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Wrightsville Beach
Tuesday, January 31, 2023

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The Wrightsville Beach Town Hall council chamber is the place to be Thursday night, as the board of aldermen conducts a public hearing into the contentious issue of allowing construction up to 50 feet in height on the vacant parcel by Johnnie Mercer’s Pier.

No doubt, the hearing will be passionate and possibly contentious. Some residents are vehemently opposed to any changes in the current 40-foot height restriction, fearing a slippery slope that will change the character of the town. They cite the new mixed-use project of apartments and businesses at the drawbridge on the Wilmington mainland as what could happen at Wrightsville. The tallest of the buildings, fronting Wrightsville Avenue, is 50 feet. The others are 45 feet.

The concerns are understandable. Wrightsville Beach does not need any buildings that are out of character or cheaply built, thrown up by build-and-run developers motivated by maximum profit.

Residents do not want to see the family-friendly beach town become another overly developed tourist-first community with any additional high-rises marring its vibe. Even if a lack of infrastructure and space make the prospect of morphing into something akin to Myrtle Beach seem unlikely, any new development is prone to exacerbate the already maxed-out summer traffic, parking issues and packed sections of the beach strand, further straining the town’s resources.

What advantages to the town will there be by adding one more level of vacation condos above a smattering of commercial spaces?

Proponents of the height increase say the town — and its residents — needs to decide if it wants to be open for business.

Alderwoman Lisa Weeks has expressed concerns about “moving down a path to slowly becoming a neighborhood instead of a viable town.” Her comments came during the town’s last battle over a vacant commercial lot. In October 2015, the board considered a proposal to down-zone part of the vacant Scotchman property on Salisbury Street from commercial to residential.

The board of aldermen unanimously rejected that proposal. Residential property in the town is significantly more valuable to develop than commercial. Mayor Pro-Tem Darryl Mills voiced the concerns of the board members when he said he was committed to preventing the “draining away of the local services and commercial opportunities” on the island.

Can the town hope for any new businesses, if, as claimed, the zoning laws conspire against any new development being profitable enough?

The 40-foot limit dates back to the 1970s, when it allowed for structures with four usable floors. But new federal regulations put in place after Hurricane Katrina now effectively limit such buildings to three usable floors. That cuts into the highly desired profitability of new development, and is cited as part of the reason why property sits derelict.

The town’s task is not an enviable one. It is attempting the difficult act of doing what is best for residents and for businesses, to encourage development that would provide benefits for both tax-paying citizens and visitors without altering the essence of what makes Wrightsville Beach so special.

While emotions may run high at the public hearing, Mayor Bill Blair says the best thing to come out of the meeting could be the appointment of members to a steering committee to consider the town’s land use plan — a plan that has been in place since before the new Katrina regulations.

Blair said the rejection of the proposed development for the Johnnie Mercer’s Pier lot was because it is incompatible with the existing land use plan. The town is reluctant to consider one-off exemptions as each new project arises, fearing “a hodge-podge of development,” in Blair’s words.

All well and good, but what needs to be done first is a survey of the existing high-rises to determine what height they are. Laughably, town officials, elected, appointed and paid, are unable to say which is definitively the town’s tallest building — much less provide the height of each of them.

That seems like a logical first step in any deliberation.

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