Following a presentation by Rick Savage and his team of wetlands advocates on July 13, Swansboro commissioners agreed that it is time to bring in the Swansboro Planning Board for a discussion with this group of experts.

Commissioners want to find a way to provide some assurance that policy in the town’s 2019 Land-Use Plan can be – if not codified – fashioned in a way to incentivize wetlands preservation.

Savage, president of the nonprofit Carolina Wetlands Association, can help make that happen. As a former state employee – he was hired by the N.C. Division of Water Quality of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources to work on a wetlands monitoring project in 2004 – he brings a wealth of knowledge on, not only the importance of wetlands, but also the best ways to preserve them under state law.

“The organization has a good relationship with a lot of state agencies,” he told commissioners in explaining how the Carolina Wetlands Association might be able to assist Swansboro in its effort to plan, and perhaps fund, wetlands preservation and restoration.

Protection of wetlands and environmentally sensitive areas was a “major theme” in the public participation survey for the 2019 LUP, complete by 4.5 percent of the town’s adult population. In fact, nearly 90 percent of the respondents agreed that “streams, wetlands, and areas important for water quality or wildlife” should be preserved.

“Areas of high biodiversity and environmental significance tend to be centered on the shoreline, along creeks, in floodplains, and in or near wetlands,” according to the LUP. “Nearly all shorelines are significant for natural habitat and biodiversity. Tidal creeks and connected salt marshes are important for estuary health. Upland wetlands are also important for filtering water, even though they do not contain saltwater-associated species. The area also has some upland wetlands known as pocosins that are distinct from the coastal wetlands. These freshwater wetlands are often home to rare or endangered plants and provide important wildlife habitat.”

According to the LUP adopted in January 2019, “Swansboro does not have policies or ordinances specifically targeting and protecting isolated, non-coastal wetlands not protected under federal or state law.” Establishing protection is a goal of the plan. Specifically, the plan calls for the town to “amend (policy) to include more specific requirements for development susceptible to wetlands loss.” The plan includes a list of recommendations toward that end. (See related article.)

The Carolina Wetlands Association has been assisting communities in wetlands preservation and restoration since its founding. (See related article.)

In comments about the association, Savage said projects are ongoing.

“We are working on a project in another community to acquire wetland lands from private landowners and restore them to increase the function to mitigate flooding,” he said. “The community leaders and many of the landowners were educated about wetland value before we got involved, but much more of that type of education and outreach will be needed.

“The restoration of their wetlands will not only mitigate their flooding problems, but also increase water quality, carbon storage and recreation, by creating a wetland community park. The restored wetlands will be donated back to the community for protection and management.”

Savage referred to this project when he spoke to the Swansboro commissioners on July 13. This is the type of project Swansboro could pursue.

“The results of all this work will stay with the community,” Savage told the commissioners.

Savage told the commissioners that his team has a list of things it could begin working on, taken from the CAMA Land-Use Plan and the Watershed Plan.

“The CAMA Land-Use Plan is a good basis for getting started on wetland work,” Savage said. “It is well done and I found it most helpful.”

At the conclusion of his presentation, Mayor John Davis allowed questions from the board, which was meeting in a hybrid format with three commissioners joining by the Zoom online platform and two commissioners and the mayor in town hall.

Davis asked to first few questions, beginning with a request for an explanation of “wetlands restoration.”

Savage said that restoration is required when a wetlands “is not functioning in a way to provide the service that you need.” He then called on a colleague, Webster Norton, to provide an example.

Norton said in a recent project, the agency came across wetlands that had been filled with dredge material by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “We moved the old dredge material off the salt marsh,” he said.

Davis then asked Savage to detail wetlands restoration that would include creating parkland, noting that Swansboro has struggled to install sidewalks due to state requirements for mitigation when wetlands are disturbed. Savage said the park area to which he referred is being used a demonstration project – an effort to educate the public – and would include boardwalks rather than sidewalks and would also include signage.

Finally, Davis asked, “Is there value in isolated wetlands?” The mayor was referring to a recent public debate over the One Harbor Church building project that required filling a small isolated wetland. Davis said the church planned to create a constructed wetland that was larger than the isolated wetland. He also inferred that allowing fill – in a much more general sense – would mean growth for the community. “Is there a reasonable trade-off?”

Isolated wetlands have value, according to Savage. He noted that they provide habitat for certain types of wildlife, amphibians, for example. As for a trade between filling wetlands and community growth, he couldn’t answer without a lot of specifics.

Savage did say that in return for filling wetlands, a developer might be willing to provide “something significantly more beneficial” in return, protection of a much larger area of wetlands, perhaps.

Commissioner Frank Tursi offered his thanks to Savage and the team he brought to Swansboro. And he also pointed out that the constructed wetlands that One Harbor Church planned to construct is required by the state to handle the stormwater the project will generate. Technically, then, it is not a replacement of the isolated wetland the church will fill.

Tursi, who served as chairman of the committee the drafted the 2019 Land-Use Plan, suggested getting the town planning board involved in the process of establishing wetlands policy.

“It has to start with the planning board,” he said. “I hope we can work together to meet the goals we set in the Land-Use Plan.” Bringing in the Carolina Wetlands Association is a critical first step, Tursi added.

Commissioner Laurent Meilleur asked Savage to speak to Swansboro’s wetlands situation, based on his observations. Savage and his team did tour much of the town earlier in the day.

“We did a quick tour,” Savage said. “You have some really nice wetlands. There are some damaged areas that need some work.”

Webster also spoke in response to Meilleur’s question. He said incorporating “green solutions” on an individual property basis – capturing and keeping rainwater on site, for example – provide “quite a few opportunities” for improvement.

Meilleur wanted to know if Swansboro could exceed the state’s requirements for stormwater mitigation.

Savage said the town could not. However, there is an opportunity to work with individual developers.

“You’ve got work on incentives and volunteerism,” he said.

In his comments, Commissioner Larry Philpott said he looks forward to finding solutions to the problem of development – including the filling of wetlands – and how it is adding to stormwater runoff.

“The rain still wants to go to these places and we have houses built on them,” Philpott said.

In a separate interview, Savage said wetlands restoration and preservation do help control runoff.

“Wetlands are excellent for controlling stormwater flooding and dealing with stormwater in general and are frequently used for that purpose,” he said. “However every case if different and needs to be analyzed onsite to know specifically what is the best solution.”

While the commissioners agreed that the next step should be a joint meeting with Savage’s team and the planning board, there was concern as to how that might happen, due to the coronary’s pandemic.

Although no date was settled, Commissioner Pat Turner suggested the meeting take place remotely.

Email Jimmy Williams at jimmy@tidelandnews.com.

For more on this story purchase a copy of the July 22, 2020, Tideland News.

(1) comment

David Collins

Wonder if the town has found that wetlands policy yet . Oops , here it is . Found under the wetlands it has been so thoughtfully allowed to be filled in . Imagine that . The search is over . You can go back to sleep now .

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