New Hanover County work session will tackle development of the Cape Fear's western bank
On Thursday, county commissioners will meet to plan the future of development on the western bank of the Cape Fear River. Over the past few months, there has been a slew of discussions about the region, including about one major development. KFJ Development wants a new zoning district in order to make way for its $500 million 'Battleship Point' project on the banks of the Cape Fear River and turned to Leland after the county was slow to approve it — but there are other parcels that could be developed as well.
After New Hanover County pressed pause on a text amendment that would have made much denser — and taller — possible, developers turned to Leland. Leland is currently in the process of considering annexation of this section of land, which is allowed as a satellite annexation under state law if Leland meets certain requirements.
The Leland Planning Board recently approved moving forward with the proposal, which will now go to Leland's Town Council. If approved there, it would create a complicated situation where Leland extended across county boundaries. The land of the proposed development — on Point Peter, across the river from the northern part of Wilmington's Riverwalk — would be subject to Leland zoning regulations and taxes, but would also still be part of New Hanover County.
While the fate of Battleship Point is, for the time being up to Leland, Thursday’s work session meeting for New Hanover County commissioners will address the broader western bank region and assess what can and cannot be done there.
That will likely include some of the public feedback — and pushback — that appears to have stalled the project under New Hanover County's zoning process. The county pressed pause on the process earlier this year, even though the county's comprehensive plan does seek to develop the western bank to 'mirror' the denser urban land use on the other bank, which is Wilmington's commercial business district.
According to the county report, talks of development on the western bank have prompted "unusually" high public interest. The consensus is that people are opposed to development there for the following reasons: environmental concerns, economic concerns, historic and cultural concerns, and concerns about the character of New Hanover County.
Note: You can find a copy of the full county report for Thursday's work session at the end of this article.
The Western Bank of the Cape Fear River is mostly considered Conservation land thanks to the County’s 2016 Comprehensive Plan. However, there are roughly ten parcels between I-140 and the Isabel Holmes Bridge which allow for industrial development.
Each of those “industrial” developments has its own specific designation for what can go on that land. These parcels could be rezoned — but the process can be difficult. There's also an existing 'Riverfront Urban Mixed-Use' district south of the Isabel Holmes bridge but a master planned development approved in 2008 has never materialized, and some developers — including the Battleship Point backers — seem to think denser (i.e. taller) structures would be needed on that land to justify the investment needed to build on the flood-prone land.
Farther down the river, south of the Battleship North Carolina, there's a region known as B-2, which is zoned for “Regional Business" — where a hotel and spa is currently being developed 'by right,' meaning it won't require a rezoning.
Farming and industry are no strangers to the western bank of the Cape Fear River thanks to rice farming. It’s important to note that the flooding on that side of the river made it ideal for rice farming — while the steeper bank on the eastern shore made the growth of Wilmington possible. And this flooding is something that’s continued over the years, seeing more frequently flooding events.
Concerns about developing the western bank
Environmental concerns are another big reason why activists are pushing against development. This area is located within a FEMA flood zone, and the number of flood days has generally increased by a high number over the past ten years.
Much of the western side of the river falls within Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, which is a 12,000 square-mile federal National Heritage Area designated by the U.S. Congress. It’s not a national park of a single site, but rather multiple locations and cultural significance to the Gullah Geechee people. This is one of the reasons why activists have been opposed to this development on the other side of the river.
According to the report put out for the Board of Commissioners to look at before their work session meeting, major improvements in transportation, stormwater infrastructure and water and sewer are also necessary to develop the region.
What else is in the report?
Detailed examples with evidence to support them on how to build in flood-prone areas can be found in the report. It includes ideas of how to dry proof areas, as well as wet-proofing techniques. In short, the report doesn’t entirely discourage anything, but rather, gives a full view of the situation on the western bank and potential ways to go about development if the county chooses to move forward with that route.
There are also case studies in the report about development along rivers across multiple cities and states on the southern east coast of the U.S. including Norfolk, Virginia, and Savannah, Georgia.
The western-bank development work session will be held on Thursday, March 31, at 2 p.m. to "discuss and determine direction and next steps for staff to pursue and clarify desired future land uses on the western bank of the Cape Fear and Northeast Cape Fear Rivers." The meeting will be held at the New Hanover County Government Center in the Harrell Conference Room, 230 Government Center Drive, Wilmington, NC.
You can find the full report given to the commissioners ahead of this Thursday’s work session here or below.