NORTH TOPSAIL BEACH — Residents living in the southernmost 4 miles of North Topsail Beach want out. A special-called meeting Mar. 11 sparked heated discussion among community members about de-annexation.
Citing a lack of transparency from local government officials, a misuse of town’s funds and its decision to pull out of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineer’s 50-year beach renourishment project, some phase five residents said they want to move the town line of Surf City down the road. North Topsail Beach is broken into five segments, known as phases, starting with number one at the northernmost point. The move would put phase five of North Topsail in Pender County, instead of Onslow.
Last summer, the Town of North Topsail Beach chose to withdraw from the federal beach renourishment project — it was lumped in with Surf City — because town officials said it did not have the funds to pay its share.
The neighboring towns were tied together, based on proximity and project scope, for the Coastal Storm Risk Management Project, federally authorized in 2014. The project would have replenished 10 miles of beach from Surf City to North Topsail with roughly 15 million cubic yards of sand to protect oceanfront infrastructure.
In 2019, $237 million was appropriated to the effort, but each town is still responsible for a remaining portion of the project. The federal funds would cover 65%; the state would pay for half of the rest, and the two towns would split the difference. Surf City, comprising 6 miles of beach, would be responsible for 60% and North Topsail, with 4 miles of beach, would fund 40% of the remaining 17.5%.
The cost of the town’s shares rose significantly — roughly $33 million over the last decade, according to North Topsail Mayor Joanne McDermon. In a letter to USACE, she indicated the town simply could not afford to be a part of the project. It withdrew in July 2021, forcing Surf City to reevaluate its options.
Why they want out
During last week’s special-called board of aldermen meeting, Rep. Phil Shepard was invited to answer questions from concerned citizens about the process of annexing into Surf City.
Kelly Musico Gay, who also started a Phase 5 Annexation Facebook page, wrote to Rep. Shepard after his visit.
“Respectfully sir, you did not hear us,” she wrote. “Phase 5 wants to be part of the 50-year USACE Beach Nourishment project … We do understand that we cannot be part of this project as NTB residents. The mayor seems to keep wanting to ‘educate’ us all on this fact. We get it. NTB is broke. NTB passed us up on this project. This ship has sailed for NTB. None of this is lost on any of the taxpayers in Phase 5. That is precisely why we want to be part of Surf City.”
During the meeting, resident Burgess Allison told the board and Shepard the federal project should be of interest to the entire state.
“There has been stunning success in the Outer Banks about what a well-run, properly engineered project can bring: better beaches, better buildings, better tourism, better business and a benefit to the entire state,” Allison said. “In North Topsail Island we are stuck with old town boundary lines that now stand in the way of moving this project forward. Together, Surf City and Phase 5, which are aligned along natural geographic boundaries, could approve this project.”
Rep. Shepard said the Local Government Commission (LGC), which oversees the government budgets and debt management, would not have approved the town to take on such debt, which was up to roughly $33 million. This is also because the town still owes $16 million on a loan it took out in 2014 to make phase five a Federal Emergency Management Agency-beach.
The board of aldermen recently approved special-obligation bonds (SOBs) to help pay off the debt more quickly.
“This board went through months and months of painstaking agony to figure out how we could afford to do it,” McDermon said. “Not one board member was against the project. The cost continued to escalate to the point where townwide, we would have had to triple taxes to pay for that 4 miles of beach.”
With nearly a dozen residents coming forward to speak at the meeting, McDermon said she wished this amount of support was seen when the board of aldermen was first going through the decision-making process about the federal project.
Citizens expressed concerns about losing their beaches entirely, which would also impact the economy of the region and its tourism. The Greater Topsail Area Chamber of Commerce — covering Surf City, North Topsail Beach and Topsail Beach — estimates the area’s summer population to reach up to 60,000. The permanent population is around 6,000.
“Without the phase 5 beach nourishment project, you’re putting our properties at a severe disadvantage for property tax value and rental income,” Stump Sound resident Robert Frank said. “You can go half a mile south and get a 500-foot beach. We maybe have 50 or 100 feet.”
Resident Richard Fox said his family has owned property in town for 18 years: “I’m not thrilled to be hearing our interests don’t count even though we have paid 100% of our property taxes.” Fox said his taxes top out at over $100,000 through the years.
Frank and Fox represent a number of households who don’t get a vote since they do not reside in North Topsail full-time. Only full-time residents and registered voters can vote in municipal elections; part-timers and second-home vacationers cannot.
Gay calls it “taxation without representation.” She also said she thinks the majority of registered voters live in the north end, or phase one, and disproportionately impact what happens to the entire town.
She said phase one includes resident and former alderman Tom Leonard, who spoke against the annexation during the meeting.
Leonard echoed the town’s financial burden, as well as saying phase five had received three different shoreline restoration projects within the last eight years.
“That’s on 3.8 miles of shoreline, which is 33.9% of the town’s shorelines,” he said. “So, they’ve received more sand than the remaining 11.2 miles. Aside from mostly absentee property owners feeling they have been cheated out of a project somehow, why are we here discussing annexation?”
Leonard also called some of the residents “spoiled little kids” on social media after the meeting. “Sadly, this all got started because a ‘Karen’ didn’t get something to which she believed she was entitled and demanded to ‘speak to the manager’ by sending emails to elected officials at the state and federal levels,” he added
Gay presumes she was the “Karen” in question and said she was utterly disrespected by the comment.
Leonard also noted “Karen,” a full-time Cary resident, did not attend the meeting and “must be too busy and too important.”
With only a week’s notice, Gay said she could not take off work. Yet, her husband, John Gay, was in attendance and spoke on their behalf, saying North Topsail Beach lacks in all areas of transparency and planning.
“Knowing Surf City planned for the worse-case scenario had us in phase five wondering why our leadership had not done the same,” John Gay said.
In December, Surf City town manager Kyle Breuer told Port City Daily, to save up for the federal nourishment project, the town created a long-term plan. While the final costs are still not known, the city was preparing to cover $237 million.
Mayor McDermon told residents at the meeting the approval for the federal project was sprung on the town. While discussion has been in the works for two decades, it was unclear when the project would actually be authorized.
“We were down on the list and then magically at the top,” she said. “So, no one saw this coming when it did. It wasn’t like we had the foresight of, in three years we’ll be approved. It just happened.”
Mayor pro tem Mike Benson said at the Mar. 11 meeting the town put in place a 30-year plan in 2014. The town was going to nourish the beaches in sections, but due to federally protected guidelines, phases two through four are in a Coastal Barrier Resources Act (CBRA) area. The law was enacted in 1982 and encourages the conservation of hurricane-prone, undeveloped coastal areas (such as North Topsail Beach). By restricting the use of federal money, it is difficult for those areas to receive proper beach renourishment.
Homes within CBRA-designated areas are ineligible for participation in the National Flood Insurance Policy and the public beaches are also ineligible for federal grants and aid. North Topsail Beach has been working with federal officials to introduce legislation removing its beaches from CBRA designation.
This is why work has been done in phase five and a terminal groin is being proposed for phase one. Both areas are not CBRA and are therefore eligible for state and federal assistance.
“We have challenges throughout the whole town, as a result of the phases in the middle of the CBRA zone,” McDermon said. “This is not a battle between the north end and the south end as some residents or owners are trying to make it out to be.”
While Leonard expressed the town should work together as one unit, phase-five residents indicate they are a “different community” than other phases in town.
“Phase 5 is non-CBRA, just like Surf City,” Gay said. “Annex us.”
How the annexation would work
During the Mar. 11 meeting, Rep. Shepard told residents they would need 100% support from full-time residents (not all taxpayers) to annex that portion of town into Surf City. Also, Surf City would have to be willing to take them in and, possibly, the $16-million debt.
According to Cory Bryson — speaker Tim Moore’s policy advisor who was in attendance — four methods exist for a property to be annexed into a municipality: voluntary, satellite, involuntary (extremely rare, per 2011 legislation) or a local act by the N.C. General Assembly.
“Basically, what would happen here is a voluntary annexation,” Bryson explained. “Members of the community that want to annex into Surf City would have to have support from Surf City that they’re willing to accept them.”
Residents would lose North Topsail Beach services, such as police and fire, but would be protected by Surf City, should the town accept the annexation.
“There is a lot to look at,” Shepard said. “It’s just not that simple.”
Resident Allison asked for confirmation on whether an act by the general assembly would require 100% voter participation. Bryson said he was not sure.
“Getting 100% of anything in today’s world borders on ludicrous,” Allison said.
To complete the process, phase five would first have to successfully de-annex from North Topsail Beach, which like annexation would also have to be approved by the general assembly. According to UNCW School of Government, a petition is not required for deannexation, however the legislature can ask for proof of support (but is not legally obligated to do so).
Another resident asked the mayor and board if they considered the financial impact of losing phase five.
“We have not,” McDermon said. “We’re focused on making the best decisions for the town. Were you to get 100% support, that is something we would have to look at.”
Town manager Kyle Breuer said at this time no action is being taken by Surf CIty.
“It’s not an effort I’m going to pursue,” he said. “There’s a lot that would need to happen outside our control.”
If a legal entity were to submit the proper paperwork, he said, council would decide whether to direct the town clerk to investigate the request, just like any other annexation submission.
“Until that happens, it’s not something I’m looking into,” Breuer said.
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