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Riverside Views: County, Developers Continue To Eye Land Across The River

By Emma Dill, posted Nov 3, 2023
New Hanover County officials have been studying the best way to handle what might be built on sensitive riverfront properties. (FILE PHOTO)
After a quiet summer, efforts to shape future development on the Cape Fear River’s western banks are picking up steam.
  
New Hanover County leaders are working to review and revise their goals for the marshy strip of land, once envisioned as a mirror to downtown Wilmington’s skyline. The county’s efforts were prompted mainly by plans for two large-scale western bank developments, along with public concern around the bank’s persistent flooding and potential development impacts. 

Last month, New Hanover leaders reviewed the results of a planning study produced by county staff and recommended changes to the county’s Comprehensive Plan and Unified Development Ordinance. Both planning documents are essential in guiding development across New Hanover County. 

Prospective developers of Eagles Island and Point Peter, too, have made some progress. In early October, longtime real estate developer Bobby Ginn paid $8 million for close to 19 acres on Eagles Island – an area where he submitted plans for a hotel and spa two years ago. On Point Peter, KFJ Development Group has said it has plans to scale back its mixed-use project. 

Meanwhile, the Eagles Island Central Park Task Force, a group pushing for a nature park on Eagles Island instead of development, has continued to lobby local leaders and the public to gain traction.   


A NEW ROADMAP 


Public debate over the future of the western bank of the Cape Fear River has peaked in recent years following proposals for a hotel and spa on Eagles Island and a towering mixed-use project on Point Peter.  

After developers shared plans in 2021, the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners opted to take another look at the policies intended to guide development on the western bank. The board hosted two work sessions last year before directing county staff to study the feasibility of development and recommend updated development guidelines. 

The study kicked off this spring, and the staff presented its results and recommendations last month to the board.   

The study area stretched along the Cape Fear River between the Cape Fear Memorial and Isabel Holmes bridges. That area includes nine parcels of land, all privately owned except for the Battleship North Carolina-occupied tract. 

The county developed its current vision for the western bank 20 years ago at a time when community leaders saw an opportunity to extend Wilmington’s increasing development to the other side of the river. 

In 2016, an updated Comprehensive Plan applied new commercial zoning to Eagles Island and established a Riverfront Mixed Use district designed to guide denser western bank development, but that development never came. 

Now, county planners are looking to establish another riverfront-specific district, according to New Hanover County planning director Rebekah Roth. 

“We don’t have another place type that makes sense for this high-visibility, high-challenge area,” Roth told the board of commissioners at its Oct. 16 meeting. 

In other updates to the Comprehensive Plan, planners recommend identifying implementation strategies for development agreements and brownfield programs that mitigate risk for the county. They also recommend articulating more clearly the environmental constraints that could impact future western bank development, along with outlining monitoring studies and trigger points that could prompt policy revisions. 

The Comprehensive Plan establishes the county’s “long-range goals,” laying out a “gameplan” for addressing anticipated challenges, according to Roth. Planning staff also recommended changes to the county’s Unified Development Ordinance, one tool county leaders use to meet goals outlined in the Comprehensive Plan. 

In the Unified Development Ordinance, county staff recommend adding the new riverfront-specific zoning district. It would allow for limited uses by right and include a process where more intensive uses could be requested as part of a conditional zoning district. Recommendations included adding an integrated mixed-use project type and outlining provisions for nonconforming uses, which would allow existing uses to remain as long as development standards are met. 

To be adopted, the county would hold public hearings on the proposed amendments, and they would need approval from the New Hanover County Planning Board and board of commissioners. 

If adopted, Roth told the board the new riverfront zone would likely be applied through a “staff-led rezoning.” State general statutes grant local governments the authority to rezone privately owned land, Roth said. 

“Zoning is just a means of designating what development standards apply to a specific piece of property and is considered the same as a text amendment to the [Unified Development Ordinance],” according to Roth. 

At its Oct. 16 meeting, the board of commissioners unanimously authorized staff to continue working on the recommended amendments and to finalize a project plan. Roth said she expects to give the board an update on that plan in the coming weeks. 


THE STATE OF DEVELOPMENT 


Neither the Point Peter nor Eagles Island hotel and spa projects have seen new document submittals in recent months. 

That’s because landowners and developers are in a holding pattern, waiting for the county’s recommendations and guidance, according to Kirk Pugh with KFJ Development Group.  

Pugh told the Business Journal the firm plans to scale back the size and scope of its proposed mixed-use project. The preliminary proposal, called the Villages at Battleship Point, featured three towers with up to 24 stories that housed 550 condominiums and 300 apartments, along with commercial space, which included a luxury hotel. 

New plans still include housing and a retail or commercial component, but the structure will be smaller and shorter, according to Pugh.  
“We know, and the county knows, that what we want to do over there can be done. We feel like at some point or another, somebody’s going to do it,” he said. “We’d like it to be us.” 

The firm remains under contract on the Point Peter site. Pugh said progress on the western bank study has been frustratingly slow at times. Still, he appreciates the ongoing dialogue.  

“We’re grateful that the county continues to talk about it,” Pugh said. “It seems to be higher up on their list of priorities than it has been in the past.” 

Just south of Point Peter, Ginn, the longtime developer, purchased 19 acres on Eagles Island for $8 million on Oct. 3, according to property records.  

Ginn’s company, Ginn Corp., proposed a 290-bedroom hotel project on the site in plans submitted to New Hanover County in 2021. The proposal won’t require a rezoning to move ahead.  


PUSHING FOR ANOTHER OPTION 


In place of development on Eagles Island, a group called the Eagles Island Central Park Task Force wants to establish a nature park, education center and trails on the marshy piece of land. The group published a report in 2021 outlining its vision. 

Since then, group members have worked to raise the plan’s profile, presenting the vision to some local leaders and community groups. 

Roger Shew, a task force member and a geology and environmental science lecturer at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, explained the group’s vision to the Brunswick County Board of Commissioners last month and presented it to New Hanover leaders earlier this year. 

Shew is also working to establish paddle trails for kayakers around Eagles Island.  

“My goal is really to show that we can do some things that are beneficial to the area,” he said, “even though we don’t have land access to build that education center.” 

The group is working to organize an economic development study to illustrate the impact a nature park could have as a destination for visitors. They’re working on financial sponsorships, said group member Evan Folds, to help fund the study and the eventual purchase of land on the western bank. 

One of the group’s top concerns about developing the western bank is the area’s persistent flooding. High tides, rising water levels, the release of water from inland lakes and the planned dredging of the Cape Fear River all compound flooding on the site and development could make it worse, Shew said. 

“We’re going to develop in different ways, but there are places that shouldn’t be built on and there are places you should have modified development, as opposed to higher density development,” he said. “We just need to be smart about it.”
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