Following open discussion on the town’s 2019 Land-Use Plan, Swansboro commissioners generally agreed to continue incorporating the plan’s policies into the Swansboro Unified Development Ordinance.
Commissioners came to that conclusion near the end of their early October regular meeting. Discussion on the land-use plan, adopted in January, was the only item on that agenda. At the end, commissioners also asked Chris Seaberg, town manager, to prepare a town policy on development that impacts wetlands.
The regulatory process has actually been underway for some time, beginning soon after the board of commissioners unanimously adopted the 2019 Swansboro Land-Use Plan. In February, the Swansboro Planning Board studied and recommended changes that brought the UDO in line with the LUP’s vision for an industrial zone. Commissioners eventually considered and approved the new zoning rules.
Other sections are now under consideraion by the planning board.
But it was not that process that brought the commissioners to the table to discuss the LUP. Rather, it was the disturbance of wetlands and how that could affect development in the town and its extraterritorial jurisdiction. Seaberg, who prepared a PowerPoint on the LUP for the Oct. 8 meeting, clearly understood that.
Much of the presentation dealt with wetlands – the various kinds – and under whose jurisdiction they might fall. These details were of the utmost importance during deliberations on a special-use permit request from One Harbor Church. The building site on Main Street Extension adjacent to Swansboro Municipal Park had wetlands
Following the split vote to approve the request in July, there were comments.
“I’m quite saddened and disappointed,” Laurent Meilleur, a planning board member, told commissioners. “You are ignoring the land-use plan.”
Commissioners expressed either confusion or dissatisfaction with the land-use plan when it came to wetlands.
At that meeting, Commissioner Pat Turner said, “One of my objections is how wetlands are classified.”
After listening to commissioners’ comments, Paula Webb, assistant town manager and town clerk, asked if the board wanted to send the LUP back to the planning board for possible revisions.
However, Andrea Correll, Swansboro’s planner at the time, explained to the commissioners that revising the land-use plan would be a lengthy process.
Correll, who has since moved on to a similar post in Burgaw, said the LUP guides development.
“Professionally, I have to follow the plan,” she explained. And, she added, “I still think it’s a great plan.”
Commissioner Frank Tursi suggested a closer look before making any changes.
“The board needs to understand the land-use plan,” he said. “It is extremely important that the board has some discussion about what is in the land-use plan … and go from there. It is not easily amended.
“The board needs to get a fuller understanding of the plan.”
Following that discussion, commissioners decided to have that deeper look.
Seaberg opened the Oct. 8 meeting by providing an overview of the LUP. The plan provides guidance and direction on policy and regulatory updates, acts as a map for future development and investment decisions, communicates a community’s vision and goals for the future and helps inform rezonings and development, according to his explanation. The plan should not infringe on existing uses, “handcuff,” decision-makers in rezoning, force down-zonings of developed properties, create nonconformities or change the Unified Development Ordinance.
“You really should take a look every five years,” Seaberg said of the plan, which was previously updated in 2009.
The manager pointed out that the update addressed concerns about the environment – including the filling of wetlands – among other issues. It included an analysis to determine physical and economic suitability of land within the town’s jurisdiction.
Seaberg also said that the update process included a concurrent plan, paid for by the state, the Vulnerability Consequences and Adaption Planning Scenario process. VCAPS, as it is called, is essentially a way to help communities deal with high water caused by chronic flooding or heavy rain. (See related story.)
While the plan does not specifically address wetlands from a regulatory standpoint, Seaberg noted that Swansboro does have options for preserving wetlands.
“What does the law allow us to do?” Mayor John Davis asked. “What if somebody wants to take us to court?”
Seaberg replied, “I think the rules are there.”
The manager then referred to the Bailey Center project, which entailed filling wetlands.
“We had a chance to express opposition,” he said. Swansboro could have opposed the developer’s plan to fill wetlands to build the strip mall, but chose not to.
He then explained that if the town puts rules in the UDO addressing the filling of wetlands than the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and state environmental agencies would take note when those rules are violated.
“Can we be more restrictive than the federal government?” Commissioner Roy Herrick asked.
“We can’t be more restrictive,” Seaberg replied, “but we can express opposition. We have the opportunity to be more engaged.
“If we do this right, we can weigh in. We can support it or be against it.”
About midway through the meeting, Davis invited Doris Tursi to the podium to comment. She asked her husband, Commissioner Frank Tursi, “What happens when 404 wetlands are filled?”
In his response he provided some examples of how filling wetlands caused problems with runoff, but in the end he boiled it all down to a sentence, “If you fill them up and cover them in asphalt, that water goes somewhere.”
That runoff – sometimes created by filling of wetlands – has been something of an expensive problem for Swansboro. In the past few years, the town has put in place a stormwater fee that is billed to every home and business in the town. The resulting funds, about $125,000 a year, are used to correct problems like clogged ditches and standing water.
Tursi, who served as chairman of the committee that developed the 2019 Land-Use Plan pointed out that the LUP addresses sensitive areas, classified as conservation zones. In these zones, there is an opportunity to “work with the developer,” he said. “That, to me, is a reasonable way to do it.”
In these areas the LUP “encourages preservation and clustering, away from wetlands.”
He used the Swansgate subdivision now under construction as an example of how wetlands could be preserved. In that 21.95-acre project, the owner agreed to dedicate 4.48 acres of wetlands to the town in order to preserve it.
With proper incentives, other development would take similar actions, according to Tursi.
“Over time a green space will develop,” he added.
As for wetlands, Tursi said, “This is a very, very complicated and technical issue.”
Commissioner Pat Turner said that was true when the LUP was in development.
“I don’t think there was a clear understanding of what wetlands are,” she said.
In his explanation, Seaberg pointed out that there are more than 16 types of wetlands in North Carolina. They are regulated under three categories. Those referred to as “404 Wetlands” are under Section 404 of the Federal Clean Water Act. “Isolated/non-404 Wetlands” are under the N.C. Administrative Codes. “Coastal Wetlands” are under the Coastal Area Management Act.
Tursi suggested a plan to protect 404 wetlands, “If we think 404 wetlands are the ones to be preserved.”
With the involvement of the N.C. Division of Coastal Management, it might be possible for the town’s LUP to be trigger for denying permission for filling certain wetlands. (See related story.)
Christina Ramsey, a member of the Swansboro Planning Board, said she supported Tursi’s proposal.
“I urge you to consider this strategy he described,” she said. “It makes a lot of sense.”
Turner, too, said the idea bears looking into.
Tursi did say that the board needs expert advice before moving on any plan for wetlands protection.
“We need to bring people in here who can help us understand,” he said.
Tursi suggested putting the wetlands issue aside for now and continue incorporating the LUP goals into the UDO
“That, I think, can go forward and we can put the wetlands thing off,” Tursi said.
“We need to get this resolved,” the mayor said.
Tursi then went back to his suggestion, to seek acceptance of the Swansboro Land-Use Plan as a certifying factor by DCM.
“It (request to fill 404 wetlands) would be denied because it is counter to our land-use plan,” he said.
While not necessarily embracing that idea, Davis did say that establishing an ordinance would eliminate “unnecessary conflict.”
“If you don’t have clear guidelines, you are going to have unnecessary conflict,” he said.
Email Jimmy Williams at email@example.com.
For more on this story purchase a copy of the Nov. 13, 2019, Tideland News.