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BASE Calls For Delay In City's Development Code Rewrite Process

By Cece Nunn, posted Aug 4, 2021
A business advocacy group on Wednesday sent an email to the Wilmington Planning Commission expressing its belief that the city’s proposed new Land Development Code could impact future investment and existing business in Wilmington.

The planning commission is set to consider the rewritten LDC at its meeting at 6 p.m. tonight at the Wilmington Convention Center.

The email, written by Tyler Newman, president and CEO of Business Alliance for a Sound Economy, stated, “After multiple input sessions, work sessions and reviews of the [LDC] document, what is clear are three things: 
1) what is being proposed won’t make investment easier in the city 
2) what is being proposed does not specifically facilitate infill or affordability 
3) what is being proposed needs to be more fully vetted by the end users.”

Glenn Harbeck, the city’s director of planning, development and transportation, on Wednesday afternoon refuted the first two of Newman's assertions, and said the third is a matter of opinion.

"As far as making investment easier in the city, we have streamlined processes; we’ve eliminated the subdivision review board; we’ve reduced the number of situations requiring a special use permit from over 80 to down somewhere in the low 20s," Harbeck said, by way of a few examples. "We, wherever possible, have eliminated discretionary review and made it more objective for administrative approval as opposed to having to appear before a board."

He also said, "There are so many things that this code does that make development more efficient without sacrificing quality."

According to the city’s LDC webpage, Wilmington officials began the process of rewriting the LDC eight years ago by asking residents to help city staff develop the Create Wilmington Comprehensive Plan. 

“More than 4,000 residents participated in that opportunity, expressing desires to improve traffic conditions, make the city more walkable and bike friendly, protect and grow the city’s tree canopy, preserve Wilmington’s identity as a historic coastal community, while also developing and elevating our parks, public spaces, and the services and recreational offerings available to the community,” the website states.

Newman's email recommends further discussion on a number of LDC topics, based on feedback from members of the business and development communities. Those topics include tree standards, accessory dwelling units, stormwater planning, affordable housing and overall flexibility of the LDC.

Giving an example of how one of the topics is already being addressed in the rewrite, Harbeck said, "The big change with accessory dwelling units is we’re not requiring a lot-and-a-half like we used to under the existing code. That’s a poison pill, and we're eliminating that poison pill. We’re fixing a lot of things that have been on the books, and they need to be fixed."

Of another topic mentioned in the email, Harbeck said, "We’ve given presentation after presentation about how the new code improves affordable housing opportunities."

He said examples include providing greater opportunity to create missing middle housing, such as duplexes, triplexes and townhomes; incentivizing the creation of workforce housing in developments through increased density; and elminating commercial parking standards to free up land for housing.

Newman stated, “The success of the document – and future investment in the city – rests on developers embracing the intent of the code. We have talked a number of times about how the city and county development entities should be more consistent. The process for crafting a new development code is a great example of the divergent approaches.

"On the county side," he added, "county staff sought out input from landowners and developers and crafted opt-in zoning districts that met market demand and the county's goals and objectives. That same strategy was not pursued on the city side. In fact, changes in the code would make specific major projects like Autumn Hall, CenterPoint and The Avenue not viable under the new code. That seems like a major oversight, which merits additional consideration.”

Harbeck said the email's conclusion about major projects isn't true.

"I can say with absolute certainty that those projects would be accommodated by the city just as they were if not better under the new code. There’s nothing in the new code that would in any way prevent an Autumn Hall, CenterPoint or an Avenue," he said.

Addressing the issue of input, Harbeck said, "We’ve got 125,000 stakeholders in this city and the Comprehensive Plan was based upon the wishes, we hope, of 125,000 citizens. We know it was based on 4,000 citizens ... I think 4,000 is a pretty good number as most planning initiatives go."

After the planning commission's consideration, the next step for the LDC is expected to be consideration by the Wilmington City Council at its Aug. 17 meeting.

Newman said BASE recommends the new LDC's implementation date be June 1, 2022, and that city staff “start to compare projects coming in the door – how they would look under the new code vs. what was permissible in the old code.”

The email also stated, "The rewrite of the Land Development Code has been 40 years in the making. It is appropriate to allow additional time to understand how it works before mandating its use on existing properties and thwarting future investment in the city." 

Harbeck said there will be a "debugging process" between the time the new LDC is adopted and its effective date.

He added, "You can’t possibly anticipate every single thing that comes up, but if you don’t get something in place, you never know where those glitches are."
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