North Carolina: State agency declines funding amid growing public interest to protect 110 acres on Topsail Island
Topsail Island’s last chunk of undeveloped land was listed for $7.9 million. Although the town of Topsail Beach and the N.C. Coastal Federation hope to preserve it, the state said it has no funds to purchase property that is “not nationally significant.”
TOPSAIL BEACH — As negotiations with property owners continue, the town of Topsail Beach is seeking state and nonprofit support to help purchase and preserve 110 acres of open land on the southern point of Topsail Island.
The land was listed for $7.95 million in mid-August, a price Topsail Beach Mayor Howard Braxton said was too high a burden for the town’s taxpayers.
“We’re just like everybody else — we’d like to buy it, but not at that price,” Braxton said, referring to several conservation groups and a state agency who last month said there were no plans to fund such a project.
On Tuesday morning, the state approved a purchase of 35 acres at the western end of Sunset Beach for $2.45 million. The land will be added to the adjacent Bird Island Reserve.
According to Todd Miller, director of the North Carolina Coastal Federation, preservation of the Topsail land would need the same legislative interest that preceded the Sunset Beach purchase. But he pointed to large public support that typically makes things happen in the halls of the General Assembly.
“The starting point is that there’s substantial public interest in having the [Topsail] property protected,” Miller said. “And when that occurs — because our lawmakers are responsive to public interest — it tends to generate opportunities for things like this. The more everyone hears from the town and the general public about an interest in having that land protected, more than likely something positive could occur.”
He said the Coastal Federation is now investigating what opportunities may exist while preparing to measure any potential interest among state lawmakers, noting the organization’s ability to “help pin the legislature” on winning appropriations for conservation projects.
This week’s Sunset Beach land purchase was approved by the N.C. Council of State, which consists of the governor and other high-ranking members of the state’s executive branch, including Lieutenant Governor Dan Forest.
On Wednesday morning a spokesperson for Forest said his office would consider a future proposal to purchase the Topsail land once the appropriate state agency works out the necessary details of a purchase. But he said it was premature to comment on any proposal before a submission is made to the council for approval.
The state agency responsible for coastal land preservation, the Division of Coastal Management, said no proposal was forthcoming. On Wednesday afternoon, Patricia Smith, a spokesperson for the division, said it had not recommended purchasing the property “because the [Coastal Reserve Program] has limited staff and fiscal resources, barrier island habitat is already represented in the Reserve program, and the property is not nationally significant.”
She later clarified the wording “not nationally significant” merely meant it was not a good fit for the Reserve program.
“We do hope that this acquisition is explored either as a state property or a local property,” Smith said, noting it could be protected as a state park.
A collaborative approach under the town’s leadership
Town Manager Mike Rose expressed interest in pursuing a collaborative strategy using the town’s funds as leverage with those from conservation groups, and he believes there is strong local interest to provide the necessary spark.
“There would be a lot of support in this community,” Rose said.
According to Miller, the town needs to take leadership on such a collaboration for the project to succeed, similar to Cedar Point’s role in obtaining a $2.5 million bond to protect 54 acres along the White Oak River last summer. Miller said 70 percent of voters backed the town’s debt-backed purchase of the land.
“It was clearly something their constituency was interested in,” Miller said. “And they’ve been able to leverage the bond with private contributions as well as state grants. But having the town so committed and really showing leadership on it made all the difference in the world.”
Cedar Point town clerk Arlayne Calhoun said more people voted during the 2018 special election, when the bond referendum was the sole item on the ballot, than a normal election year. More than 65 percent of the town’s eligible voters cast their vote, she said.
“They came out in droves,” Calhoun said. “And they voted for a tax increase to cover the costs, which was even more astounding.”
Miller said the Coastal Federation hopes to work with fellow conservation groups like N.C. Coastal Land Trust to pull together the necessary funding.
“Because there’s not one pot of money that could necessarily afford the acquisition by itself,” Miller said.
Plans to develop the land?
Rose said the town has made an offer within the last two months to purchase the land from members of the McLeod family, which formed McLeod Family, LLC in 2008 to own and manage the property. But that offer, along with previous offers, have been unsuccessful.
According to Pender County land records, the taxable land value of the 110-acre property is $2.96 million.
Since taking the town manager’s position in early 2016, Rose said there have been no conversations with developers or other prospective buyers regarding the land, even though it had been listed before.
The town’s main goal with a potential purchase would be to preserve the property, and perhaps use a portion for light recreational use such as walking trails. But any development of the land would face constraints due to its status as a Coastal Barrier Resource Act (CBRA) zone and an Inlet Hazard Area. Running water lines down the property, for instance, would risk any future federal funding the town could receive, as well as post-storm FEMA flood insurance funds.
Any future developer would have to rezone the property from its current Conservation District classification, which would require a recommendation from the planning board before receiving approval from town commissioners.
“But they would also have to address CAMA regulations, federal regulations,” Rose said. “There would certainly be hurdles, but it wouldn’t be impossible.”
Before the town could make any purchase, Rose said the McLeod family would have to agree to an appraisal of the land to ensure that proper due diligence while using taxpayers’ money.
“We certainly can’t pay $8 million for something that appraises at $4 million,” Rose said. “I think the citizens would be a little upset if we used their money to overpay for anything we do.”
He said the town has hired Jeff Fisher, an attorney from Raleigh who has experience with land conservation purchases. According to his firm’s website, Fisher has generated over $250 million for land conservation in his career.
According to Miller, although any purchase to protect the land will be expensive, it would pale in comparison to costs associated with developing a vulnerable hazard area that may be heavily damaged by future hurricanes. The public investment needed for conservation, he said, is justified on both economic and environmental grounds.
“Our feeling is that it’s going to take everybody collaborating and working together,” Miller said. “It is feasible that something could occur, but it’s got to start with really demonstrating that there’s a lot of public interest in having it protected. And the town is the best spokesperson to demonstrate that local commitment and public interest.”
Mark Darrough can be reached at Mark@Localvoicemedia.com or (970) 413-3815