, I think they were the $45K and $50,000 range when those homes were initially built. I just sold a house in your neighborhood in the $270K range.”

He spoke for five minutes, and received a round of applause when he finished with, “so I'm indeed in favor of this proposal.”

Barfield made the motion to approve the project, taking a moment to chastise the planning board and staff for previous comments.

“In my 15 years on this board, I've never had any board or commissioner or planning staff ask any developer where they're getting the money from? The question is off-limits. That question should have never been posed to begin with,” he said.

The project ultimately passed by a 4-1 vote, with only Commissioner LeAnn Pierce dissenting.

Campbell says his last LIHTC project took eight years to get funding and start construction, and he expects the process to take a minimum of three years for this newly rezoned project.

[Editorial note: Zapple is a member of the WHQR board of directors, which has no role in editorial decisions.]

Kelly Kenoyer is an Oregonian transplant on the East Coast. She attended University of Oregon’s School of Journalism as an undergraduate, and later received a Master’s in Journalism from University of Missouri- Columbia. Contact her on Twitter @Kelly_Kenoyer or by email: KKenoyer@whqr.org.