Gathering information over two meetings, the Swansboro Planning Board has come up with a plan it hopes will stymie the clear-cutting of residential and commercial developments.
A couple of projects over the last few years have highlighted the need for some type of action. Owners of subdivisions have chosen to clear-cut – in some cases developing in what are wetland areas – while the town has been forced to create a stormwater enterprise fund to deal with flooding.
Trees are considered important for not only their aesthetics and shade, but also for their ability to absorb stormwater, according to Scott Chadwick, planning board chairman.
During meetings in April and May, members have been able to look at what steps other towns have taken to preserve forestland.
Discussion on amending the town’s tree ordinance got underway in earnest at the April 19 meeting of the planning board.
“We’ve had quite a bit of discussion about Swansgate and the clear-cutting that went on over there,” Chadwick said in opening discussion on the current ordinance.
Jennifer Ansell, town planner, familiarized the board members with the ordinance.
“What is the definition of clear-cut?” Jeffrey Conaway, planning board member, asked.
Ansell said that is when all vegetation is removed.
She said developers must preserve 15 trees per acre and if the property is clear cut, trees must be replaced at the rate of 23 per acre, according to the ordinance.
“Do we have a say so when that happens?” Chadwick asked, referring to the replacement timeline.
Ansell said the replacements must be shown on the preliminary plat. And, she added, “They are required to put up a bond.”
Swansgate is a 22-acre development at the corner of Swansboro Loop Road and Main Street Extension. It was the source of much discussion during a period of heavy rain just after the developer cleared the site in 2019. Adjacent land flooded and there was a tremendous amount of runoff. Eventually, the developer was cited by the state for a number of violations.
“We can’t do anything with Swansgate?” Chadwick posed.
Ansell said the developer is required to plant 23 trees per acre for the area clear-cut before the town will sign off on the subdivision.
Chadwick offered a scenario: “They are cutting down trees that are 18 inches or bigger and replacing them with a three-inch tree.”
Ansell said the 3-inch caliper is what is typically required as a replacement.
“Will they go on private property or public property?” Chadwick asked.
Ansell said the trees would go in the buffer area.
Chadwick asked Ansell to research tree ordinances from other towns for the board to review at the May 4 meeting. Christina Ramsey, vice chair, suggested Ansell include information on appropriate types of replacement vegetation.
When the May 4 meeting of the planning board opened, Chadwick went right to the heart of the matter. First, he mentioned the site work at the Swansgate subdivision. Then, of Ansell’s research on tree ordinances, he said, “My purpose in asking you to do this is to see if there is any way we can prevent that type of clear-cutting. It seems like a sin to me.
“How can we prevent clear-cutting from happening?”
Ansell presented for the board’s review dozens of pages of tree-protection rules from a number of towns and cities.
What stood out was the fact that some towns require a permit before site work can begin.
“We could implement something like that,” she said of the permit.
But Ansell also told the planning board members that developers have circumvented the town’s Unified Development Ordinance rules pertaining to land clearing. She used the 22-acre Unnamed Subdivision adjacent to the Rotary Civic Center as an example.
“We were not aware of that until it happened,” she said, referring to the fact that the property was completely cleared without benefit of a permit. “The challenge is going to be catching it before it happens.”
To that, Chadwick said the potential of a hefty fine would encourage property owners to follow the correct channels.
“It has worked in Pine Knoll Shores,” he said. Pine Knoll Shores imposes large fines for trees cleared illegally. “People think twice before they cut a tree there because it’s going to hurt them in the pocketbook.
“If we follow what Pine Knoll Shores does, at least they have to come in and get a permit.”
Chadwick said it is important to come up with a fine structure that has a relevant basis.
Fines in the ordinances of towns Ansell researched varied widely.
Chadwick polled the members on hand as to their preferences on a fine.
“I would have no objections to a fine,” Ramsey said. “It might make a difference to some people.”
Conaway said, “I think it needs to be a fine.”
Conway also said the current requirement for tree replacement should remain.
“I would support something like that,” Mike Favata, planning board member, said.
Ansell was agreeable to coming up with a proposal.
“I think we could impose a permit and then a fine,” she said.
Chadwick, who is in the lawn care and landscaping business, suggested a per-acre fine based on the town’s requirement of replacing 23 trees per acre for clear-cutting. He said the average cost of those trees would be about $150. Considering that, the fine could be set at $3,500 per acre.
In discussion about Swansgate, Ansell referenced the subdivision’s preliminary plat.
Notations on the plat refer to the fact that the developer, A. Sydes Construction of Jacksonville, will have to replace trees. That will be done in the buffer strip along Swansboro Loop Road, according to Note 19 on the plat. It states: “The buffer shall contain … one tree with a 3-inch caliper every 50 linear feet. The buffer along Swansboro Loop Road shall also be planted with 115 trees as noted (23 trees per acre) for removal of 5 acres of unauthorized timbering.”
While more than 5 acres was clear-cut, Andrea Correll, who was town planner when logging began on the Swansgate tract, stopped the cutting, perhaps at about 5 acres, until the developer submitted the proper paperwork.
That type of practice, starting site work before notifying the permitting entity, appears to be a common practice.
Ansell used the Unnamed Subdivision, a 22-acre subdivision adjacent to the Rotary Civic Center as an example. She said she became aware of site work at that project after much of the clearing was finished. That was in August 2020.
In an email to Chris Seaberg, town manager, and Commissioner Frank Tursi, mayor pro-tem, Ansell said at the time, “Parker & Associates submitted the sketch plan on behalf of the owner, Swansboro of Jacksonville, LLC, Tim Baker.”
She told the two that she sought comments on the sketch plan from Holley Snider, environmental specialist II, Division of Water Resources, N.C. Department of Environmental Quality, and Rachel Capito and Sarah Hair of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Only Snider replied.
“The project appears to be located within one-half mile of the SA:HQW waters of Halls Creek,” Snider said in her email. “It is unclear based on the lack of detail provided if the project has been designed as low-density. The southern access to the property is located in wetlands and as proposed will require review by the DWR. The entity responsible for delineating the wetlands should be identified and an approved jurisdictional delineation provided. The plan does not depict the ponds and piping associated with the approved stormwater management plan for the shopping center to the south and could be in conflict with the proposed public street near the southern property boundary.”
Tursi, in his email to Ansell, said of the clear-cutting, “Removing the trees will likely worsen the stormwater flooding in Charleston Park. Building that subdivision will create severe flooding …”
In comments to the planning board May 4, Ansell said, “I did reach out to Parker and Associates because they are handling the plat, but …”
(Requests by the Tideland News for comment on the Unnamed Subdivision were unsuccessful. Officials at Parker and Associates referred questions to Swansboro of Jacksonville LLC, which could not be reached by telephone or email.)
That lack of responsiveness prompted Chadwick to press for a penalty that would make it unwise to “act first and ask forgiveness later” when it comes to site work.
“I think we need to make a statement as a planning board and, hopefully, by the board of commissioners,” he said.
Ansell said the permit should be required before a developer could begin site work.
When Ramsey, the planning board vice chair, suggested the preliminary plat approval could act as a permit, Ansell noted that while that would work for residential development, it would not cover commercial development. A permit would capture both residential and commercial permits.
“I like the permit,” Conaway said following Ansell’s explanation. Chadwick, Favata and Ramsey agreed.
“I’m comfortable with it being high enough so that people would think twice before they do it,” Chadwick said. And, he added, “I’m comfortable with stopping it at $20,000.”
The motion, approved by the four members attending the May 5 meeting, calls for a penalty of $3,500 per clear-cut acre, up to a maximum of $20,000 per project. And this would be in addition to the tree-replacement requirement. As part of the motion, the planning board also suggests that the site-work permit be provided at no charge to the developer.
The proposal will go to the town commissioners for consideration. The planning board acts in an advisory capacity to the board of commissioners, which has final say on amendments to the UDO.
Email Jimmy Williams at email@example.com.