CAPE CARTERET — Within about 10 years, U.S. Highway 70 will transform into Interstate 42, roughly from the Raleigh-Garner area to the east end of Havelock, enabling a growing stream of inland residents to more easily get to Carteret County to live and recreate.
When that process is complete and the full impacts are felt, Carteret County Economic Development Director Don Kirkman said Tuesday night, “We’ll probably look a lot less like Ocracoke and a lot more like Wilmington.”
Mr. Kirkman was speaking as an invited guest at the second meeting of the Cape Carteret Strategic Growth Committee in town hall off Dolphin Street.
The idea was to let Mr. Kirkman, who’s considered the local expert on the potential impacts of the I-42 project, inform the committee, as well as town residents, commissioners, Mayor Dave Fowler and Town Manager Zach Steffey about the impacts and give some advice.
Mr. Kirkman noted that although official state project maps show I-42 going through Morehead City to the state port, he believes the chances of that happening are almost nil, because of the complexity of running an interstate highway through narrow Morehead City.
Still, he said, everyone needs to think ahead – now, not later – and get ready for bigtime change. With the flood of new tourists coming to Bogue Banks beaches, it’s likely “every day in the summer will look a lot like Fourth of July weekend.”
What this means, Mr. Kirkman said, is decision-makers, from county commissioners and staff, down to town boards of commissioners, planning board members and staff, will face hard choices as tourism and the permanent population grow.
He sees it as an opportunity, but with big challenges and built-in limitations.
“We’re a large county,” Mr. Kirkman said. “But there’s not a whole lot of area for that growth to go. If you’re a ‘smart growth’ advocate, which I am, this is actually a good thing.
“If you look at New Hanover County (after completion of I-40 from Raleigh to Wilmington in 1990), what you see is the county has experienced massive sprawl,” to the point where it’s also impacted neighboring counties, such as Pender and Brunswick, roads cut through formerly rural areas and development has occurred almost everywhere.
But in Carteret, he said, about half of the total of 664,660 acres is water, and another 156,104 acres is the Croatan National Forest, which is off-limits to development.
When you add in other off-limits areas, such as military land, state land, land trust easements and Open Grounds Farm, the total acreage available for development here is about 60,860 acres, including wetlands, most of which are also off-limits because of state and federal regulations.
Where will growth occur?
Most of the permanent population growth will be along what is now the Highway 70 corridor, the Highway 24 corridor, Highway 58, on the banks and off, and Highway 101 from Beaufort to Havelock.
Much of that growth will be in Morehead City and Newport, which already have central waste treatment systems. Beaufort will grow, too, as it has central sewer, as well.
Mr. Kirkman said Newport is going to be “ground zero,” because I-42 will stop just a few miles from its western limit, and Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point is projected to grow dramatically, because it could become home to at least seven new squadrons of the F-35 Lighting II Joint Strike Fighter. That will add scores of military personnel and civil servants.
Plus, Mr. Kirkman said, there’s plenty of land available for development around Newport and it’s cheaper than in most other places in the county.
Cape Carteret will almost surely grow much faster than it has in the past, Mr. Kirkman said, because of I-42, but also because major improvements are underway or planned for U.S. 17, which runs north to the rapidly growing Virginia and Washington, D.C., areas.
Also, he said, Cape Carteret will continue to be influenced by growth at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in nearby Jacksonville and will be influenced at least somewhat by the Cherry Point growth.
“This town of about 2,000 could easily be a lot bigger” as a result of all of these influences, maybe even double its current size within 20 years, he said.
But, he added, just where and how Cape Carteret grows will depend upon what town officials want. Without a central sewer system – something Mayor Fowler has pushed for years – there’s only so much development that can occur.
Why so fast?
Where does Mr. Kirkman get all these projections? Essentially, he said, from figures compiled by the state before and after I-40 opened Wilmington and the rest of southeastern North Carolina to faster and easier travel from inland areas.
In 1980, the population in Wilmington was 55,530, but by 2010, 20 years after I-40, it was 106,476, nearly double. By 2017, it was 119,045.
Comparable figures for New Hanover County – Wilmington is its largest city – are 103,471 in 1980, 203,382 in 2010 and 227,198 in 2017.
Carteret County’s population, Mr. Kirkman said, has grown only about 1% per year for decades, rising from 41,092 in 1980 to 66,700 in 2010. I-42 will change that, he’s certain.
Official state figures project Carteret County’s population will hit 75,646 by 2027 and 81,423 by 2037. Mr. Kirkman thinks that’s low, for several reasons.
First, he said, the state planners can, by law, only look at historical growth rates to project future growth rates. Second, slow growth is definitely not what happened after I-40 connected Raleigh to Wilmington. Growth was faster and much higher than projected.
Then, Mr. Kirkman said, there’s the fact that I-40, when built to Wilmington, ran through mostly rural, even desolate areas, with almost no large towns.
I-42, by contrast, will run through or near larger areas – Kinston and Goldsboro, for example – so there are more people likely to visit and maybe move to the Crystal Coast. In addition, he said, the number of people who live in the Raleigh area is far higher than it was when I-40 connected it to Wilmington.
“I think there will be lot more people who just wake up in the morning and say, ‘Let’s go the beach for the day,’” the economic development director said.
Schools will need to be expanded and new ones will need to be built, Mr. Kirkman said, particularly in the west. Health care will need to be addressed. Bridges will become traffic choke-points, particularly the two-lane high-rise that runs from Cape Carteret/Cedar Point on the mainland to Emerald Isle.
“You’re right in the middle of that,” he said to the town hall audience Tuesday.
Emerald Isle has for years resisted the idea of expanding the bridge to four lanes and also resisted the concept of making Highway 58 through town four lanes instead of two, with a center turn lane in places.
Mr. Kirkman said he’s not advocating for a four-lane high-rise to Emerald Isle, but said there are likely to be many who push for it. Similarly, he said, there could be a renewed push for a third bridge from the mainland to Bogue Banks.
But residents and officials in the banks towns that are likely landing spots for such a bridge – Indian Beach or Salter Path/Pine Knoll Shores – are probably going to be “reticent” to the concept, as they have been in the past, he said. It would be a major disruption for many.
“We may have to deal with some suboptimal compromise (traffic) solutions,” he said.
There are limiting factors to growth in Carteret County, however. In addition to the low amount of land available for development, there are few available existing buildings of significant size for large businesses to move into, Mr. Kirkman said. Carteret County also must pay strong attention to its natural environment.
There’s also a serious labor shortage, bad enough that many small businesses can’t find enough workers. The economic development director said his office has in recent years shifted its focus from attracting businesses to attracting people.
Telecommuting, he said, is a great concept and a real possibility, as it’s now easier than ever for more people to work remotely.
The county, he said, has advantages in that effort; it’s a desirable place to live aesthetically and has a great school system. The hospital, Carteret Health Care, is excellent, he said, and both of those things are desired by the kind of high-skilled workers who would move here and telecommute for jobs in Research Triangle Park in the Raleigh-Durham area.
Also in the county’s favor is the fact it has the lowest property tax rate in the state.
To make telecommuting happen in a big way, the county will need more high-speed internet connections, meaning more fiber optic lines to serve not just schools, medical facilities and big businesses, but homes. Some is already in the ground, but it’s not widely available to the general population.
Emerald Isle, Mr. Kirkman has been pushing for fiber optic to town, but it’s really up to the companies that put it in, chiefly Spectrum.
The good thing, Mr. Kirkman said, is officials in Carteret County and its towns have “already taken the opportunity” to begin the conversations necessary to get ready for the growth that is sure to come.
Work is already underway on the Havelock portion of U.S. 70 set to become I-42, and work is scheduled to begin on the complex James City section, near New Bern, as early as this fall. All of the other segments in the I-42 corridor are in the State Transportation Improvement Program.
The whole project is considered high priority, in part because it’s a hurricane evacuation route, but also because of the military bases.
Completion of the two segments in Havelock and James City will have a noticeable impact, Mr. Kirkman said, as elimination of bottlenecks in New Bern/James City and Havelock will significantly lessen the time it takes for many to get to the Carteret County beaches. While the James City project is underway, Highway 58, the alternate route to Carteret County, will also see more traffic.
At the end of the talk, Mayor Fowler said one of his concerns is while elected officials and planners might know of the challenges that face the town and county as growth intensifies, very few others do.
He said he’s hopeful Cape Carteret’s growth committee, planning board and commissioners make wise choices, and that they talk to others who’ve gone through this before.
“There’s an old saying,” he said. “It’s ‘our problem is not unique, it’s only unique to us.’”
Contact Brad Rich at 252-864-1532; email Brad@thenewstimes.com; or follow on Twitter @brichccnt.