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Wilmington council to reconsider density allowances for legacy districts amid resistance

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Council member Charlie Rivenbark tells the audience at council’s May 16 meeting that he will not recuse himself from voting on an LDC amendment despite their requests to do so. (Port City Daily)

WILMINGTON — A simple land use code amendment garnered citizen outrage in the days leading up to Tuesday’s Wilmington City Council meeting, leading council to continue the item to next month. 

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Apart from its routine maintenance of the land development code, city staff presented council with a slate of amendments Tuesday. An update to the rules regarding legacy districts got the ire from residents, namely those surrounding the proposed Autumn Hall at 1202 Eastwood Road. 

“I stand before you because these proposed changes do not align with the city’s stated commitment to protecting our properties from stormwater flooding and our fisheries from harm and extinction,” Dogwood Drive resident Matt Childs said. “Instead, they directly contradict these goals and negatively impact our community.”

Residents tried to establish a correlation between an Autumn Hall development — continued at last week’s board of adjustment meeting — and the LDC amendment. The latter would exempt some developers of legacy district land from density limitations. 

However, city staff maintained the amendment was proposed by them — not the Autumn Hall developer Cape Fear Commercial — and maintained the changes would apply to all developments, not just Autumn Hall. 

“Staff recognized an inconsistency in how the current zoning districts were being treated versus the legacy districts and this was to bring consistency across both codes,” Chief Enforcement Officer Brian Renner said. 

The proposed LDC amendment applies to land in the Watershed Resource Protection or Conservation Areas designated in the Coastal Area Management Act (CAMA) Land Classification Map. The current code limits residential density to 2.5 units per acre for areas in the conservation land class. 

However, “density bonuses” are allowed for exceptionally designed projects — or ones with environmentally preferred design techniques. These projects rack up “points” based on the amount of criteria met, and in return they can earn incremental increases to density and impervious surface allowances. 

For example, developers can earn points for preserving wetlands beyond state and federal regulation, restoring them or even constructing them. Points are also given for the use of porous pavement, dedication of undeveloped open space, preservation of habitat and greenway establishment, among other things. 

These guidelines, however, only apply to districts established in the current code, but the city contains legacy districts, or districts established in years past that were not carried over into the current code. Instead of getting rid of them and rezoning the property, the exclusion is just meant to keep legacy districts from expanding, bound by the LDC rules as of Nov. 30, 2021. 

In effect, the proposed LDC amendment would permit the legacy districts to use the density bonuses as all other districts do in conservation areas. As 1202 Eastwood Road is zoned MX, it would be able to increase its project density.

Resident Kim Beller told Port City Daily on Wednesday that a staff member told her the Autumn Hall developers, after they continued their variance request to June 20, would not need to come back if council approved a proposed LDC amendment. Beller said she saw that as a “red flag” and started researching the matter. 

Her concerns were about building on wetlands and increasing flooding to surrounding neighbors. However, she admitted city staff have been helpful in her understanding of the amendment and that it was proposed for consistency, but was still against the measure. 

“At some point, everybody needs to stop because you know what’s gonna happen is, there will be no one wanting to come to Wilmington because it will all be flooded because of all the pavements and all the no trees,” Beller said. 

A handful of people spoke against the amendment, but council members said they’ve received more than 50 emails on the subject. 

Port City Daily has been cc’d on 10. The residents’ main concerns have enveloped flooding and environmental impact, and claims the amendment will allow developers to build on wetlands.

At the meeting, Renner clarified the amendment will not allow any disturbance of wetlands, and in response to a question from council member Charlie Rivenbark, said the amendment would not have a more negative effect than what’s currently allowed in the code. He explained the amendment would make things equitable across the city. 

The old land code, of which the legacy districts are subject, limits impervious coverage and density. The new code limits intensity of development in these areas to just impervious coverage. 

“When we look at a rooftop that you can have one unit underneath that rooftop or you could have four units underneath that rooftop — we only care about the rooftop,” Renner explained. “It’s the impervious covers that has a direct impact on the water quality and runoff from the tidal creeks and that’s why we made that change [to the code].” 

Another main concern of neighbors is what they perceive as a conflict of interest between council member Charlie Rivenbark and the LDC amendment because of his links to the Autumn Hall developers, Cape Fear Development. Rivenbark is Senior Vice President of Cape Fear Commercial, of which Cape Fear Development is an offshoot. 

However, the LDC amendment would affect not just Autumn Hall, but all legacy districts and proposed developments within them moving forward. 

Rivenbark shut down requests that he recuse himself from voting, which came at the behest of some speakers at the meeting.

“If I’m going to be confined to every time a rezoning or anything that could affect the company I work for, then I don’t need to be up here,” Rivenbark said, to applause and cheers from the audience. 

He added the audience confused Cape Fear Development with Cape Fear Commercial Realty and stated he was an independent broker.

“I don’t have anything to do with development or anything that Cape Fear Development does, and I’m not going to recuse myself because this is citywide, it was not brought up by Cape Fear Development, it was staff-generated,” Rivenbark said.

Ultimately, council decided more information should be gathered on the impact of the amendment before a vote was held. The vote to continue was unanimous, with Mayor Bill Saffo absent.


Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at brenna@localdailymedia.com.

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