By Michelle Wagner | Outer Banks Voice on May 21, 2021
By a 5-0 vote, the Manteo Board of Commissioners on May 19 rejected a zoning text amendment application by SAGA Construction that would have allowed for a 72-unit housing complex on a four-acre property between U.S. 64 and Russell Twiford Road.
The amendment, which has attracted significant attention as the local housing crunch reaches a crisis level, has ping-ponged back and forth between the commissioners and planning board over the last few months. The project would have included 24 units of affordable housing with the remainder being market rate.
“I’m not sure if this is a SAGA project right now that we’re trying to approve, or if it’s an affordable housing project that we’re trying to approve,” Manteo Commissioner Christine Walker asserted at the May 19 meeting. She added that she has only spoken to one person in the town who supports the project.
The board did leave the door open for a possible future agreement with SAGA on the site if the company reduces the density of the project. In response, SAGA Construction Chief Executive Officer Sumit Gupta said he could be amenable to decreasing the density, but in that case, all the units in the building would be priced at market rate with none below market rate.
In 2006, the development site was approved for Salt Meadow Landing, a mix of multi-family homes, businesses and a restaurant. That project was never developed, and Gupta told the commissioners on May 19 that in talking to members of the community, he had determined that apartments may be a better use for the land.
On May 11, however, the Manteo Planning and Zoning Board recommended the commissioners deny SAGA’s application, noting concerns that the development was too dense and out of character for the neighborhood – and with questions about whether even the two dozen affordable units would be within the financial reach of workers.
Despite denying SAGA’s application at their May 19 meeting, the Manteo Commissioners signaled a desire to work with SAGA by offering some direction and vision for the development of the site, with some members suggesting that SAGA perhaps pursue an amendment asking for 12 units per acre rather than the current ask of 22.
“I don’t have a problem with SAGA at all, and I don’t have a problem with affordable housing,” Walker said. “For one thing…I cannot be in support of this project without a traffic study. I cannot in good faith support that area having more cars in that intersection at all.”
For his part, Mayor Bobby Owens – who does not cast a vote except to break a tie – said the town needs to continue to partner with the county in developing another site, the Bowsertown property, as an affordable housing site.
He also suggested an amendment that drops the affordable housing element and reduces the allowable number of units per acre. “I’m pretty old and been around a long time,” Owens asserted. “You try to stop projects, and make projects go. Sooner or later, the projects are going to prevail, and someone is going to build something in there, I don’t know whether it’s going to be SAGA or who.”
Commissioner Jason Borland, who made the motion to deny the text amendment, also lent his support to working with SAGA. “There’s got to be a way to dig deeper,” he said. “We’ve got to figure out a way to work together to move something forward that suits you and that also suits the town.”
Commissioner Eddie Mann echoed Borland. “If it’s going to be twelve units per acre and not exceeding the town’s twenty-thousand-square-foot building capacity…I think it needs some direction in order to proceed instead of just saying no.”
After the vote, Gupta told the board he would pursue a text amendment that included 12 units per acre and held to the 20,000-square-foot building capacity — with a condition.
“Let me be clear on if there is going to be twelve apartments [per acre], I would want to also remove the affordable component [of the text amendment] and it would be market rate apartments here,” he said.
Gupta added that he would try to limit any change requests other than the 12 units per acre. “So that’s my plan,” he added. “And I do want to reach out before I do the text amendment. I would love to sit down with some of you to get more input.”
In response, Commissioner Walker stated that, “I want to say that I know the project would be beautiful, and it’s nothing again against you or your company. I just really have an issue with the traffic there. If we were looking at a totally different site, I really don’t think I would have as much heartburn as I do right now. But I just don’t believe that that is the right location.”