Urged by town commissioners to quicken the pace of work on codifying goals in the town’s land-use plan, the Swansboro Planning Board has stepped up its game. As a result, town commissioners will soon have the chance to consider approving an amendment to the Unified Development Ordinance, crafted to encourage developers to preserve wetlands.
The land-use plan, required by the state’s Coastal Area Management Act, serves as a guide to development. Swansboro’s plan was updated in 2019 and included an emphasis on being resilient as sea level rise. To that end, the plan seeks to protect wetlands, areas that are constantly or intermittently water-filled. Wetlands are a natural filter, improving water quality and controlling quantity, which helps control flooding.
But while the land-use plan provides goals, it takes zoning rules to ensure that the goals can be met.
Town commissioners decided some time ago to make codifying the LUP goals a priority.
Commissioner Frank Tursi, who was chairman of the committee that prepared the LUP, has been pushing for codification.
“The land-use plan is now two years old,” he said at a recent meeting. “The planning board has a directive, yet nothing much has been done.”
The planning board acts in an advisory capacity to the town commissioners, providing input and suggestions on zoning and planning matters. Town commissioners have the final say on any changes. The planning board started the work in 2019, but was interrupted by a change in staff followed by the global pandemic.
“I understand the complications,” Tursi said, “but I also understand that someone on the board or on the planning staff has to become the champion of this if it’s going to get done. The decisions that have to be made to implement them are hard. You are going to have to say, ‘No,’ to somebody.”
Mayor John Davis pointed out that the town should also take advantage of its relationship with the Carolina Wetlands Association, a nonprofit agency that has offered to partner with the town on seeking ways to strengthen rules on wetlands preservation. (See related story.)
“It would be sad if we lost this opportunity,” Davis said.
At its regular meeting on March 2, the planning board heeded the call, by not only meeting with the Carolina Wetlands Association to consider ways to protect wetlands, but also to pick up the pace of the work. The planning board now meets twice a month in order to consider updating ordinances based on the land-use plan.
The March 2 meeting took place in a hybrid format with members at town hall and participating online through the Zoom platform. Several CWA members interacted online with the planning board.
Jennifer Ansell, town planner, introduced David Shouse. Shouse acted as leader for the CWA group. CWA volunteers on Zoom for the meeting included Amanda Willis, an attorney, Mackenzie Taggart, a graduate student in environmental science, and Rick Savage, president of the science-based organization that advocates for wetlands.
“We are very excited to be here,” Savage said. “We did a lot of work to come up with some ordinance amendments.”
Shouse pointed out that the town has much going for it in its effort to protect wetlands.
“The town of Swansboro, with three established plans in the last three years … all speak to the wise use of wetlands … and stream corridors … and all (included) a high level of public participation,” Shouse said. He referred to not only the 2019 land-use plan update, but also the Economic Development Strategic Plan and the Stormwater Management Plan.
While Shouse was happy to share the ideas and make suggestions as the Carolina Wetlands Association, a nongovernmental nonprofit, it would be up to Swansboro to put the rules on the books.
“Every municipality will have to have its own legal consultant,” he explained. “Everything will have to be able to fit into what you have.”
Shouse brought several suggestions that would improve the town’s chances of not only protecting and restoring wetlands, but also securing grant funds to help fund those efforts,
He said updating the town’s Parks and Recreation Plan could be beneficial in terms of education and management, as well as a source of grant funds. He also cited the town’s storm water fee, saying, “There is an opportunity there.”
Shouse offered ways Swansboro could to encourage developers to preserve wetlands. “My understanding is there is some interest in providing incentives,” he said. “There are a lot of financial incentives.”
In order to encourage a developer to preserve rather than fill wetlands the town could offer reduced fees, reduced taxes, transfer density or find financial aid for the property owner.
Ideally, property with wetlands could be zoned in a way that protects the wetlands, but Shouse admitted there might be opposition from property owners. Again, tax forgiveness, density transfer or recognition of land stewards might help the town encourage the property owner to agree. “I would look at those as an opportunity rather than a stumbling block,” he said.
Scott Chadwick, planning board chairman, summed up the discussion.
“The more incentives we can give, the better off we are,” he said.
Chadwick then raised an issue of concern.
“My disappointment is I don’t think the county is doing any of the things we can do,” he said, referring to Onslow County efforts to protect wetlands.
Chadwick was hoping for a suggestion.
“I can’t really speak to that because the county and municipal ordinances can be different,” said Willis, the attorney,
“There might be challenges, but it would be helpful if Onslow County, as a larger body, would be on board with this,” Shouse added. While saying he could not address it “directly,” Shouse added that the town could set an example for the county. “I expect there is plenty of opportunity there.”
“What we can do is small, compared to what the county can do,” Chadwick said. “We can lead the way.” But, he added, “It goes without saying, they don’t seem to be as concerned about this as we are.”
On a question from Christina Ramsey, vice chairman, Shouse said the town had identified wetlands in the community, primarily through the Watershed Restoration Plan.
By the end of the meeting, the planning board and Ansell had agreed to return with a plan to incorporate incentives – including real estate tax forgiveness – into the town’s development ordinances, specifically through Residential Cluster Development.
Discussion continued in a special meeting on March 15, when the planning board welcomed Kevin Turner, appraisal supervisor with Onslow County Tax Administration, to explain tax forgiveness.
He said that once wetlands are identified, the property’s appraised value could be adjusted.
“A reduced rate is established based on the limited use,” Turner said. When there is little to no use of the property, it might be appraised at between $100 and $1,000 an acre.
Also at the special meeting, Ansell provided an amendment to the Unified Development Ordinance designed to encourage wetlands preservation.
Under the Residential Cluster Development Regulations, a developer might negotiate the size and placement of lots in return for wetlands or floodway protection. “Such development shall be exempt from the conventional zoning standards relative to lot area, lot width, lot frontage, lot coverage, required yards and public street access normally applicable to such districts, provided such development complies with the minimum standards set forth under this section,” the ordinance states.
A section added to the ordinance states: “Areas identified on the Preliminary Plat as 401 wetlands, 404 wetlands, floodway, or if located within 30 feet of the normal water level along a coastal shoreline shall be reserved and dedicated to the Town in the form of a conservation easement. This designation shall be recorded on the face of the Preliminary and Final Plats and a deed recorded conveying the area to the Town for preservation. No structure, impervious surface or other development shall occur in this area other than that which is permitted by the State or other regulatory agency.”
“If you let them do it then they are going to dedicate all wetlands?” Chadwick asked Ansell. “That was my thought,” she added.
“They don’t have to do this,” Chadwick said participating landowners. “It’s a trade-off. They get a little bit higher density and we get areas we are trying to preserve. I like this. I think it gives us some room to barter.”
A motion to recommend the commissioners approve the amendment as written passed by a 4-0 vote. In addition to Chadwick and Ramsey, Jeff Conaway and Mike Favata voted for the motion.
Next on the list of land-use plan goals to consider, the planning board decided, will be two items.
They are consideration of a text amendment related to the overall appearance of commercial, industrial and mixed-use development and a text amendment related to tying square feet to the use of higher quality materials and additional stormwater control measures.
Email Jimmy Williams at firstname.lastname@example.org.