In my 32 years on the Wilmington Zoning Board of Appeals, the recent vote to grant a variance to the First Columbia Corporation allowing them to construct nine wings containing 27 townhouses near our town’s beach was, without question, the most controversial of all. I fully understand the opposition to this project as it will certainly alter the character of the existing 8.2 acres of wooded land.
Having now read many of the expected ensuing letters condemning our board’s decision, it’s important that our critics understand that whether to have allowed or not to have allowed townhouses to be built near the beach was not the issue that night nor a consideration in the vote.
Multi-family housing has been allowed on that property since our zoning ordinance was written 22 years ago. What was in front of the board on that Wednesday was to decide which of the choices facing us would have less impact on the area and would better protect the adjacent neighborhood and community in general.
Wilmington’s zoning ordinance has always allowed multi-family housing in the center of town, two units per acre, and the beach area is zoned to accommodate not only that type of development, but many other commercial uses as well. With just over eight acres, a total of 16 units, or eight wings of two units apiece, could be constructed there without the zoning board’s involvement at all.
If the variance requesting nine wings of three units each (without garages) was not granted, the developers were prepared to construct the allowable eight wings (with garages) and, as each townhouse would consequently be larger, each would command a heftier price tag.
To more easily sell the larger and more expensive units, each would be placed closer to the beach to garner better views and proximity to sand, and be sold as (almost) beachfront property. Our code currently allows these townhouses to be placed as close as 10 feet from the beach property line. The requested variance contained a provision required by our board that would place the closest unit 145 feet away from the same line.
Consequently, faced with the ability to better control the development and protect the neighboring area, the board correctly granted the variance but included with it 19 stringent conditions the developer must abide by. These conditions include controls on excessive noise and lighting, parking, pets, landscaping, antennas, signage, age of renters, width of trees to be cut on the property (nothing over 8” in width), vehicles, construction hours (none on weekends), debris and rubbish removal, clotheslines (none, thank you), and even the allowable height of grass before it must be cut (6”).
Not one of these conditions could have been addressed if this variance was denied and the developer allowed to progress to the allowable alternative development.
Wilmington’s Zoning Board has worked tirelessly for 18 months with this project, insisting all the way that protections be in place preserving the rights and privacy of all residents living near the property. The developer responded to every request including less units and placing them further from the beach. And as they will now own Bowman Lane, they will widen the road, repave it, improve the sidewalk, install more attractive street lighting and maintain the road year round without a dime’s cost to the town.
When fully completed and sold, nearly $100,000 in annual property and school taxes will be collected from this project. That’s real money not having to be collected from other taxpayers in our community.
Although this member of the board fully understands the controversy surrounding the project and joins everyone in wishing it would always remain a wooded area, one could argue that placing attractive townhouses in the woods near the beach will forever and fully protect the town from less desirable alternatives such as a shopping center, a 100 unit hotel, a trailer park or an outlet mall. Again, all are allowed under present law.
The last room built for tourism in Wilmington was in 1960, 50 years ago and at the Ledge Rock Motel. If our town is to grow and continue to provide lodging for tourists, its inventory of rooms must be more competitive with other areas and include more attractive options for today’s more discerning traveler.
Our town is a wonderful place to live and raise a family and we are all very fortunate to call it home. There is no member of any board in this town, elected or appointed, that wishes anything but the best for our community and will never stop working tirelessly to insure that this treasure we call Wilmington continues to be the blessing it is.