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Local ABC Board Runs Amok in Wilmington

Compared to most folks contributing to this site, I'm a policy rookie, but here's an event that has statewide implications.

Here in Wilmington, the state run Alcohol Beverage Control has a retail store and distribution center on 17th St. between Castle and Church Streets.  This is a lower income area most out-of-towners only know as they drive through the Oleander St. corridor on the way to the beach.

Earlier this year, our local ABC board (three seated individuals and a supervisor) quietly started buying up the entire block around their facility to the ultimate tab of over $2,400,000.00, a figure the board members themselves contend is twice market value at the time (and probably more now).  On the physical block were three zoned commercial structures and ten single family homes dating from the early 20th century, examples of what Preservation North Carolina calls "vernacular housing".  These houses are currently zoned residential. 

 Historic Wilmington Foundation and others have been pursuing a Historic District designation for this neighborhood for over two years, and that designation is near becoming a reality.  While the structures in the area are not mansions nor public 19th century monuments, they do represent 80 to 100 year old houses from a previous era that are a contributing part of the historic fabric. As many of the larger building in our area have been preserved (and some tragically levelled), we are now looking to expand the scope of preservation to the more simple participating structures.

 Earlier in the summer, the ABC Board applied for demolition permits to level all thirteen existing buildings despite the current residential zoning. Their intent was to create a larger distribution facility and parking on the land.  No attempt was made to contact the citizens in the area, elected officials, or the like regarding this impactful "growth".  In addition, the ABC allowed the purchased properties to remain open and unsecured to invite vandalism and theft, thereby pursuing their projected demolition by neglect, I suppose their thinking being that they would get permits faster if the dwellings were dilapidated.

Historic Wilmington and others made multiple gestures to the ABC Board in attempts to save the houses. None was heeded.  When a request was made for design plans and ideas for the new ABC structures, none was forthcoming.  When the question of nondisclosed use of public tax payer generated moneys was brought up, the ABC stated that they are exempt from any disclosure as they are an income generating entity outside general transparency guidlines.

Within the last two weeks, all structures on the physical block have been destroyed.  They are gone.  A few days later, the ABC Board pulled their permit request to rezone the block from residential to commercial due many folks think to public outcry and a very pointed Wilmington Star-News Op-ed piece blasting the ABC Board members by name.  The board did not, however, pull the request until after all the houses were eviscerated.

While the houses are gone, this incident has been a rallying issue for downtown Wilmington.  Lawn signs saying Stop the Expansion! dot the nearby neighborhood and adjoining areas as well. 

We can't save these buildings, but we can raise the bar on what is and what is not acceptable conduct by appointed officials, elected officials, and developers.  Preservationists and builders can work together to avoid runaway growth in older neighborhoods.  I have no interest in seeing Wilmington have Myrtle Beach type high rises where older building once stood.  Our town has numerous talented architectural and design professionals who are on board with responsible growth, infill, and rehab.  Let's us them.

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