County Zoning Gets Full Revamp After 50 Years

By County Manager Chris Coudriet

Fifty years is a long time, especially when it comes to development. The way we think about development, its connectivity, density, affordability, and so much more has changed over time to meet the needs of the community. And it’s important that the county’s zoning rules change with it and look to the future.

So, at its July 1 meeting, the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners approved the most substantial change to the county’s zoning ordinance since it was originally adopted 50 years ago in 1969.

This amendment provides the tools that were missing from the county’s zoning ordinance and adds the full spectrum of zoning options needed to support the development strategy outlined in New Hanover County’s Comprehensive Plan.

The eight new zoning options, the same number of districts added to our code over the past 40 years, are a big step forward and will help us plan for the future. They’re adapted from districts used in the City of Wilmington, so we already have examples of how they’ll work. And they are a direct result of the discussions we’ve been having as a community in recent years, informed by public meetings and community conversations, Planning Board input, and extensive staff time.

The Cape Fear region is growing. New Hanover County is anticipated to have 315,475 people by 2038 (according to the State Demographer’s Office), which is about a 36 percent increase from where we are today. The way we’ve developed land for that past 50 years will not accommodate this growth, and it’s important that we plan differently for the future.

Areas outside city limits used to be rural and were expected to stay that way. But those areas are changing and our community needs different housing choices for people at different stages of life and different price points.

We need the optionality for different types of homes, development that minimizes travel, and the ability for residents to easily access the basic goods and services they need on a daily basis. These new zoning districts provide the tools to help make this happen.

They allow the county’s development regulations to be more tailored to the needs of particular types of property, increase the diversity of development options available within the county’s jurisdiction, and reduce the uncertainty for residents about the potential impacts from general district rezonings.

You can view a list of the new zoning districts in more depth on our website, but – in a snapshot – the amendment includes five new residential districts that provide more opportunities for different types of housing to fit the different needs of our residents.

It also includes two new commercial districts: one provides an alternative to allow for smaller commercial uses with less impact that are suitable next to residential areas, and the other provides a clear place for uses that don’t always need to be on highly traveled corridors or around the corner from residential neighborhoods.

In addition, the amendment incorporates a new mixed use district and a revision to our current Planned Development district to provide more options for property owners seeking to mix homes and destinations as part of one project.

These new zoning districts are the first phase of the county’s development code update. Later this year, the county will complete a reorganization of our existing codes into one easy-to-use document – the Unified Development Ordinance (UDO). Then we’ll begin working to strategically update targeted sections of the code.

This phased approach will allow the county to make improvements right away while providing for more in-depth conversations on topics like subdivision street standards that are more complex.

The recently-approved amendment will not change the zoning of any property. Rather, it outlines alternatives and potential tools that property owners can request through the rezoning process. In order to change the zoning of any property, public hearings at the Planning Board and in front of the Board of Commissioners would continue to be required to make sure they were applied appropriately.

The approval of these new zoning districts is a significant policy action by our board, and I applaud the work of our Planning & Land Use staff. These new districts will make development in the unincorporated areas of the county more accessible, advance the county’s comprehensive land use plan, and benefit our community as we plan for the future.

I encourage you to learn more about these zoning updates and the county’s work on the UDO at Planning.NHCgov.com/UDO. You can also see a visual example of the new residential districts below.

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