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Wilmington City Council Closes Development Loophole

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On Tuesday night, Wilmington's City Council tackled an amendment to the land development code. The issue prompted a lengthy debate over how to keep new projects in line with the city's vision, as well as what regulations would be too onerous for developers. 

Rachel Keith: Rachel Keith here with WHQR's managing editor, Ben Schachtman. Ben, last night the Wilmington city council met and it opened with a presentation from NHRMC's Dr. Philip Brown, and he gave an update on the coronavirus, and he thinks that infection rates will continue to increase well into the early part of next year. But one of their agenda items in particular that got the most debate was a vote on an amendment to the land development code.Could you tell us about this amendment?

Ben Schachtman: Basically, this amendment is about closing a number of loopholes to a particular zoning district. Now, without getting in too deep into the weeds, what this is basically about is the city's philosophy on how they want the development to look. And one of the key principles is what's called mixed use. So that's where you have shops, restaurants, stores, and residential units, whether it's apartments or homes, all in the same area. This does things like cut down on traffic, and creates what the city calls nodes or basically little neighborhoods.

But you can't just tell a developer what to do, you have to incentivize them. So one of the major carrots, if you will, that the city offers to developers is increased density. So the denser project is, the more units per square foot, the more profitable it ultimately is. And this part of the land development code gives developers much more density if they build in some commercial use. So you have, you know, maybe the second through fifth floor of a building would have apartments, and the bottom floor would have a pizza place or a coffee shop. The problem is, the way the land code is written, it kind of has like an a la carte menu of exemptions, of ways you can get around or reduce how much commercial use you have to actually have to put in. And when city staff reviewed this, they found eight major developments that had 1-5% of the land use as actually commercial instead of you know, 20%, which is what the city was looking for. And this amendment would kind of prevent developers from fitting through all those loopholes.

RK: Where did council members ultimately come down when it came time to vote? Did you see distinctions between different council members and their thoughts on these changes?

BS: Absolutely. So for most of the hour that they talked about this, it felt like Councilman Kevin O'Grady was driving this train. And his main argument was that if developers want to get to a place where they have almost no commercial part of their project, just build a residential development. But if you want to take advantage of the increased density, then you should basically play by the rules and live up to the spirit of what the land code wants. And it felt like Councilman Kevin Spears and Mayor Pro Tem Margaret Haynes were basically on that same page. And it's not exactly that they were opposing them, but Councilman Charlie Rivenbark and Neil Anderson expressed some concerns, more or less coming from the developer side of things, saying, if we put too much weight on the developers to do things a certain way, it makes certain projects impractical. And we have to take their point of view into consideration too.

RK: They voted 'nay,' Rivenbark and Anderson, but the amendment passed. So what are the next steps?

BS: So, what they basically came to sort of a consensus --- not a total agreement --- was closing a lot of these loopholes, including things like underground parking, and certain you know, other things you can do that basically will hold the line in a certain place. So that means moving forward, big mixed use developments like this will really have the commercial, you know, part of the project that city council wants to see. That won't be official, though, until they do a second reading next month.

RK: Thank you, Ben.

BS: Thank you, Rachel.

Below: Find the amendment to the city's land code, with the changes agreed upon by City Council after Tuesday night's meeting.

CDMU First Reading Ordinance as Approved by Council 10.20.20 by Ben Schachtman on Scribd