Last week, the river bank across from downtown Wilmington became the scene of a “layered and provocative” photo shoot taken to protest the hotel and spa that’s been proposed for the site.
In a series of staged photos, local models and activists Lily Nicole and Brandon Cagle stand unsmiling in knee-high grass on the marshy bank. They hold cardboard signs with black letters that spell out words in Gullah, the language of the Gullah Geechee who once worked as slaves in the rice plantations along the Cape Fear River.
The messages point to the impact the project could have on the history of the Gullah Geechee in New Hanover and Brunswick counties and the potential environmental risks the development could face.
One of the signs reads ‘Dem ‘struckshun will wash’way.’ The Gullah word  ‘struckshun can mean both “construction” and “destruction,” according to Blair Houtz, who helped organize the photos. Houtz created the messages on the signs using a borrowed Gullah dictionary and Internet searches.
Houtz said he intended the sign to have a double meaning. The message suggests the hotel’s construction could “wash away” with flooding while destruction of the land will “wash away” portions of Gullah Geechee history. 
“This hotel is being built, but what is it destroying when it’s being built?” Houtz asked.
The photos were taken and posted to social media the day before the New Hanover County Technical Review Committee was set to consider plans for the hotel and spa. The photos aimed to draw attention to the project’s potential impacts and encourage residents to voice concerns to New Hanover County’s Planning and Land Use Department.
They weren’t the only ones with concerns about the project.
Several other Wilmington-area residents submitted comments to the technical review committee ahead of their Wednesday meeting. Some comments mirrored concerns voiced by opponents to the Villages at Battleship Point — another project recently proposed on the Cape Fear River’s west bank.
Plans for the latest west bank development show the six-floor hotel would include 146 units, ranging in size from one- to five-bedroom units. The project is also set to feature two rooftop pools, an open-air patio and an infinity pool that looks onto the Cape Fear River. In addition, the development is set to include retail, restaurant and commercial kitchen space.
The project is being developed by Ginn Corporation, a Charleston-based development company. The property is owned by the Holdings of TCM, Inc., a company based out of Mooresville. The group has owned the land since 2016, according to New Hanover County property records.
During Wednesday’s technical review meeting, several New Hanover County agencies offered their feedback to Frank Braxton, who is listed as the project’s applicant. The technical review committee ensures submitted plans meet development standards for New Hanover County. 
Raymond Griswold with New Hanover County Fire Services expressed concerns on the call about access to the site and the distance of fire hydrants from the building in site plans. A representative from the county’s engineering department questioned the project’s plans for stormwater mitigation and a planner with New Hanover County offered written feedback on the project.
Representatives from the North Carolina Department of Transportation and the Wilmington Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization did not attend the meeting, which was held via teleconference.
That was disappointing for Robert Parr, a Wilmington resident who is committed to raising the alarm about flood risks for west bank developments. Parr has previously made presentations to the New Hanover County Planning Board in opposition to the Battleship Point development highlighting the potential flood risk.  
High tide flooding is becoming increasingly common on roads, parking lots and other infrastructure near Battleship North Carolina, Parr said. 
“The road is dangerous and it’s dangerous at present sea level and we know that sea level is going to rise,” he said.
Roger Shew, a geology lecturer at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, shares these concerns about west bank flooding. He fears sea level rise stemming from climate change will transform parts of the west bank into islands.
“It really will become an island on an island,” Shew said.
For Brayton Willis, it’s not enough to recognize that the site is located within a FEMA designated floodplain. Other flooding variables including storm surge and sea level rise must be taken into account when considering the development. Those factors have to potential to make daily high tide flooding worse, Willis said.
“All of these other compound flooding impacts that we’ll see in the future are just going to dramatically exacerbate the flooding problems on that side of the river,” he said, “rendering the property useless.”
Willis is a Leland resident who heads up the Brunswick County chapter of the NAACP. He sits on the group’s environmental climate justice committee who helped write a letter opposing both the proposed hotel and the Battleship Point project.
Parr said he wants concerns about flooding and infrastructure addressed by New Hanover County’s planning staff.
“There’s so many red flags that are flapping and there’s nobody in county government that is saying, ‘Well, wait a minute, why are we doing this?,’” he said. “So that’s the big problem.”
An alternative proposed by opponents to both the hotel and the Battleship Point project is conserving the land and constructing an educational center on the site. 
Last month, the Eagles Island Central Park Task Force released a report that outlines how the group could turn the area into a conservation park that educates people about the site’s ecological and historic significance of Eagles Island. The group’s vision for the islands future, including nature and paddle trails, boardwalks, a park and an educational center.
Battleship North Carolina and the site of the proposed hotel both sit on Eagles Island. The Eagles Island Task Force was formed in recent years by local stakeholders who are interested in the future of the land in the area.
But even with alternative plans, the group still faces the obstacle of purchasing land on Eagles Island. 
“The question is, how do you get the land?” Shew said.
The land on the site of the proposed project is zoned B-2, a commercial zoning that allows for the construction of a hotel. This means that unlike the Battleship Point project, which will require the creation of a new zoning district and a rezoning, land won’t need a rezoning before the hotel and spa project moves forward.
The developer will need to address comments from the technical review committee, but once the project meets New Hanover County’s standards they can begin seeking permits needed to begin work on the project.
Parr is worried about the future of west bank development and the roads and other infrastructure New Hanover County will need to fund to make projects on that side of the river viable.
“As time goes on, and we all see sea level rise … we’re essentially going to have islands, and those islands are going to be dependent on infrastructure that’s at risk,” he said. “Taxpayers are going to pay for island development, and I think that’s wrong.”
Reporter Emma Dill can be reached at 910-343-2096 or