Construction height talks continue in New Hanover County



Unprecedented height hotels and apartment complexes could be accommodated in New Hanover County zoning districts if new height standards are approved. (Daily port city / File)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY – Planning staff made more progress on changes to building height standards this week and are working on new language again after the New Hanover County Planning Council hearing on Thursday.

Changes to height rules in zoning districts across the county have been anticipated by the development community since the topic landed on the agenda in May. Taller buildings, some of which had never been permitted in the unincorporated county, could be introduced in business and multi-family zoning districts once county officials define the final language.

PREVIOUSLY: New Hanover planning staff float taller buildings alongside residences

At the behest of Deb Hays, a member of the Council of Commissioners and an active member of the real estate community, planning staff began to draft text incorporating new, higher land uses in the county’s zoning districts.

Market interest in four-story apartment complexes, five-story hotels and 125-foot-tall office buildings is relatively new in New Hanover County, said planning director Rebekah Roth, but these trends are there. The taller structures are now potentially attractive to developers working on land north and south of Wilmington, but the county’s zoning code currently includes three-story height ceilings for many districts and uses.

And, according to building codes and the American with Disabilities Act, buildings four or more stories high require the additional investment of an elevator system, which could deter a developer from suing apartment complexes of. more than three floors. But rising land and material costs are precipitating desire among developers for higher density multi-family complexes, which puts the four-story apartment complex on everyone’s radar, Roth said. The four-story complexes could also be tapped to provide more housing options for seniors and those for whom walking up and down stairs in a three-story building is not an option, she added.

Just a few years ago, “there was the idea that in the unincorporated county, we wouldn’t see four-story multi-family structures,” Roth said.

In the language currently proposed, less intensive business districts would allow maximum building heights of 40 feet or three stories, with the neighborhood business district remaining at maximum heights of two stories.

“Regional commercial zones” – the most common commercial zoning that often appears as big box stores along major roads – would allow three-story buildings and hotels up to 100 feet.

The planned developments, a sandbox style neighborhood that requires an approved “master plan”, would have no height limits. Developers administratively negotiate these master plans with the planning department, so visions of a skyscraper on Market Street could be shot down by staff as easily as they could be offered.

The densest residential zoning district on the books in New Hanover County, RMF-H, currently allows four-story buildings capped at 50 feet tall. The new language would allow five-story complexes, subject to request, and remove the 50-foot height limit. In response to public concerns about taller buildings, the five-story complexes in this neighborhood would be accompanied by wider setbacks.

In the “light industrial” district, the most common in the northern unincorporated county, many uses would be permitted to construct buildings up to 100 feet in height.

The maximum allowable height for seniors’ residences, banks and government offices would be increased to 75 feet. Hospitals and higher education buildings could be built up to 125 feet high.

Hanover’s new Regional Medical Center – with parts such as LS3P, the architectural firm working on designs for the future Scotts Hill hospital – have already drafted a text amendment themselves in early spring, seeking a specific change. for the benefit of “regional medical facilities”. The NHRMC text amendment would have changed the height limits for hospitals in offices and institutional districts – the relevant zoning for NHRMC-Scotts Hill land – from 52 feet tall to seven stories looser.

READ MORE: NHRMC wants to build a taller building, with the help of a popular company

Shortly after initiating this amendment to the text, New Hanover County assumed for itself the role of proposing changes to the height code. NHRMC then continued to rezone its land in Scotts Hill and withdrew its amendment to the height text. (Planning council member Paul Boney, senior vice president of LS3P, recused himself throughout the planning council hearings on rewriting county height standards.)

“It really seemed logical that if there was a conversation about a height change, it had to be something where staff could look at it in a holistic way,” Roth said on Friday. “Where we could have a conversation with the planning committee and the public about it, and just take the time. “

There has been a back and forth between Roth’s planning staff and the planning board members, punctuated at board meetings where everyone can have their say on the rewrite and where it should go. The conversation at Thursday’s meeting was marked by setbacks. Part of this process has been figuring out how to protect these taller incoming buildings than before from residential areas and other types of land.

At the meeting, board member Donna Girardot said certain language, like imposing significant setbacks even when neighboring residential lots are not developed, could penalize supporters of the four- and five-story projects. . She asked Roth to return to a planning board meeting in the near future with more nuanced language on setbacks.

Roth and the planning staff could make this presentation as early as October; some board members are eager to roll out the new standards and start monitoring the reaction of the development community. The text amendment still needs a vote from the planning council and then a favorable vote from the council of commissioners before it becomes official.

“It doesn’t look like the days of a three-story hospital are here anymore,” said Roth. “It doesn’t seem like the era of three-story hotels is really here anymore. So if we want to see this kind of development, our districts have to allow it. “

Find more information on the new height standards at Planning service website.

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