This is part three of a series about development practices in the Cape Fear. Part one addressed issues with land-clearing and open burns. Part two discussed alternatives to burning. This part examines existing regulations.
SOUTHEASTERN N.C. — The largest impact humans have on the environment is the amount of space they develop. But how local politicians regulate growth and developers approach expansion can reduce harm.
READ MORE: Why is Cape Fear on fire?
There are resources and even model laws that outline how to build to mitigate factors such as habitat loss and fragmentation to align with a state resource created by the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission. Though, in the tri-county region, it’s common practice for developers to clearcut land and burn trees and vegetation.
Determining the amount of material burned for land-clearing, tree and habitat loss is a mystery, partly obscured by a lack of data collected on the issues. However, more than 10,000 North Carolina Forest Service open burn permits were issued in the region last year. There are no comprehensive species or habitat surveys for the area either; however, 51 species that historically occurred in New Hanover, Pender and Brunswick counties have not been seen in the past two decades.
Continuing habitat loss in the wake of development is not only a function of people moving to the area en masse. Over the years the amount of space developed per person has skyrocketed in North Carolina. More than five times the amount of land per person is occupied today when compared to 1970, according to Renaissance Computing Institute, an organization made up of a consortium of major North Carolina research universities.
While none of the tri-counties have an incentive-based conservation ordinance, a handful of local governments have tree ordinances, conservation districts and may require protections of a certain percentage of open space for projects. They address some issues that erode natural areas, but not key causes of habitat loss such as fragmentation and loss of tree canopy.
New Hanover’s tree ordinance has been the subject of debate for years. Most recently commissioners considered reducing or removing its preservation requirements entirely for the development corridor along U.S. Route 421. Ultimately, the board signed off on an amendment to require the replacement of trees taken down on commercial sites in the 421 corridor on other parts of the property.
Tree ordinances in New Hanover and Pender counties focus on protecting individual trees instead of canopy.
“An ordinance that’s focused only on individual trees is less effective at maintaining canopy and habitat; however, the incentives and the other components that we have built into our development ordinance that are part of our 2020 update do a much better job at also trying to get to those goals,” New Hanover Planning Director Rebekah Roth said.
The 2020 updates added more trees of smaller sizes to those protected. The ordinances prohibit taking down some trees entirely, based on size. There are also allowances to remove some larger trees in exchange for a fee.
Roth said the county started discussions three years ago on a tree canopy study, which would be one of the first steps in developing a new ordinance. It would be a major project and take nine to 18 months to produce, if staff were assigned to do so.
By comparison, the Town of Chapel Hill has a strong ordinance for tree preservation. Its rules focus on preserving canopy coverage by requiring developers to maintain a percentage of forested area on any given property. Multifamily developments must maintain at least 30%, for example. The ordinance also includes a requirement to rebuild canopy on a site if it does not meet the minimum.
There is some movement toward more conservation-minded development practices in Brunswick County, the fastest-growing in the state, which also ranks near the top nationally.
Leland, for example, could consider a new tree ordinance this year. Currently, there are no special tree protections, though the town considered an amendment to address the issue in January 2021. Leland spokesperson Jessica Jewell said council did not go through with the amendment because a bill floating around the General Assembly at the time could have prevented its adoption.
Leland’s ordinance would have prohibited clearcutting. Jewell said the town intends to revisit the change this year.
The second-largest municipality in the Cape Fear, Leland is also annexing thousands of acres each year and signing off on equal numbers of new homes for construction.
Its most recent annexation of 2,100 acres drew some ire from local activists about ongoing land-clearing and burns in the area. The town council responded to one of those concerns last week when it told town manager David Hollis to bring back options to crack down on land-clearing fires.
Leland has been purchasing, annexing, and placing parcels in conservation zoning to prevent them from being developed. The town added more than 1,700 new residents last year.
“The challenge that Brunswick County has is the growth rate,” said Kacy Cook, the conservation biologist who coordinates the wildlife commission’s Green Growth Toolbox.
The toolbox provides an exhaustive list of best practices for residential development statewide, divided up between the piedmont and coastal plain. It doesn’t have a tree-specific ordinance, but does offer a model conservation ordinance. Adoption of those strategies is voluntary.
The Green Growth Toolbox’s model suggests municipalities provide small incentives for developers to push toward low-impact projects. The idea is to allow a developer to build slightly more units per acre in exchange for clustering homes around land with less natural value and reducing the total area built upon.
Cook said, to her knowledge, Mount Pleasant and Pittsboro are the only local North Carolina governments to adopt a full version of the model ordinance, though many have acquired some parts of the language.
Conservation overlays aimed at protecting special areas are relatively common, though their contents do not necessarily follow what is outlined in the toolbox. New Hanover County, for example, requires a certain amount of space in the conservation area be preserved.
New Hanover, Pender and Brunswick are required to comply with Coastal Resources Commission environmental rules, which mostly address development along shorelines and wetland areas.
“What we encourage local governments to do is pick a first step they are comfortable with and improve it over time,” Cook said.
Roth said the last time she received training on the toolbox was about a decade ago. Some measures in New Hanover’s ordinances are similar to recommendations in the toolbox, such as setbacks from fragile resources that have been in place since the 1980s. She said a few of the county’s tree retention standards are akin to some of the recommendations made by the state.
Roth said some guidance in the toolbox like contiguous open space is something staff would suggest as part of its development regulations, but it does not have a plan in place showing where those areas would be.
The Green Growth Toolbox’s model ordinances were written by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions based on ordinances in Tampa and Hillsborough County, Florida.
“The toolbox is designed to offer recommendations that are practical and can be implemented in a way that does not conflict with North Carolina law or federal law,” Cook clarified. “We don’t want to be telling local governments, ‘Oh you can do this,’ and then they do it and they have a huge legal challenge.”
Roth told Port City Daily there is a point in regulation where a property owner could argue a local government has effectively taken his or her property because of restrictions. The resident could pursue legal action.
However, Roth said she is unclear where that line is.
Brunswick County commissioners signed off on a new land use plan earlier this week. It incorporates its planning recommendations with urban centers and valuable conservation areas as suggested in the toolbox.
The land use plan is a guiding document for the county, though not legally binding. Part of the plan is a focus on green development. One speaker during Monday’s public hearing on the plan commended its contents specifically because it would cut down on habitat fragmentation, a phenomenon where sections of habitat are cut off from the larger ecosystem and starved out.
Next up for the county is an overhaul of its unified development ordinance. Exactly what it could contain is up in the air and development is in early stages.
Brunswick County Planning Director Kirstie Dixon said the county worked with Cook on the trail plan included in the document. The county also allows conservation subdivisions in its current ordinances, approved in 2015, also created in consultation with Cook.
Conservation subdivisions in Brunswick County place 50% or more of a piece of property in conservation in exchange for smaller lot sizes.
Roth told PCD New Hanover does allow clustering of units to preserve more open space, but it does not provide a density incentive.
PCD reached to to Pender County about how the toolbox has influenced its ordinances but did not hear back by press.
Cook said all development only benefits humans as a rule. There are a few species that are well-adapted to living around people, such as coyotes. Living in cities and dense urban areas may not feel environmentally connected, but it is low-impact when compared to sprawl.
Developers generally get onboard with the ordinances after a bit of education, Cook indicated. A more dense development means savings on installing roads and utilities, of which developers bear the cost.
She added smaller lots will not ruin the financial viability of a process, noting properties sell for up to 25% more if they are in close proximity to natural areas. She is unaware of any conservation projects in the state which have failed to make money.
The main feedback Cook hears from developers is they want clear ordinances that do not change.
While developers are required to abide by the rules, in some cases they go above and beyond.
Scott Stewart, of Demarest Company, does not think new regulations are the answer to issues of poor design and practice. He believes part of the solution is educating others in the industry to build responsibly.
An adherent of the New Urbanism design and planning movement, Stewart focuses on escaping the development of suburban sprawl that spread in the wake of World War II. Introduced to the concept in the 1980s, he said it struck him as “what the land needs”
Stewart arrived in New Hanover in the late 1980s, transplanted from New Jersey. He has been involved in projects throughout the region. Notably, the massive Compass Pointe development in Brunswick County is his design.
He often asks for variances so his projects can accommodate more conservation efforts than normal. Variances that allowed one-way streets at New Hanover’s Arboretum Village helped him save every tree on the small townhome project’s property.
“This is 10 units to the acre,” Stewart noted.
Driving through the neighborhood, he pointed out one-way streets and the design of the buildings to “human scale” as to encourage walkability and the feeling of living on a street rather than a parking lot.
Another project, Arboretum West, off Military Cutoff Road, had 14 variances approved by the City of Wilmington. They allowed the placement of an internal street, which preserved surrounding stands of pine and oak trees.
In general, Stewart said after plans are approved by a local government, the construction process itself is just as important. He oversees and works on the sites, sometimes operating equipment, such as his favorite piece of machinery: the forest mulcher. He personally clears undergrowth during the design phase, “opening up” sites so he can examine their natural features.
Stewart also hires arborists to maintain trees during the process.
Demarest Landing, the neighborhood near Ogden where he lives, was Stewart’s first project in the Wilmington area. He started construction in 1995, designing slender streets with medians packed with foliage and trees ensconcing either side. Parking and utility accesses are hidden away by shared alleys behind the homes.
When asked if fragmentation concerns him, he noted one of his favorite things about Demarest Landing is observing wildlife, including deer passing through his backyard.
Part of his design philosophy is creating neighborhoods accessible by foot, with traffic-calming measures that make cars feel out of place (streets are still accessible to emergency vehicles). Walkability is a tenet of New Urbanism because it reduces dependency on the environmental impact of vehicles. It also cuts down on sprawl by requiring less road development.
Stewart said he approaches projects based on what the land can accommodate. He takes tree preservation to an extreme. He noted some corners and angles to the streets in Demarest Landing may look cockeyed because they were designed to save trees that have since been destroyed by hurricanes.
“Sometimes man plans and God laughs,” Stewart joked.
For Demarest Landing, he transplanted 150 trees via a specialty method called “spading.” If he can’t save a tree — sometimes due to soil or tree health issues — he sells what lumber he can and mulches the remainder to use in landscaping for the development.
In Devaun Park, located in Calabash, more than 500 trees were spaded and six years worth of mulch was created for its landscaping program.
Stewart said he is usually attracted to unique, forested parcels.
One of his latest projects is a prospective brewery off Market Street, located next door to a separate development on Lendire Road. The area recently has sparked controversy because of weeks of land-clearing burns to make way for residential construction.
He noted the Lendire project was first cleared decades ago for a project that did not come to fruition and it will put more people within walking distance of nearby businesses, including the brewery site. He said all projects are about balance.
Stewart plans to save the tree canopy at the brewery site.
“The partners I’m involved with now on Market Street, I have hope that the educational process and my involvement is teaching the generations that are involved with that property the correct way to do things,” Stewart said. “Planting a seed that will grow.”
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