Wednesday, July 24, 2024

NHC has ‘cooked the golden goose,’ conservationists push to protect biodiversity hotspot

The Island Creek Basin Ecosystem is comprised mostly of hydric, poorly draining, soils and therefore conservationists warn against development, which would lead to heavy flooding. (Courtesy Andy Wood)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — The most diverse ecosystem in southeastern North Carolina is in danger of being destroyed.

READ MORE: Three-part series examines environmental cost of local development practices

The Island Creek Basin, 14,000 acres in northern New Hanover and southern Pender counties, is renowned for its vast biodiversity, including native plants and animals found nowhere else in the world. It’s home to several species listed as threatened or endangered by state and federal agencies, including the monarch butterfly, red-cockaded woodpecker, rough-leaved loosestrife, bald eagle, and Eastern chicken turtle, among others.

Local environmentalists and conservationists are advocating for preservation of the Island Creek basin, as well as implementing land-use tactics on the county planning level to promote smart growth.

The Island Creek Basin, running along Sidbury Road between I-140 to the south and Old Holly Shelter Road to the north, is ranked as a high priority ecosystem in the state’s forest action plan. It’s also at risk of being lost to development, road construction, agriculture and plantation forestry.

Developments by-right have already been approved in the area, with others under consideration nearby by county staff. In total, more than 6,000 units could be built along Sidbury Road.

“This ecosystem is really the last one intact,” New Hanover County Soil and Water Conservation District Supervisor Evan Folds said, “to rally around.” 

The property is also one of the last remaining habitats for the Venus flytrap, once abundant in southeastern North Carolina. Conservationist Andy Wood estimates at least 90% of New Hanover’s flytrap population has been destroyed.

Wood, director of Coastal Plain Conservation Group, along with geologist and UNCW senior lecturer Roger Shew, published a white paper last month, detailing the importance of the Island Creek basin, its habitat and reasons it shouldn’t be built upon. The report is endorsed on the NHC Soil and Water Conservation District board of supervisors’ webpage.

Much of the area is made of hydric soils year-round, meaning soil that drains poorly and stays saturated. Building there can exacerbate flooding, according to Wood.

“I wish I had done this a decade ago,” he said, referring to the paper. “But I didn’t see the manic pace of habitat destruction hitting this area. I knew it was coming, but I didn’t know it was going to come so hard and furious.”

Wood is concerned developing the area will irreparably alter and destroy one of the region’s “last best examples of southeastern North Carolina’s natural heritage.”

More than 70% of southeastern North Carolina ecosystems have already been destroyed due to development, according to Wood’s research. The annual rate of growth in New Hanover and Pender — 1.5% and 1.3%, respectively — puts areas such as Island Creek in threat of future destruction.

“We run the risk of being pegged as anti-development, and that’s absolutely not what anyone is saying,” Folds said. “It’s just, how do we develop in the right ways?”

Development threatens the biodiverse ecosystem of the Island Creek basin, with Sidbury Station already approved by-right and others nearby under consideration by county staff. (Courtesy Robin Wood)

Development threatens a biodiversity ‘hotspot’

Building in the Island Creek Basin is expected in the near future, according to county planning documents. New Hanover County budgeted $3 million in fiscal year 2023 to extend sewer and water infrastructure to the Island Creek Basin, in anticipation of future growth.

In February, Cape Fear Public Utility Authority approved a $1.5 million contract with McKim and Creed for installing 73,000 linear feet of infrastructure to the northern portion of the county.

“New Hanover County built sewer infrastructure to carry sewage from properties not yet developed, but anticipated,” Wood said. “They gifted developers with public funding.”

County staff is currently reviewing the white paper to better understand its findings, spokesperson Alex Riley said. The paper recommends regulatory considerations beyond the county’s guidelines, such as federal wetland protections and stormwater requirements, already apply to projects, he said. Specific soils do not.

Shew explained there are subtle differences between hydric soils and wetlands. One of three characteristics wetlands are defined by includes hydric soils, along with supporting plants that grow in saturated environments and presence of standing water during part of the year. Hydric soils support the vegetation adapted to these environments.

“Natural areas will continue to be prioritized along with smart growth and development – and these are going to be key objectives in the county’s new strategic plan,” Riley said.

The 2016 future land use map for New Hanover County identifies much of the Island Creek basin as community mixed-use — to build office, retail, recreation, multi-family and single-family residential — commerce and some limited conservation.

Already under construction on the edge of the Island Creek basin, Sidbury Station will consist of 750 homes; phase two is under consideration by the technical review committee for another 655 single-family homes and 103 townhomes. 

Riley said projects, such as Sidbury Station, are allowed by-right, meaning no rezoning or special use permits were needed for approval. 

The development is still subject to the county’s technical standards — such as density, setbacks, traffic impact, open space — he added. Staff’s decision to approve is based on whether it meets the requirements.

“Though additional technical information can be provided at the time of technical review and may help shape the ultimate project,” Riley said. 

According to a Wilmington Business Journal report, McAdams Homes plans to develop up to 5,000 residential units over the next 10 years also along Sidbury Road.

Building in areas with hydric flooding guarantees to increase flooding, Wood explained. The soil acts as a cap to keep water from percolating and also doesn’t absorb into the ground very easily. 

He compared the Island Creek Basin to Ogden, where water reached up to 3 feet in homes following Hurricane Florence. Many neighborhoods there are also built on hydric soils.

Shew also pointed to building on wetlands as a safety hazard. When Florence hit, Wilmington roads were flooded so badly, it made the region an island. More development could worsen  future flooding.

Within the Island Creek Basin ecosystem, there are at least 20 different soil types, ranging from moderately drained to very poorly drained soils. The latter comprises 80% of the soils, considered hydric. While they support growth and regeneration of vegetation adapted to wet conditions, they also provide water filtration, storage and aquifer recharge.

Due to pending dangers to the area, the region is also considered the most biodiverse ecosystem in the Atlantic Coastal Plain, north of Florida. This means it contains at least 1,500 species of native plants and has retained less than 30% of its original habitat.

The white paper refers to it as a “biodiversity hotspot.”

Shew noted when development goes in, following a clear cutting of vegetation, it creates a disconnect for all the native wildlife.

“Plants and animals need connection,” he said. “They can’t operate in isolated conditions.”

When roads and homes are built, natural habitat is severed, making it difficult for species to adapt. Shew recommends developments maintain 5- to 10-acre corridors for continuity of migration.

For example, Island Creek connects to the northwest Cape Fear floodplain, creating a natural corridor for animals moving from one ecosystem to another, such as Holly Shelter, east to Green Swamp Nature Preserve and to Lake Waccamaw.

Wood said the timing of the paper is “serendipitous” as legislation, vetoed by Gov. Roy Cooper, was overrode by the Senate and House this week. Senate Bill 582, known as the Farm Act, would place more than half of all state wetlands at risk. According to the Southern Environmental Law Center, that includes about 527,000 acres of wetlands in the Cape Fear River watershed.

The legislation would remove federal protections for wetlands not immediately connected to another body of water.

In May, the Supreme Court ruled in Sackett v. EPA that federal protections for wetlands only apply to those that directly adjoin rivers, lakes and bodies of water.

“Wetlands are wetlands for physical reasons, not judicial or regulatory,” Wood said, “whether or not they communicate directly with a stream or other water of the U.S. This is the wrinkle that, by their recent actions, judges and politicians apparently fail to understand, in my opinion.”

Within Island Creek there are portions considered wetlands not connected to federal waters that would be impacted by the Farm Act, Shew confirmed.

Island Creek Basin is one of the last remaining habitats for the Venus flytrap, which used to be abundant in New Hanover County. (Courtesy Andy Wood)

‘We need to disincentivize poor decisions’

Folds called the published white paper a foundation to begin a much-needed conversation around the county’s growth. It also offers solutions to incorporate in planning.

“What rights do we have to speak into that to begin with and it’s really alarming to understand we have very few,” Folds said.

ALSO: Environmentalists push for community input on industrial development

The conservationists recommend exploring alternative land uses for hydric soils — which comprise 60% across all of New Hanover County — that offer substitute community benefits over development.

Wood and Shew also think soil types should be incorporated in the decision-making process for future development.

“It’s not about me but about my two sons and my grandsons,” Wood said. “They’re inheriting the mess my generation inadvertently created.”

Since 1980, 323 weather and climate disasters reached $1 billion in damage or more across the nation. The Federal Emergency Management Agency said natural disasters are occurring more frequently and allowing people to live in hazard-prone areas increases the impact.

FEMA emphasizes the value of natural areas prone to flooding, as well as the toll it takes on taxpayers. Since 1980, the U.S. has spent $2.195 trillion on cleanup from natural disasters.

Nature-based solutions can be implemented in wetlands, open space and urban green infrastructure to buffer communities from storm damages, thus reducing the cost to taxpayers, according to Wood and Shew’s research. Weaving natural features into the environment can provide flood control, water storage, infiltration and erosion control while also offering recreation.

“Nature-based solutions allow us to protect these areas to be more sustainable, more resilient to storms, and other consequences,” Shew said. “We need to say, ‘OK, we’re going to develop smartly but not incentivize poor development.’ We need to disincentivize poor decisions and help make good decisions to manage the natural areas.”

Since the Island Creek Basin contains intact, ecologically valuable habitat, environmentalists tout the need to preserve it. But city, county and state decision-makers need to assist.

The paper recommends a full assessment of the Island Creek ecosystem and for New Hanover County to consider land-use practices for the region as whole, rather than “piece-meal” parcels, according to Shew. An areawide impact study could scientifically quantify risks and public costs associated with proposed development.

Both Wood and Shew noted the planning boards have tough jobs to do but think a science-based view should be part of the group. Wood said often regulatory groups “turn a blind eye” to what’s going on.

“County and city staff work for us, but first they answer to the people we elect,” Wood said. “There’s not an environmental voice on the board.”

Though he admitted he has not applied to take an active role in the process, Wood said he would find it hard to be objective.

“At least 60% of the time, I’d say ‘no’ [to development],” he said. “How would those people react to all environmentalists on the board? I recommend surrounding yourself with some people who understand the science of hydrology, soil and climate.”

Shew recommends the creation of a science board to guide planning boards, commissioners and council on the soil types and habitats in areas being considered for rezoning or development.

“I feel for them,” Shew said of local planning boards. “They have to be able to make decisions on a quick basis, with people breathing down your neck on the development side.”

He also said rezoning is part of the cause of over-development. 

In 2022, the county approved four residential projects, totaling 280 units, with eight more under review by the technical review committee. If all are approved, it would lead to another 1,179 units in the unincorporated county.

Zoning is put in place to maintain best uses for the land, Shew explained.

“And that should be looked at instead of asking for a rezoning for exceptions,” he added.

Since July 2022, New Hanover County has received 25 rezoning applications, including those that have been withdrawn or not yet received commissioners’ approval.

“We have cooked the golden goose in terms of biodiversity and habitat,” Wood said. “And we’re scrambling the last of her golden eggs.”

Folds is advocating for a role in county government that would be tasked with overseeing development proposals for environmental concerns. He said the Soil and Water Conservation District Board pitched the idea of a chief sustainability officer to the county last month during staff’s strategic planning session.

As Folds noted, developing property is really the only way to garner an economic advantage for owning land.

“How do we have a different conversation and activate a pilot project to show we can do these things differently and it can be an asset to the region?” he asked.

One idea, he said, is assigning a carbon value to land threatened by development.

A ton of carbon averages $50, estimated to increase by 50 times the amount in 2050. According to the World Bank, revenue from carbon taxes — an emissions trading market — reached $95 billion in May 2023.

Essentially, a value is assigned to the amount of carbon in a piece of property; global companies then purchase carbon credits to offset their carbon output in an attempt to be carbon neutral.

Island Creek is high in carbon content and under the threat of development, so it would be eligible for the carbon market. Development reduces carbon sequestration — the process of capturing and storing carbon dioxide to mitigate climate change — in the forest and soils.

The conservationists’ research points to other land values that need to be considered in New Hanover County, besides merely development. This includes recreation, aesthetics, tourism, maintenance of air and water quality, and preservation of biodiversity.

“We need elected policymakers to have a come to reality moment and realize it’s a new game here on planet Earth,” Wood said. “And the game of environment has new rules.”

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