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Development 101: A look at the how the process works in the Cape Fear region

Mark Humphrey / AP
Development has been a key issue for Cape Fear region residents for years.

Residents in New Hanover County have development as a top-of-mind issue because of the substantial growth, largely in the form of apartment complexes and sprawling single-family neighborhoods, seen in the area. WHQR created this guide to help residents understand the ins and outs of the process.

Many folks in New Hanover County believe development has run wild. But what exactly does it take to build a new apartment complex in the region? It’s a complicated process, but we'll break it down, step by step. Scroll down for more!

Want to catch up on a specific topic? WHQR's Ben Schachtman and Kelly Kenoyer unpacked some of the most commonly debated issues in the development world: tree protection, traffic management, and stormwater mitigation.

Read more: Tree protections and regulations

WHQR's Ben Schachtman and Kelly Kenoyer talk tree regulations

Read more: Traffic, roundabouts, and lights

A conversation about traffic, and how to (sort of) manage it.

Read more: Stormwater regulations and 'impervious surfaces'

Handling stormwater -- and, what the heck is an 'impervious surface'?

Step 1: The developer talks to staff at various agencies

This is a key step, even before a developer closes on a property. Zoning determines what a piece of property is allowed to become, so the developer needs to check in and find out whether they can make a profit with current permitted uses. If not, they might need to seek a rezoning, or they might give up on developing that property and look elsewhere.

While they’re at it, developers will often reach out to Cape Fear Public Utility Authority (CFPUA) to see what it might cost to hook into the water and sewer system - it’s part of the due diligence period, before the developer closes on a property. About 30% of developers decide not to move forward with buying and developing property after these considerations, according to Bernice Johnson with CFPUA.

During this time, the developers may also reach out to the Wilmington Metropolitan Planning Organization (WMPO), the regional transportation planning agency, or the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) to see whether they’ll need a traffic impact analysis. That depends entirely on the size of the project.

Step 2: Rezoning

This is the step where members of the public can have a say in development, and it’s fairly common for multifamily developments. Developers typically pursue a rezoning if the property in question is zoned for a lower density, but has a higher allowable density in the comprehensive plan. These are two separate maps: one with current zoning, and one with the governing body’s idealized picture for the future of the region. If the requested zoning matches the comprehensive plan, it gives the developer an edge in getting approval for a rezoning, but it’s always possible for a developer to experience rejection or approval regardless.

New Hanover County Planning & Land Use Director Rebekah Roth says rezonings are very common in the unincorporated county. “The vast majority of the time, multifamily would require a rezoning for most of the property in an unincorporated New Hanover County, it's either zoned low density residential, or industrial.”

But large single-family developments also require rezonings about half the time. Rezoning hearings are common in the city of Wilmington as well.

The next step is a meeting with the planning board (at the county level) or the planning commission (at the city level) depending on the jurisdiction. That public body, appointed by elected officials, will issue a recommendation on whether the rezoning should occur, which then goes to elected officials. In Brunswick County, the planning board decision is final unless there’s an appeal. Members of the public can attend these meetings to voice their opposition or support for a project.

Alternatively, a developer can apply for a Conditional Zoning District

These are an alternate method of rezoning, in which the developer provides even more granular information about what they plan to do and promises to stick to specific plans. This can be a way to promise specific things to neighbors or government officials, (like maintaining a particular section of forest or providing a walking trail) that wouldn’t otherwise be mandated by a regular rezoning.

Conditional Zoning Districts also allow the public to get eyes on a project even earlier: at a community meeting the developer is required to hold, then at public meetings with public bodies. Residents within a certain circumference of the property in question are invited to the community meeting, where the developer must share details about the plans for the property.

The idea here is that a developer can account for concerns from neighbors and address them before a planned hearing, but it can be a perfunctory requirement where the developer faces a lot of complaints and moves forward without changing the plan much, regardless.

A note on Special Use Permits (SUPs)

These are similar to rezonings, but anyone who wishes to comment needs to have expertise and standing. They’re similar to conditional zoning permits, which require certain conditions to be met before a parcel can be built for certain purposes.

According to the city’s website, “Special use permits add flexibility to the zoning ordinance. Subject to high standards of planning and design, certain uses may be allowed in several districts where those uses would not otherwise be acceptable. Conditions applied with a special use permit can be established to minimize any adverse effects on surrounding properties.”

But an SUP is further complicated by an unusual hearing process — one that essentially turns the city or county meeting into a courtroom, complete with speakers sworn in under oath.

Elected officials are not allowed to review the proposal beforehand and must make their decision based solely on what is presented during the hearing. They must also make their decisions based on a limited set of criteria. Anyone who wishes to speak in favor or in opposition to a SUP needs to have “standing,” which means the person must have expertise in a field relevant to determining whether an SUP is acceptable. According to the UNC School of Government, “Those persons with standing at a quasi-judicial hearing have the right to call witnesses to present evidence to the board.”

The decision in an SUP hearing can also be appealed. In the past, New Hanover County has been taken to court, and lost, after denying an SUP request without sufficient cause.

Step 2.1: Conceptual review

Before the rezoning hearing, city of Wilmington staff will hold a conceptual review meeting to look at the proposal and determine whether there are any red flags. They’ll compare the proposal to the comprehensive plan, and tell their respective boards whether they recommend the rezoning or not.

If a development is large enough, this conceptual review will include a conversation with the WMPO or NCDOT around traffic. WMPO Traffic Engineer Scott James says this happens when a project is expected to generate 100 trips or more during peak hours. “You need to talk about the traffic consequences of your build. And that is sort of the first opportunity we would have as a committee to discuss a project.”

That number of trips requires a Traffic Impact Analysis (TIA) to determine how the development will affect a surrounding area. If a TIA is required, the developer will typically hire a qualified traffic engineer to perform one. That TIA will determine whether NCDOT or WMPO will require some kind of traffic mitigation, like a stop light, a turn lane, or other modifications to lessen traffic congestion around a new development.

The TIA determines whether modifications are necessary, and concludes with a report on exactly what mitigation is necessary. That process can take a while, which is why this discussion comes up even before a rezoning hearing.

County Planner Rebekah Roth says, “More and more to be one of the first steps in the process is the traffic impact analysis process, because that's been taking so long, And it can impact the amount of density, and the location of driveways. And so a lot of times the first point we see a larger project is when they go to the WMPO, to get scoping for their traffic impact analysis.”

While the conceptual review meeting isn’t public, its outcome is. Staff evaluate a project in numerous categories and provide that information to their board and to the public, ahead of a scheduled rezoning hearing.

Step 2.2: Official rezoning hearings

Members of the public again have an opportunity to comment at the planning board level. Complaints here can derail a project, particularly if there is substantial opposition to a proposed development. Complaints often relate to worries about stormwater, concern for the trees, and issues around traffic. Many of these issues are addressed in detail in staff reports, so county and city staff recommend that concerned citizens look over the staff reports in detail before submitting comments.

After a hearing at the planning level, the rezoning will get its recommendation (or not.) The developer then takes their plans to the city council or county commission to request approval. Approval from the planning board and from staff often help a development along, but significant public backlash can sometimes derail a development regardless. And there have been cases where a planning board rejects a plan, but the commission approves it anyway. That is rare, however, and many developers will go back to the drawing board and create new plans before going through the process again.

Once that’s all said and done, the public no longer has a say in the future of that particular development. But the regulatory process is far from over for the developer.

Step 3: Technical Review Committee

Once zoning is said and done, and NCDOT is cooking up its traffic mitigation plans, the developer will submit a site plan to county and city staff members. The staff form a technical review committee to pore over the plans, looking for any problems and making sure every box is checked.

10 or 15 staff members get in a room together to review it, according to Roth. “The technical review committee is facilitated by planning staff, but it includes representatives from engineering, from fire, from CFPUA, from WMPO, basically all the other agencies that have a review capacity,” she said. “It's basically an opportunity for them to all take a look at the project at once, make sure that the applicant is aware of all of the rules that would apply. And if there are conflicts between the different rules that there's a forum where that can be worked out.”

This is a staff level meeting, with no opportunity for public comment. But it’s also where the developer has to confirm compliance with every regulation that exists with every single department. This is also where tree requirements come into play. Let’s take a look at all this encompasses:

Utilities: CFPUA has its own intensive process, but they sit in on the TRC process to facilitate conversations with other departments. They’re typically consulted by the developer before they go through the TRC to make sure their plans will all work with CFPUA. It’s a pretty simplified description at this juncture- just “this is where we’ll hook in to CFPUA.” The utility will confirm whether that’s possible, and as part of its own, separate process, might look at flow rates and decide whether the developer needs to build additional infrastructure for the utility.

Fire: The fire department is mostly concerned with access for emergency services. Robert Bentfield, the city’s fire marshall battalion chief, says he’s looking at the big picture. “Hydrant placements, which way the trucks are coming, if the trucks are coming from the north side, and they decided to put a hydrant on the south end of the complex, we're not gonna be able to utilize that. So I usually recommend, hey, let's move it to where the trucks are coming in.”

Tree Canopy: Trees are carefully managed under city and county codes. City Planner Brian Chambers says, “Every development project is required to submit for tree permit, and we review all the trees on site that are protected for compliance with the code.” Certain special trees, called specimen trees, require a special permit for removal and a hearing with the board of adjustment. Chambers says it’s a significant deterrent and stops many developers from chopping down important old trees.

Stormwater: Both the city and the county require a developer to engineer storm water mitigation to ensure developments have zero impact on neighbors during a 25 year storm, with no serious impacts with 50 year storms. The calculations are based on updated precipitation numbers based on the most up to date NOAA data, so they aren’t outdated expectations that fail to account for climate change. The city also looks at a 100 year storm, just to see if there might be negative impacts downstream that should be accounted for.

Interestingly enough, tree cover has a substantial impact on storm water, according to County Engineer Tim Lowe. “The calculations do account for how the land is covered, you know, is it forested, or is it grassland, or is it development? So, if you take the trees off, that's going to create a higher runoff amount and that they have to account for in their ponds. So it's accounted for all through the calculations.”

Traffic: Often this has already been covered before the TRC, but WMPO is there to discuss connections, road widths, and everything else that may come up with road infrastructure.

Step 4: Resubmittals

It’s possible, but rare, for the TRC to be done in just one meeting, because it requires the developer to submit perfect plans that follow every code. Otherwise, the meeting will include the staff telling them where there are problems, the applicant sends in corrections, then the staff will review those concerns.

Now a developer can start construction! On the infrastructure, at least. Before you lay down the roads, though….

Step 5: CFPUA’s process

Hooking in with CFPUA is separate from the TRC, but it typically happens simultaneously. This is where the developer gets into the granular detail of how to hook in with the utility. And if they’re going require a substantial use of services, they may need to construct a pump station, extend water mains, or otherwise build expensive infrastructure to access CFPUA’s systems.

CFPUA finishes its final review before any infrastructure is built. Various state agencies may also have to sign off on the project plans before any pipe can be laid down.

Step 6: constructing infrastructure

While the developer specs out and confirms building plans, they can start building the infrastructure outside of the buildings. That’s the water/sewer, the roads and sidewalks and driveways, EV charging ports, outdoor lighting, stormwater ponds, and sometimes traffic mitigation projects like traffic lights or turn lanes. Each of these requires inspections during and after construction, and CFPUA pipes, in particular, get really intensive videotaped inspections within their pipes to confirm there won’t be any leaks.

Step 7: Building permits

This goes back to the county for unincorporated areas, the City of Wilmington, and Carolina Beach, but the other two beach towns handle their own. The developer needs to submit specific building plans to the relevant permitting authorities. For New Hanover County, that’s Permitting Director JD Limberger’s office, and he says, “I always tell my team, we're here to act as a resource to the community.”

Limberger says the turnaround time for permit approval is around 30 days for the developer, because they have to bring the plans to every reviewing agency for a stamp of approval. “If you submit something today, we will review it, we will look at the construction plan, the site plans will make sure things are stamped, check all the licenses and all that. And that's usually done within a day to at the most.”

Oftentimes, just like at the TRC level, the developer will have to resubmit. “They're looking at mechanical, electrical, plumbing, building. So they're gonna have comments like, ‘Oh, we didn't see sprinklers, we didn't see XYZ’. And so they're making these comments. And then they have to resubmit, to make sure it's up to code.”

After every stamp of approval goes through, the developer can break ground on their development.

Step 8: Inspections during construction

County staff have to inspect the development repeatedly to make sure each regulatory requirement is actually being built to specifications. Inspectors look at the foundation, the framing, insulation, fire walls, plumbing, and mechanical components. Only after everything has been inspected and finalized will the county issue a certificate of occupancy. This is also when mandatory landscaping might go in: after all the major external construction is complete.

But wait: did you miss anything?

Pretty much everything has to be finished before you start leasing up. With so many simultaneous review processes and components under construction, it can be a challenge to get everything done on a planned timeline. Developer McKay Siegel says that can be disastrous for a project, especially since there are so many cooks in the kitchen: “I started the traffic signal permitting process when we started the development. After some back and forth with DOT, we finally got it into a submittable format in February of 2023. And then it took through October or November of that year to review, and then and then to produce the traffic signals to the point where, we'll have it open probably in May to June, after we've got two other buildings already open. But if that traffic signal had taken us another three months, it would have been catastrophic to the project.”

Siegel says his project would have been underwater if he hadn’t gotten a certificate of occupancy in time to start paying debt service on his development. It was nerve-wracking to come in under the wire, but that’s why development is often called “juggling chainsaws.”

Editor's note: This article has been updated for clarity.

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.