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Wrightsville Beach
Tuesday, January 31, 2023

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Wrightsville Beach is one of the few places where folks worry about residential development encroaching on the limited commercial property available. But residents and second homeowners know viable commercial options are key to a thriving walkabout community.

A request to rezone a portion of what is now prime waterfront commercial property to residential use would not be in the best interest of Wrightsville Beach, nor would it be in keeping with the adjacent property, whose operator wants to expand a boat and SUP rental operation.

The property at 100 W. Salisbury St. is owned by Kenan Properties of Chapel Hill, but the proposal comes from Frank Martin, a managing partner with New Carolina Income Properties in Charlotte. The site includes a shuttered, graffiti-plagued convenience store.

In a letter to the planning board, Martin implied the intended use is to split the lot, keeping the small section with the forlorn convenience store as a retail operation but rezoning the vacant portion that formerly held gas pumps and underground fuel storage tanks to build a single-family home, assuredly with maxed-out square footage.

One additional house may seem insignificant, but town officials have been working to strengthen Wrightsville Beach’s commercial districts. Residential rezoning is a step backwards. The town doesn’t want to be just a bedroom community; it wants its residents and visitors to have access to shops and services without getting into a vehicle or leaving the beach. It’s what makes this place so beloved.

In recommending denial of the request, the planning staff pointed to existing uses of the adjacent property and the town’s own development policy.

“Any redevelopment of the existing commercial areas should be oriented toward community and neighborhood services,” planning director Tony Wilson’s written recommendation said. In addition, the recommendation noted the use was incompatible with the activity at the boat club next door.

A year ago, the board of aldermen rejected a request to permit a mixed-use development on the soundfront site, mainly because of inadequate parking. The planning staff had supported that request with the condition that the aldermen relax the parking requirement.

Martin, the agent proposing the lot split with straight-residential rezoning of the new lot, stated in his letter that the mixed commercial and residential plan considered last year is not viable.

The town adopted mixed-use zoning as a way to encourage commercial development.

Many tourism-dependent businesses only thrive in the summer when visitors flock to the beach with wallets wide open. As numbers drop, sales can lag.

Still, many local businesses, seasonal and otherwise, are doing well.

And for undeveloped or vacant property, residential zoning is not necessarily the answer. Witness the lack of activity at the former Pizza Hut property across Salisbury Street, which was rezoned for residential use and the iconic pizza spot bulldozed in 2004.  The lots remain undeveloped to this day, except for the docks on Banks Channel.

The former LaQue Center for Corrosion Technology is another example of hasty action. Two of the three Banks Channel commercial lots were rezoned to residential in March 1999, with the remaining  Causeway Drive lot rezoned to residential in February 2004 and LaQue scraped away.  Expectations were for high-dollar waterfront lot sales, only to see the lots languish unsold for a decade, going into foreclosure in spring of 2013.

This fantastic commercial site could have been enjoyed as a restaurant or other boat up business, but like the Pizza Hut site, was lost to residential lot sales.

Conversely the commercial success story on Wrightsville’s south end is the result of the town holding out for over 10 years, refusing to allow rezoning.  The 25-room, three story, wood-frame Glenn on Nathan Street, a much-loved historic landmark hotel established in the late 1930s, was demolished in 2008. The adjacent two-story brick building on South Lumina constructed in 1947 for first-floor dining and the Glenn’s kitchen sat empty.

The dining room closed in 1954 after Hurricane Hazel and the second-floor rooms stopped renting in 1969. The building was vacant until 2010 when the South End Surf Shop opened on the first floor and this year, the Post Coffee Shop opened on the second floor to good reviews.

Now the battle lines are drawn on yet another commercial to residential request rezoning by real estate developers looking to capitalize on the lack of waterfront homes with extraordinary views and good boat dockage.

The planning board considered the request Tuesday but could not reach a consensus; the matter ended in a tie vote. It now goes to the board of aldermen without a recommendation either way.

We urge the board to consider the importance of preserving what little commercially zoned property is left in the two-island town. Redeveloped as zoned, this site could be a welcomed asset to the town, adding to the sales tax coffers, as well as serving the residents and visitors of Wrightsville Beach.

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