It’s back-to-the-drawing board on the town’s effort to preserve open lands – working farms, mostly – in and around Swansboro. The focus of the effort is tracts zoned residential-agriculture.

At their meeting June 25, town commissioners were handed a proposal – unanimously endorsed by the Swansboro Planning Board – that would amend the minimum building-lot size in the RA zoning district from 1-1/2 acres to 3 acres “to preserve the residential character of the area from subdivision intrusion.”

Andrea Correll, town planner, presented the matter at the commissioner meeting. She explained that the action is being taken as a follow up on the town’s recently adopted land-use plan. The plan serves as a guide to future development. (See related article.) The town is in the midst of codifying policies and goals of the LUP.

“We had a big turnout from the agricultural areas,” Correll said of the planning that went into the LUP. Citizen input was considered the key to the several-months update process in 2018. “There are still working farms.”

During Swansboro’s LUP update process, Correll said many farm owners expressed that they wanted the plan to protect a rural way of life. Doubling the minimum lot size for a single-family home within the RA zone – which would discourage “subdivision-intrusion” – would help ensure that goal, and that goal was written into the LUP, according to Correll.

Recognizing that there was opposition to the plan, Correll pointed out to commissioners that some property in the town and its extraterritorial jurisdiction is zoned RA for reasons other than it is being farmed.

“There is a lot of properties that are zoned RA that are place-markers,” she said. By that, she meant that a tract might be zoned RA – which taxed at a lower value than other residential or commercial property – while it is being “held” for future development.

Of course, smaller RA tracts exist that, as development occurs over time, have become remnants of what may have been larger areas of undeveloped land.

That appears to be the case with Richard and Elaine Dowdy’s 5-acre lot at 143 Sudan Drive off Old Hammock Road.

Dowdy told commissioners he opposed the change. He spoke before the meeting, during the section reserved for public comment, during a public hearing on the proposed amendment, and also presented a letter.

A Swansboro High Graduate, Dowdy now lives in Chapel Hill. He said he and his wife, also an SHS graduate, hope to return to Swansboro someday and live on that tract.

He expressed some frustration over the fact that he did not become aware of the amendment until receiving a letter on June 3, too late to attend the planning board meeting of June 3 at which the matter was discussed and recommended for commissioners’ approval. (The planning board acts in an advisory capacity for the commissioners.)

Dowdy, in his initial comments, told the commissioners that he bought the property 30 years ago with the understanding that he could subdivide it into three lots.

“It’s my understanding that if this changes, I won’t be able to do that,” he said.

Dowdy made it clear that he was not opposed to a change lowering the density of the RA he just didn’t want that change to apply to his property.

“Don’t use a broad brush,” he said.

Before opening up the matter for public comment, commissioners had the opportunity to question Correll. The questions and answers provided a glimpse of philosophical differences.

Commissioner Roy Herrick asked Correll how the 3-acre minimum was derived.

Correll said she went to other local governments – municipalities, mainly, because counties are not allowed to zone farmland – for comparison. Essentially, that is what the proposal for the new minimum was based on, and taking into account the goals as stated in the land-use plan.

Herrick said his interpretation of the LUP is that it is not consistent with the establishment of density. In some zones, there are eight housing units allowed in an acre and in some there is one single-family home allowed for each 1-1/2 acre.

Correll said the LUP is consistent when it comes to the preservation of farmland. (See related article.)

Herrick characterized the amendment as “a minimal-growth plan.”

Correll did not disagree, but did offer clarification. She said the amendment is aimed at preserving a “rural lifestyle.”

And that is where the philosophical difference was noted.

Herrick’s point was that a 3-acre minimum would stifle development. One of the board’s chief “budget hawks,” he provided a contrast between the rise of the town’s annual expenses and the rise of the town’s revenues. The difference, with expenses going up faster, is about $100,000.

“The $100,000-difference is if growth was slowed down,” Herrick explained after the meeting. “It is a combination of property taxes and sales tax. Sales tax within Onslow County is allocated to municipalities and the county based on their relative amounts of property values. If values don’t grow then we receive proportionally less sales tax.”

Given that, Herrick said, “If we start to slow down growth, the only options are to raise taxes or cut services.”

Correll said she appreciated that sentiment, acknowledging that he is viewing the change from an economic standpoint. However, she said she is considering it from a quality of life standpoint.

When Mayor John Davis opened the hearing, Dowdy spoke again. He reiterated what he had said during the citizen comment section at the beginning of the meeting.

“It just doesn’t seem like it should be applicable to every RA property,” he said of the change to a 3-acre minimum.

And, again, he referred to his situation. Under the current zoning, he could have three building lots. With the amendment, he would only have the option of building one home.

“How can you justify putting a house on five acres?” he asked the board.

Dowdy told commissioners that had he known the change was a possibility, he would have started the process of subdividing, putting in roads and sidewalks for the three lots that he would have available.

Susan Casper, whose family owns a working farm, also spoke during the hearing.

While she supported the change, she did have a question about a tract of her family’s land.

Casper explained that Mt. Pleasant Road and Swansboro Loop Road divide her farmland into three sections. As a result of that, a relatively small piece of land, about 2 acres, is isolated from the rest, at the northwest corner of Swansboro Loop Road and Main Street Extension.

“What would I be able to do with that?” she asked, should the lot-size minimum be changed to 3 acres. “Would it just be considered part of the larger area?”

Correll said the land would be considered a “lot of record,” capable of being developed.

When commissioners opened discussion to consider a motion, Commissioner Frank Tursi said the presence off the isolated RA parcels, those surrounded by subdivisions and commercial development, were not the focus of the LUP.

Tursi served as chairman of the committee that updated the land-use plan.

The focus, he said, is “to preserve what is farmland.”

Dowdy’s property, Tursi pointed out, is not a farm.

As for the larger areas, the working farms, preservation, he said, “Is what the people wanted” when the town’s land-use plan was being formulated. “And we (the board of commissioners) passed it (the LUP) unanimously.”

He suggested the planning board return to the issue in an attempt to find a way to protect large areas of RA and spare property owners like Dowdy.

Commissioner Brent Hatlestad seemed to take issue with taking any action on the proposal. He referred to recent board action – which he opposed – rezoning two parcels on Hammock Beach Road from RA to commercial.

“We always seem to have exceptions,” he said.

For the most part, the other three commissioners appeared to agree with Tursi.

Herrick said there are obvious differences between Dowdy’s 5-acre parcel in the middle of town and a 100-acre tract in the ETJ, which is area outside the town limits that falls under Swansboro zoning jurisdiction.

Commissioner Pat Turner said of the “small parcels of land, … it doesn’t make sense to include them.”

Commissioner Phil Keagy agreed. “I have a problem with the little spots.”

Correll said two options come to mind in taking a second look. First, there could be an RA overlay district. Second, the commission could rezone those tracts that are not working farms.

The latter would likely result in a more tax revenue for the town and county as property zoned for subdivision development would likely be valued higher for tax purposes, Correll added.

Though no vote was taken, the board generally agreed to send the proposal back to the planning board for reworking.

For more on this story purchase a copy of the July 17, 2019, Tideland News.

Email Jimmy Williams at jimmy@tidelandnews.com.

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