During last week’s special meeting of the Swansboro commissioners, a line was drawn over how the town will approach development in ecologically sensitive areas, specifically wetlands.
Commissioner Frank Tursi had asked for discussion on the issue to be added to the May 21 meeting, originally called to discuss the 2019-20 budget.
Central to the discussion is a proposal to enlarge the Bailey Center, an N.C. 24 strip mall, and the developer’s request to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to fill a quarter-acre of wetlands in order to expand the center.
Tursi wanted the board to be aware of the plans – for the time being under consideration by the corps – but he also wanted support for an effort to limit the new construction’s impact on wetlands, possibly through negotiation.
In a letter to the commissioners requesting the meeting, Tursi states, “If the corps approves the permit, more than an acre of wetlands will be destroyed for both phases of this development.”
He opened discussion by pointing out that the planning board will likely be getting a request for the project once the developer, Chris Bailey of Jacksonville, clears the corps.
“Bailey has submitted a request,” Tursi said. And, he added, “Unlike last time … we now have a land-use plan that discourages this. This will be the first test.”
The 2.64-acre Bailey Center construction required filling 33,794 square feet of wetlands. The strip mall opened earlier this year. Since its construction was approved about two years ago, the town’s ordinances have been updated to require disclosure of the presence of wetlands and the land-use plan has been approved.
Bailey is proposing to build a 16,000-square-foot indoor storage facility behind the Dollar Tree and a 14,000-square-foot building on the site of a truck-rental business, adjacent to the west.
In his opening statement on May 21, Tursi said that the land-use plan update, adopted in January, relied heavily on citizen participation. The plan serves as a guide for development and is required of local governments in the state’s 20 coastal counties. (See related article.) Wetlands preservation ranked high in the polling that was done for the land-use plan update.
“It was one of the first concerns, overall, about development,” Tursi said. The public has “encouraged us to protect wetlands.”
He made it clear that while there is no enforcement mechanism in place, Swansboro officials could – and should – attempt to negotiate with the developer in order to lessen the impact on the upland wetlands, which act as “filters” for stormwater runoff, according to the land-use plan.
The Bailey-area wetlands are part of larger section that reaches into the Deer Run subdivision and behind the businesses on N.C. 24 to the west. According to Tursi.
“These wetlands once covered several hundred acres,” he said.
As more of the wetlands are filled, there are consequences. He mentioned water seeping through the pavement on Main Street Extension at Family Care Pharmacy. It is a situation that apparently manifested after completion of the adjacent Bailey Center.
“When you do these kinds of things, you can have consequences that you can’t predict,” Tursi said.
In addition to the corps, a federal agency, state rules exist to control stormwater runoff.
“We will continue to rely on state government,” Tursi said, when it comes to enforcement. But, he said the town’s charge, by way of the land-use plan, is to encourage responsible development.
And this is where the line was drawn.
Commissioner Roy Herrick said the plan does not grant the town any authority to impose additional restrictions on development in areas that may have wetlands.
“I read the plan,” he said.
While Tursi did not disagree, he repeated that the plan encourages protection of the wetlands.
Mayor John Davis then asked Tursi, what action would he like the commission to take. Davis referred to correspondence between Tursi and the board on the issue.
In response, Tursi suggested asking Andrea Correll, town planner, to open a dialogue with Bailey in an effort to negotiate to avoid or minimize damage to the wetlands on the site.
“She should let them know that the (commissioners) will have no choice but to deny any special-use permits that may be required because the plans as submitted to the Corps violate our land-use plan,” he stated in the email to the board.
Should that fail, the town commissioners should be prepared to object to all federal and state permits and certifications.
“The permitting process allows us to voice our objections in several meaningful ways,” Tursi writes. “We should let the corps know that our new land-use plan encourages the protection of wetlands, not their destruction.”
The corps requires the developers “mitigate” the filling of local wetlands by preserving wetlands elsewhere, according to Tursi. However, creating wetland in, the Hoffman Forest for example, does little to benefit Swansboro.
“We should object,” he writes. “Any mitigation should benefit our residents and the White Oak River bordering our town.”
The corps allows 30 days for comment on the application, which falls under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act, according to Bailey’s application.
“The only option we have is to join the permitting process,” Tursi told the board May 21. “It’s up to you all to decide what, if anything, you’d like to do about it. We could issue an objection to the corps. We could ask for an extension of the comment period.” As a board, the town could adopt a resolution of objection.
Herrick voiced his concern. He said an objection could negatively impact the town’s financial future.
He explained that with the town’s limited ability to add to its tax base – the N.C. Legislature has effectively wiped out the chance to force annexation – commercial development is one of Swansboro’s only options to add tax base.
“It will severely impact the growth of Swansboro,” he said.
Without the commercial growth, the town would not be able to fund its day-to-day operations without increasing the tax rate.
Herrick said shutting the door on growth to preserve wetlands should have been discussed during the plan’s development.
“That was a discussion I didn’t have,” he said.
Had that been made clear, he said the citizens who supported wetlands preservation might not have been supportive.
Commissioner Brent Hatlestad didn’t necessarily oppose efforts to preserve wetlands, but indicated that – if the town had to rely on the state of North Carolina for enforcement – it would be a lost cause.
He referred to a personal experience in which he reported what appeared to be an ongoing violation of the state’s stormwater rules. A developer was pumping stormwater into the waters of the White Oak River. Hatlestad said he documented four instances and, after a year, he said the state refused to take any action.
Commissioner Pat Turner noted her concern in a question: When the wetland is contained on a property and does not flow into a creek or stream, what alternative does a property owner have?
Tursi indicated the upland wetland, or pocosin, could, if altered, discharge runoff into a creek or stream.
While no vote was taken, Davis called on each commissioner in a straw poll. None of the other four supported Tursi’s request for an objection.
In an email to Tideland News, he issued a sharp rebuke to the board. (See related article.)
For more on this story purchase a copy of the May 29, 2019, Tideland News.
Email Jimmy Williams at firstname.lastname@example.org.