Following a presentation from the Carolina Wetlands Association, the Swansboro Planning Board has its marching orders: propose town policy that will fall in line with the town’s 2019 CAMA Land-Use Plan and protect wetlands from development.
In an address at a joint meeting of the Swansboro Board of Commissioners and members of the planning board on Sept. 21, association members explained what wetlands are, why they are important to the ecosystem and offered scenarios in which the town could at least guide and encourage their preservation. (See numerous related items.)
“We’re here to learn,” Mayor John Davis said when he opened the Sept. 21 meeting. “We are all here for the same purpose.”
He then summarized his perception of the purpose of the meeting. The goals included education, defining wetlands, providing direction for the planning board in order to create wetlands policy based on the LUP, helping staff understand its level of participation, identifying potential grant funding and identifying areas of town that need attention.
The meeting was in the hybrid format, with some participants in town hall and some joining remotely due to concerns over the coronavirus pandemic.
In addition to Davis, commission members on hand included Larry Philpott and Pat Turner. Commissioners Laurent Meilleur, P.J. Pugliese and Frank Tursi joined remotely.
Planning board members in attendance included Bradley Buckley, Scott Chadwick, Jeff Conaway, Mike Favata, Ed McHale, David Mohr and Christina Ramsey.
Rick Savage and Chad Guthrie of the Carolina Wetlands Association’s “Swansboro Team” joined remotely. Savage joined while on vacation and Guthrie was at home as he said he was experiencing “health issues.”
The CWA’s David Shouse, who attended the meeting along with Norton Webster, introduced the team saying, “Many of us are scientists, some are not.” He explained that the CWA, while in close contact with state and federal agencies, is also assisted by higher education in achieving its goals for wetlands.
“It is really nice to tap into the educational institutions to see what’s worked in other states,” he said.
Webster then offered a PowerPoint detailing everything from the CWA’s make-up to what the Swansboro Team hopes to accomplish. Along the way he offered observations and answered questions.
In response to a question from town officials, Webster said, “You can have a wetland … with no standing water. Water is not necessarily going be up on the surface.”
Depression wetlands are important, he added. “They fall under state regulation and that’s important.” But he said, “Their regulations aren’t as stringent.”
Wetlands are important for several reasons, Webster said. Wetlands are a natural filter, improving water quality and controlling quantity, which helps control flooding.
Shouse told the officials Swansboro is well positioned to not only create effective wetlands policy but also to partner with various agencies to restore and expand wetlands in the community.
“It’s rare to find a community with a range of updated plans that they can rely on,” Shouse said. Swansboro is fortunate to have a Watershed Restoration Plan, a Strategic Economic Development Plan (“It looked at using greenways and natural environment in developing connectivity,” Shouse said) and a Land-Use Plan. All have been put in place or updated within the past three years.
“You’ve also done other projects,” Shouse explained. He mentioned Swansboro projects to convert non-pervious parking to pervious parking and establish a living shoreline. All these things would be an advantage in seeking grants.
Wetlands restoration and preservation can be a part of a community’s effort to be more resilient, according to Shouse. And, with public support the town can take steps to be more resilient.
In the process of updating its LUP Swansboro undertook a plan to be resilient, identifying areas of concerns and establishing steps that would ensure quicker recovery in the event of damage from high water. Swansboro is one of a handful of North Carolina communities to go through resiliency planning of this magnitude.
“Resiliency is a long-term issue,” Shouse said. “It can be an impact if you are constantly repairing …” For example, rather than pay to repair buildings that flood routinely, a better solution might be to buy and move the building. “We don’t want to do the same thing over and over again.”
The CWA Swansboro Team will help the town “connect with agencies, organizations” that could provide grants, Shouse said. “There are opportunities for … land acquisition and so forth.”
“We are here to listen to you folks,” Shouse said. The goal is to “increase the capacity of local government to participate in resiliency planning. It’s tough to live in the here and now and also be planning months, years and even decades (ahead).”
But, Savage added, “We have a lot of talent to bring in on this project.”
“Carolina Wetlands is really here to see how we can help,” Guthrie said, “see how we can help you with all these things. We are coming in with a mind as to how we can make sense of all this.”
On a question from Davis, Webster said Swansboro could not easily go beyond the state regulations, in terms of wetland protection. He would not recommend the town doing that.
“I have to deal with regulations,” Webster explained. If the town tried to regulate wetlands beyond the state guidelines, “I think you’ll probably end up with an issue.”
A better approach would be to offer developer incentives, according to Shouse.
“There may be incentives to encourage the developer to do the right thing,” he explained. Shouse mentioned “density-transfer,” which allows for increasing the density of a subdivision when paired with setting aside sensitive areas for non-development. “It’s fairly common.”
Savage said Swansboro could also consider reducing development fees or speeding up the permit process in order to encourage setting aside sensitive land areas.
When asked if the town could buy and preserve, Guthrie said land trusts could make good partners. “They are very project-oriented,” he said.
“There may be a land trust that is interested … in purchasing the rights to land,” Shouse added. “There are a lot of different ways that those can be handled.”
Given an opportunity to comment, Ramsey, the planning board member, mentioned input the town received from the Nature Conservancy during the LUP update.
The message was, “That we conserve all the wetlands that we have,” she said, “in order to manage stormwater runoff. I just want to remind people of that.”
Philpott, the town commissioner, said he was concerned by development that might fall outside state regulations, leaving Swansboro to deal with the consequences. It has happened. And, he added, “Now we are dealing with stormwater issues. Just about every time we have significant rain, these developments are dealing with high water.
“We are looking for a way to address development in such a way that these issues are not a problem. The big thing is … what kind of legal steps can we take to be able to limit development in such a way that we avoid these problems?” His hope is that the CWA can give direction in order to help codify wetland protection. “We have some big problems and we need some help.”
“It’s a great point … and I hear you,” Savage said. The CWA will bring that to the state agencies that he works with. “I believe a lot of small communities have this problem. This is something we need to start thinking about.”
Commissioner Meilleur asked if the town might be able to charge an impact fee for mitigation of stormwater runoff.
“These are the kind of questions we want to come back to you on,” Shouse said. But, he added, “There are towns that are doing that.”
Tursi, commissioner and the mayor pro-tem, then brought the discussion back to the original point of the Carolina Wetlands Associations involvement.
“We have a land-use plan … very specific language about protecting open space and wetlands,” he said. “Give us something … to codify that language.”
The planning board, whose task it will be to propose that policy, needs direction, according to Tursi. “How we can meet the policy direction of the land-use plan?” he asked.
“We’re positioned where we can help the planning board,” Guthrie replied.
“It seems pretty straight forward,” Meilleur said. “I think the observation here is … that preserving the wetlands is key.”
“We don’t need all the answers tonight,” Tursi explained. “Policy direction, to be meaningful, needs to be codified. How do we best do that? A regulatory approach … is not realistic. It’s expensive and we are going to run into problems with state law.” That leaves incentives, he continued. He mentioned density-transfer, expedited permits and discounted permit fees. “(Allow) the planning board … to come back to us with a proposal.
“I personally don’t want delay this any longer,” Tursi said. “My recommendation is we direct our planning board to come up with some incentives so that developers donate wetlands instead of developing them.”
“I think we are game for this,” Savage said. “I think Frank’s direction is right. Find a way to put the lid on wetlands loss.”
Email Jimmy Williams at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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