Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Planning board recommends denial of Point rezoning, though residents say ‘fight is not over’

Topsail Beach Planning Board deliberates the conditional rezoning of The Point. (Port City Daily/Amy Passaretti Willis)

TOPSAIL BEACH — The audience erupted in applause when all Topsail planning board members unanimously voted against a conditional rezoning that would develop a portion of the serene and scenic Point.

After an hour-and-a-half meeting, updates to the site plan — submitted to the town the night before — and a final plea from applicant Todd Olson’s wife, the packed Topsail Assembly Building was waiting with bated breath to hear the outcome.

READ MORE: The Point rezoning faces last big hurdle before Topsail planning board vote

ALSO: Topsail planning board has 65 days to mull Pendo CEO’s rezoning request for The Point

The process whereby Olson, CEO of Pendo in Raleigh, is trying to build a family compound on the southernmost tip of the island has been almost nine months in the making. Before his intentions were revealed, the town adopted at his behest a new ordinance allowing for conditional zoning to be applied within its land use code.

Olson then held a public meeting to divulge his plans and faced strong opposition. The plans have been altered four times since the application was first considered. Three meetings and public hearings were held ahead of this week’s vote.

Most members of Conserve the Point, a group of residents who have banded together in objection to the rezoning, were surprised yet ecstatic about the board’s decision.

“Going into the meeting, we really didn’t know which way the planning board would go,” resident Shannon Crownover said. “In part, because there’s still so much that’s up in the air about this proposed development and its long-term impacts on the environment and our town culture.”

She was concerned while listening to Olson’s representatives’ “unclear answers” — decisions on where exactly the seven dwellings and associated structures will be built and conditions still being negotiated. Relief followed upon the project’s denial.

“The Topsail Beach planning board should be commended for making a decision in the best interest of our town, our economy and our culture,” Crownover said.

The board asked some tough questions to the Olson family representatives — surveyor Charles Riggs, plus attorneys from Ward and Smith. 

Chair Randy Leeseburg echoed Crownover’s sentiments.

“Our job is to look out for the town as a whole,” he said. “There are so many things to consider … a lot of unanswered questions but we’re running out of time.”

Once the application was deemed complete March 27, the board had 65 days to make a decision. Thursday’s vote was day 58.

Board member Jerry Hall said the overwhelming public pushback was strongly taken into consideration.

Dozens of residents turned out Thursday, donning turquoise “Conserve the Point” T-shirts, handing out information and advocating for denial. A public petition circulating garnered 3,500 signatures to conserve The Point entirely instead.

Multiple state and federal agencies have submitted comments advising against developing in the VE flood zone — a high-risk coastal area exposed to frequent storms. Many also noted the disruption of habitat, home to some endangered wildlife.

The 150 acres at the southern end of Topsail Beach have been owned by the MacLeod family for generations. The Olsons are under contract to buy the land, contingent on rezoning approval.

The latest plan has them developing 30 acres and conserving 120. They need a rezoning from the conservation district to a conditional district to build seven houses, a swimming pool, gazebos, a maintenance garage, walkways, a boat house, a pool house, and a boat dock suitable for six vessels.

While Olson was not in attendance, his wife, Laura, made one final plea to the board to consider their request, touting “we’re all on the same team.”

“I wanted to speak before I got unnerved by the comments about to come,” she said prior to the final public hearing portion of the meeting. “You guys don’t really know me, but if you had met me through my life, you would have seen me at beach cleanups, leading an environmental group at my university, working on water quality issues with AmeriCorps, working with companies that care about sustainability.”

Laura Olson makes one final plea to the planning board to consider their request, assuring members conservation is a high priority for her. (Port City Daily/Amy Passaretti Willis)

She said during her time in Topsail — the Olsons bought a vacation home on N. Anderson Boulevard in 2019 — she’s never seen a group “so passionate” and applauded their efforts to come together to preserve The Point’s integrity.

Ward and Smith attorney Dana Lingenfelser shared a letter of intent between the Olsons and the North Carolina Land Trust indicating conversations are in the works for a future conservation easement.

Lingenfelser said the letter shows the family’s objective to place 80% of the property under a conservation easement in perpetuity. The deal, not yet finalized, would come with some requirements from the environmental state agency in terms of access for monitoring and studies of the wildlife.

As outlined in the letter, shared with PCD, it also requires the Olsons pay a stewardship endowment, estimated by the land trust at $21,600 and for them to obtain an appraisal, documenting the value of the donation.

Planning board member David Barnes questioned whether the North Carolina Coastal Land Trust would try to “pressure” the town to alter its ordinances, limiting current uses of the land by the community, such as fishing.

Lingenfelser assured those were discussions still to have but said she intended to make sure the easement is “in line” with the town’s wishes.

“There’s no guarantees in real estate,” Hall said. “So at the end of the day [the easement] may or may not go through.”

The Olsons have agreed to a condition if the conditional land rezoning were approved by the town that proof of a conservation easement is required prior to any building.

Other conditions presented by the board — 16 total — were not as easily accepted by Riggs, surveyor acting on behalf of the Olsons.

Riggs said the Olsons agreed to some presented terms — no land disturbance outside of the zoned area, no boat ramps, no use of fill, limiting dwellings to 5,000 square feet, and creating a public trust easement. Yet, others were under consideration.

The south end lot, currently being leased to the town for public parking, would be purchased with the deal. Olson agreed to extend the same contract to the town but was unsure if the additional 1-acre easement requested adjacent to the lot to accommodate future public access could be granted.

The town also asked for a 30-foot access easement dedicated for emergency vehicles; Riggs said it would be “granted” but not “dedicated.”

“From a surveyor’s perspective, any time you dedicate something you’re making it public,” Riggs said. “We would be willing to grant an easement to the town and Pender County … and that limits the uses of the easement.”

The board also asked for all the future dwellings to have sprinkler systems for fire suppressions, as there is not a nearby hydrant for emergency use. Riggs said they would abide only if it is required by the fire code.

The building envelope — a defined area on the map determining the general vicinity structures would be built — was reduced from 26 to 18 acres.

“That was based on review and consideration by the Coastal Land Trust and I guess also, Wildlife [Resources Commission], asking us to remove these areas to protect wildlife,” Riggs said.

The town preferred an additional 350- to 500-foot setback from the ocean; the updated plans include only 300 additional feet.

At the May 2 meeting, the board inquired about other details not available at the time. Riggs said fencing would likely be a part of the plans, non-opaque, but the height and material have not yet been determined. He also said the decking size for dwellings will not be known until an architect is engaged.

He did, however, assure everyone there was no helicopter pad or short-term rental use being considered. Topsail staff had specifically asked about “nontraditional” uses for the property, such as aviation, as well as if it would be rented out.

There was some discrepancy between Olson’s representatives and attorney Matt Nichols, representing Topsail Beach in the matter, over including the marina in the conditional rezoning application.

Riggs and Lingenfelser both said it was excluded because their understanding was Topsail Sound was not part of the land purchase and a boat dock could be constructed by-right.

Nichols asked how the town could put its recommended conditions on an area not included in the rezoning request. Olson’s attorneys then agreed to amend the application to include the six-boat-slip dock. Each slip will be 14-feet by 40-feet, “average size,” Riggs indicated.

Before a motion was on the table, board member Carrie Hewitt wanted to clear up confusion about how the land is currently zoned. While comments have been floated that the property is zoned conservation with limited residential, that’s only indicated in the future land-use map. The current district is straight conservation.

She also said the MacLeods have a right to sell their property, but the board’s job is to provide a community perspective to how planning will impact the town as a whole.

“We don’t know the long-term impact of water tanks, burying things, digging up the dunes and disturbing nests,” Hewitt said. “I just don’t feel comfortable with that lack of information and how it’s going to long term impact us.”

Hall made the motion to deny the rezoning, seconded by Hewitt.

“I can’t recommend denial or approval,” Leeseberg said in his closing remarks. 

He paused before eventually joining his three other board members to vote against the rezoning.

The final decision will now be in the hands of the board of commissioners.

“So while this is very positive news, the fight to conserve The Point is not over,” Crownover said.

Conserve the Point has decided to extend its efforts should the development not pass. Members will advocate for a public-private partnership to purchase the land for conservation, an effort that has failed multiple times.

“I really do think we all want the same thing,” Laura told Port City Daily after the meeting. “Everyone who doesn’t want this wants to conserve it. We want to conserve it in a way that we felt was a practical and pragmatic way.”

Laura Olson talks with the planning board after the meeting. (Port City Daily/Amy Passaretti Willis)

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