“What sort of town will North Wilkesboro be in 25 years, and how will we get there?”
Those questions are addressed in the town’s recently-amended 25-Year Comprehensive Plan, on which the public can comment during a public hearing at the Feb. 6 North Wilkesboro Board of Commissioners meeting. It begins at 5:30 p.m. in the board’s meeting room at Town Hall.
The answer, according to the plan, is difficult to predict, but is shaped by “a transition from a traditional industrial and manufacturing area to one based upon service, management and retirement services.”
The plan noted that “retiree in-migration is expected to have a significant impact on future development trends over the next 10-20 years, primarily in the residential and commercial services development.”
Sam Hinnant, the town’s planning and community development director, said the plan “should be used... as a guide for future land use development, capital investments and growth management decisions over the next 20 years.” Hinnant said it’s the primary policy document to guide the town’s decisions related to growth, quality of life and capital investments.
The plan was originally adopted on Dec. 5, 2006, with the goal of updating it every five years, but staff turnover (the town has had three different planning directors since 2006) led to the 11-year gap of reevaluation, said Hinnant.
In June 2017, the North Wilkesboro Planning Board appointed a review committee comprised of representatives of the North Wilkesboro Planning Board, Wilkes Economic Development Corp., Wilkes Chamber of Commerce and Downtown North Wilkesboro Partnership.
The committee unanimously recommended approval of the plan to the planning board and the planning board made the same recommendation to the town board.
Commenting on how the plan changed in 11 years, Hinnant said, “Since 2006, the town has participated in the redevelopment of the former American-Drew furniture manufacturing complex (“Block 46”), conducted a Downtown Masterplan (2009) and Pedestrian Plan (2010), constructed the Yadkin Valley Marketplace for the Wilkes County Farmers Market and implemented several downtown streetscape improvements.
Several changes to the state highway department’s Transportation Improvement Plan were made, including adding proposed improvements to N.C. 115 and the proposed N.C. 268 Bypass. Widening of N.C. 268 East is underway.
The plan has four key themes: population and economy, land use and development, community facilities and infrastructure and environmental resources.
Population and economy
The average (median) resident of North Wilkesboro is white (non-Hispanic; 70 percent of the populace), 40.8 years old and is a high school graduate (64 percent). That resident rents (62 percent) as opposed to owning a one-unit, detached structure (59.1 percent) and earns a median income of just under $20,000. The town’s 2016 population (4,533) is typical of western North Carolina, with higher median age, lower minority percentages and lower educational attainment than N.C. averages, the plan asserts.
“Population has increased faster than expected,” said Hinnant. “We remain the largest municipal government in Wilkes County. North Wilkesboro is emblematic of Wilkes County’s demographics, and Wilkes County is emblematic of rural N.C. and rural America. There has been a drastic shift in population from the rural areas to the urban areas within the last 10 years, which stands in contrast to the 20 prior years. This population shift is cyclical and I believe that it will happen again.”
Land use and development
Within the town limits, more parcels (1,059) contain single family homes than any other land use category. Vacant parcels far outnumber residential units (1,890 vs. 956). Commercial or retail parcels rank third in sheer number (334) but offer the highest total property value than any other category (over $155 million).
The plan identifies more than 3,000 town acres (including extraterritorial jurisdiction) suitable for development (virtually unchanged since 2006). The plan cites “redevelopment costs” as the biggest threat to future development of the central town.
“Due to the town’s past history as an industrial hub,” the plan states, “site contamination concerns have been raised as redevelopment and infill considerations are being addressed in the central, older parts of the town.”
Hinnant said the town actively developed a N.C. Brownfields Program to ensure sites such as former gas stations, former dry cleaners and former industrial properties are made suitable for reuse through “a mechanism to treat prospective developers of brownfield sites differently than the parties responsible for contaminating them.” The town has sought funding for brownfields cleanup.
He doesn’t recommend a change of focus to expansion outside town limits if redevelopment goals aren’t met by the time the plan is expected to be revisited in five years.
“Without focusing development inward, we are not serving the best public interest, and we are leading to higher future capital and personnel costs. Municipal boundary expansion is directly related to the maintenance cost of new streets, water lines, sewer lines and stormwater lines, in addition to the personnel cost of basic municipal services such as police, fire, streets and so on,” he said.
Community facilities and infrastructure
The plan makes “significant recommendations” concerning development of a new raw water intake; development of improvement plans for sewer system and pedestrian networks and conversion of the Southern Railway right-of-way into a greenway or park.
Hinnant said the focus is on these issues because “the town needs a more reliable source of raw water to be set for growth and water shortages in the next 20 years. Drinking water, which comes from filtering and treating raw water (river, lake, etc.) will be even more of a commodity than it is today.”
He continued, “State and local governments across the country are embroiled in lawsuits over the amount of water taken out of rivers and bodies of water in relation to their neighbors downstream. Developing an updated capital improvement plan that reflects the right balance between distribution/collection system growth (new water/sewer lines) versus maintenance and replacement of existing lines and facilities is a key measure in the effectiveness of our water and sewer system.”
Hinnant called the conversion of the former Southern Railway the “key to our revitalization efforts.”
He added, “Our downtown is our area of highest density and the town wants to encourage the further development of the downtown and further increasing of the density. With the [Southern Railway] property being a long and narrow tract, a greenway and centralized park are logically suited to serve future development in the surrounding area where the town is already seeing redevelopment (Block 46 and downtown).”
The North Wilkesboro Pedestrian Plan was developed in 2009 and updated in 2015. The most recent revisions, said Hinnant, were recommendations to “new connections from existing greenways to residential neighborhoods, sidewalk connections to North Wilkesboro Elementary School, sidewalk installation along Boone Trail and West D Street, the ‘Rail to Trail’ conversion of the Southern Railway property, and the Euclid Avenue greenway connection.”
The highest priority under “environmental resources” is preservation of historically significant structures and landmarks through by designating historic districts and or landmarks. The plan recommended establishing a historic preservation committee, use of incentives, pursuance of grants and other funds, connectiung significant historical areas with greenways and pedestrian facilities and working with local public schools.
The plan recommended appropriate development in the town’s two designated watersheds: the Reddies River (WS-II classification) and Yadkin River (WS-IV). It encourages clustered development, mixed-use commercial development, research into a purchase of development rights (PDR) program and a ranking system for 10/70 special density allocations. The town has authority to allow high density development [70 percent built-upon area] on 10 percent of the total area subject to watershed regulations.
The plan in five years
Hinnant predicted that the plan will see as many changes over the next five years as it has seen over the past 11.
“I think that our density (population, residential and commercial units) is increasing within our downtown and will continue to increase over the next five to 10 years,” he said.
“We are currently seeing four to five downtown buildings being redeveloped with residential units being added upstairs. There is a great potential for patio homes, condos, and apartments within the downtown area and Block 46, which in turn will support the commercial development and vice versa.”
The entire plan, including maps and tables, may be downloaded and/or printed by visiting http://www.north-wilkesboro.com/business/planning/comprehensive/25_Year_Comprehensive_Plan.pdf.