Wrightsville Beach pier project stalls at planning board, but aldermen await

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The planning board stalled on approving the proposed “Atlantic View” residential duplex project after some members said they worried about losing commercial properties in Wrightsville Beach.

By a 3-3 vote, the board tied on a motion to deny the proposed changes to the town’s ordinance which would allow so-called “group housing” in the C-2 commercial zone where the one acre property is located at 19 East Salisbury St. Board chairman Ken Dull was not at the public hearing, leaving an even number to cast votes.

The project now faces an uncertain timeline, as the absence of a board of aldermen member for the September meeting would push consideration back until at least October.

After the vote, one member of the development team said they would need to review the results before deciding whether to move forward to the board of aldermen or make changes to the plan.

The project would build 11 duplexes on the lot, each approximately 2,800 square feet, and meets the town’s contentious 40-foot height limit that developers have said hinders building retail and commercial properties on the site. The duplexes would line both Seagull and Salisbury streets, with a one-way entrance and exit on Seagull Street and a private drive and landscaping in between the rows of duplexes.

To approve the development, which would be governed by a homeowners association, the town will have to change the town’s zoning ordinance to allow the “group housing” classification,  

While praising the project’s design, some board members said that the absence of a commercial element in the proposal concerned them enough to oppose the project, echoing a worry among many that Wrightsville Beach is losing too much of its available commercial real estate.

Board vice chair Jim Smith said that adjusting the project to add some commercial element would likely sway the board. Members suggested that developers could sway these concerns by devoting the duplex nearest to Johnnie Mercer’s Pier for retail or office space.

“Looking at the plan, this is a great improvement over what’s there now, but there has to be a commercial component,” Smith said.

Homebuilder D. Logan, a principal in the project, argued that retail projects can’t survive in Wrightsville Beach, especially as updated flood zone regulations make it more difficult to build under the 40-foot height limit. He cited the town’s approval of “The Helm,” a mixed-use project that would have brought residential units, retail space and a restaurant to the lot, but was never developed due to cost concerns.

“With the traffic and parking issues and the 40-foot height limit, it doesn’t make financial sense,” Logan said.

The Atlantic View project would revitalize the area around the pier, he said, creating less density than other projects proposed for the site, and offered an alternative to proposals that would put a restaurant in the location.

“Restaurants turn into bars,” Logan said. “Nice is what we want. We would like to clean it up. This project gives Wrightsville Beach the look and feel that it needs.”

During public comments, Wrightsville Beach Chamber of Commerce president Sue Bulluck, said that the board shouldn’t approve the project until the town had completed drafting a new land use plan.

“Either we are going to be supportive of commercial businesses or we’ll be driving over the bridge for our goods and services,” she said. “If it becomes residential it will be residential forever.”

The town has a steering committee currently reviewing the land use plan that is required by the state’s Coastal Area Management Act and lays out future development policy for the town. The town’s current land use plan, last updated in 2005, reaffirms the town’s 40-foot building limit and was cited by the board of aldermen when it denied a mixed-use development proposal for the lot that exceeded the height limits. However, members of the steering committee that is reviewing updates to the land use plan have expressed interest in allowing some exceptions to the 40-foot height limit.

Choosing a residential project for that lot could also be costly for the town, as Bulluck estimated that allowing another 10 feet of building space on the project could generate between $30 – $40 million in sales and potential hotel taxes.

But Don Smith, another principal in the project, said that while it’s true that a commercial project for the lot would generate more money for the town, it wouldn’t necessarily have the support of the the neighbors, especially those on Seagull Street. One neighbor

Planning board member Jeff DeGroote praised Logan and Smith, both residents of Wrightsville Beach, for investing in the property, but joined Smith in opposing it over the absence of a commercial element.

“Anything will improve that area and I would like to support people willing to invest,” said DeGroote while echoing other members’ calls to add commercial to the project.

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