Residents of Swansboro won an award last week for their dedication to protect the White Oak River. This is news to most of you, I’m sure.
The N.C. Coastal Federation, one of the most-respected environmental groups in the state, gave the town one of its annual Pelican Awards at a ceremony that was took place remotely Thursday. The plaque with the pretty picture will say “Town of Swansboro.” But, make no mistake about it: that means you. You should visit Town Hall to admire your award.
The federation has been giving out the awards for 17 years to people, organizations and local governments that make extraordinary efforts to be good coastal stewards. Usually, as it was with us, those efforts involve partnering with the federation on specific projects. In our case, we won the award for the living shoreline project at Ward’s Shore Park that replaced a failed bulkhead with a more-natural, storm-resistant shoreline. We were also recognized for several projects over the last three years that should reduce the flow of polluted stormwater runoff into the river and its tributaries. We extended our parking lot at Town Hall with pavement that allows runoff to soak into the ground and we installed cisterns at our Public Works Department and Public Safety Building that will collect rainwater that can be reused for landscaping or washing vehicles.
The federation was a partner in helping us secure federal and state grants for each of those projects.
While that’s an impressive list, I’d argue that your track record as environmental champions goes beyond a handful of construction projects. Several years, you recognized the polluting effects of stormwater runoff and decided to do something about. You devised a plan to reduce the amount of runoff that flows into all the water bodies in town. That watershed plan was later approved by your Board of Commissioners, the state and the EPA. In fact, the projects that were recognized in the Pelican Award are products of that plan.
Two years ago, hundreds of you helped update our state-mandated land-use plan. You attended public meetings and filled out surveys and questionnaires. You wholeheartedly endorsed a plan that recognizes the importance of the river to our future and encourages the protection of wetlands, forestlands and other open spaces. It also is the first one on the coast that included an assessment of the town’s vulnerability to climate change. Because of your support, the commissioners unanimously approved the plan.
You then surprised me by making that plan a key issue in the last municipal election. In all my years of writing about the state’s environment as a journalist or advocating for its protection as a Coastkeeper with the federation, I had never known something as mundane as a land-use plan to become an issue that could make or break a candidate’s chances for election.
So, take a bow, you deserve this Pelican Award.
But, now, I must challenge you. Don’t rest on you laurels. There’s still much to be done. Devising the land-use plan, as I’ve noted many times, is the easy part. Putting it to use means the plan’s goals and policies must be written to our development laws. That’s the hard part that remains largely undone.
We’ll likely partner with the Carolina Wetlands Association, a non-profit that involves some of the top wetlands experts in the state. They’ll help us devise strategies to preserve the remaining wetlands in town. Because of the pandemic, we’re trying to figure out the safest way to conduct the public meetings. When we do, we’ll let you know.
Your help will be needed again to see this piece completed. And I have no doubt you will come through again.
Frank Tursi is a town commissioner. He serves as mayor pro tem.