Thursday, April 18, 2024

‘We’re not developers’: Olsons agree to more investment to quell concerns on Point rezoning

Laura and Todd Olson address Topsail Beach commissioners Monday regarding proposed conditions on their rezoning request for The Point.

TOPSAIL BEACH — Nearly 30 more conditions are being imposed by town commissioners before considering a Raleigh family’s proposed plans to build on a fraction of land in Topsail Beach.

READ MORE: Topsail residents form nonprofit, prep to purchase The Point if development fails

A public work session was held Monday for Todd and Laura Olson to have an open discussion with Topsail Beach commissioners about how to proceed with their conditional rezoning request.

Laura told Port City Daily on a call Tuesday it was the most useful meeting since the process began almost a year ago.

Her husband, Raleigh-based Pendo CEO Todd, submitted plans for a conditional rezoning in October to build seven houses, plus accessory structures, on a portion of land currently zoned conservation. Since then there have been numerous public meetings on the proposal, all rife with resident pushback to leave the undeveloped property, often used by the public, as is.

“Without dialogue like we had yesterday, it’s hard to understand the rationale for things on both sides,” she said. “In no way, shape or form were Todd and I like, ‘You know what we’d like to do? We’d like to go build a compound somewhere.’ That’s not a conversation we ever had, ever.”

The compound wasn’t the initial intent, at least.

“We proposed a plan that gives us flexibility and options to spend time together now and in the future,” Laura said. “This is the only chance we get to make this ask, so even if it’s not something we see happening in the next 30-plus years, we wanted to think long-term. The goal is to facilitate togetherness, not competition or limitations for who is able to spend time there.”

The Olsons are under contract for 150 acres, currently zoned conservation. They’re asking to rezone about 30 acres for limited residential use. Laura explained to PCD the main goal was to find a way to preserve the land, with the added benefit of creating a lasting family legacy.

It’s Topsail Beach’s first conditional rezoning application, a town ordinance added per the Olsons’ request last August. There has been some confusion on both sides over how the process works.

Todd started off his remarks Monday by making one thing clear: “We are not developers.”

Laura further explained to PCD that the couple was unaware of how the process would unfold and what a normal rezoning looks like.

“The planning board process was a little confusing,” she said. “Also I didn’t even know it would get to this stage when the planning board said no.”

The Topsail Beach planning board unanimously recommended to commissioners to deny the proposal May 24, following three public meetings.

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

The Olsons said the reason they were interested in purchasing the 150-acre property was to counteroffer another potential buyer. According to a vision document shared with Port City Daily, the Olsons made an offer “as a defensive move to create more certainty around its future.”

The property, owned by the McLeod family for generations, has been for sale for years. Laura told PCD the sellers have had a “tough time.” 

If the Olsons don’t buy it, someone else could and then develop it further. Or the town and local advocacy groups, such as the 501(c)3 Conserve the Point, could raise the funds to purchase it and put it in a conservation easement in perpetuity.

This has been attempted in the past, by both the town and the North Carolina Land Trust, but never gained traction due to the cost.

“[The sellers] said yes to us because we’re leaving it in a good spot,” Laura said “We heard there were other offers. We also heard this offer wasn’t the top offer, but they thought it was the best.”

The Olsons want to buy it for their own use and preserve 80%, or roughly 120 acres, forever through a conservation easement with the North Carolina Land Trust. They have signed a letter of intent and agreed to not build until legalities of the conservation easement are finalized.

“This felt like the best win-win for the town,” Todd said during Monday’s meeting.

Topsail commissioners asked to be informed of all roles and responsibilities the Coastal Land Trust will have, including any conditions enacted per the easement agreements.

“We need to agree to what you’re agreeing to with them to make sure it doesn’t limit our ability to use that area,” commissioner Frank Braxton said.

Council of Governments consultant Wes MacLeod proceeded to discuss each of the submitted conditions or talking points commissioners compiled prior to Monday’s meeting. Topics included utilities, environmental, outside agencies, land development, miscellaneous, boat dock, construction, emergency access and flood regulations.

He further explained at the meeting the conditional rezoning process is intended to be a back and forth: “It necessitates continual change to whatever the proposal is. It’s sort of the way it goes.”

The Olsons sent the Topsail Beach commissioners a presentation ahead of the work session. It included some ideas for amenities in the south end, as well as examples of how the houses could look — taking into account a low-profile and sustainable building — and dispelling some myths they thought were incorrectly presented by residents.

“It’s a vision document to open the aperture of what’s possible,” Todd said at the meeting.

Some commissioners took this as an update to the Olsons’ plans. However, the potential land buyers were clear the intent was to be proactive with ideas they would be amenable to, if the town thought it was in the public’s best interest.

“It’s not fair to the public or to us to come in near the end and start talking about changes,” commissioner John Gunter said.

“We’re not changing anything,” Todd rebutted. “We’re responding to conditions changing. I’m looking at a list here of 12 new ones. There’s a lot of changes on both sides.”

The Olsons, along with surveyor Charles Riggs — representing the applicant throughout the procedural meetings — and attorney Dana Lingenfelser, agreed to many provisions. Yet, they also wanted to review the full list and create a timeline on what was feasible to get done.

The applicant agreed to:

  • Install all power lines and water tanks underground
  • Supply water to the houses per a well; the town will not connect water service to the property
  • Limit walkway structures to a 42-inch railing and limit flag poles to 20 feet tall
  • No subdivide the rezoned parcel into smaller lots following ownership
  • Not modify any roadways outside the building envelopes
  • Prohibit motorized vehicles outside the building envelope
  • Provide a 9-foot clearance under the proposed boat dock on the sound side
  • Prohibit manned aircraft from landing on site, except for medical emergencies

Other ideas by commissioners were to be assessed and weighed per the monetary and time investment it would require of the Olsons.

When asked how much the couple has spent on the process so far, Laura told PCD: “It’s a stressful amount.”

She also said she plans on documenting the investment.

“I think it’s important to show what it’s costing to get answers,” she added.

Commissioner Braxton is a former principal with Coastal Land Design, a professional engineering and landscape architecture and construction management firm. His experience prompted him to request more professional input on the plans.

“A conditional rezoning is a little different in which the burden is on the applicant to provide as much and all the information for us to make a decision,” he said Monday. “I think you came up kinda short. I was expecting to see a team with environmentalists, engineers, hydrologists. … You gotta sell it to us.”

The property is in a flood hazard zone, causing concern to neighbors that nearby homes will be damaged. It’s also home to wildlife — including some endangered and threatened species — and a “unique” changing environment that some fear will be destroyed through development.

Commissioners asked for an environmental study.

Laura explained she did preliminary work in terms of bird habitat and migration patterns to determine the best place for the building envelope that would not impact either.

She indicated to PCD plans to obtain a signed letter explaining that building is possible if sensitive areas are avoided. She has communicated with numerous environmental agents and adjusted the plans accordingly.

“It’s the reason we took parts out of our building envelope,” Laura said. “And we’re going to double check to make sure for what we’re talking about, it will be OK.”

MacLeod urged commissioners to detail the scope of the study and information they want reported on, since an environmental assessment can analyze any number of elements.

Residents submitted letters from the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, North Carolina Division of Coastal Management, and the U.S. Department of the Interior Fish and Wildlife Service, detailing the potential damage to the environment if building occurred in a coastal high hazard area.

“If you can address those, you can defend it,” Braxton said. “It needs to be specific to what the concerns are.”

He also recommended engaging a coastal architect to determine how the buildings can fit into the natural surroundings, what impact construction would have on the dunes and the style of dwellings to “function within the overall compound.”

“Something to prove to us this a good plan,” Braxton said.

Todd explained during the meeting he prepared to engage an architect post-closing on the property. The couple doesn’t intend to even build the first of up to seven homes until at least 2026.

Commissioners also called for a soil scientist to evaluate the septic area and groundwater impact, a hydrogeologist to evaluate potable water supply and an engineering study for a well-supplied fire sprinkler system.

Prioritizing all the conditions and requesting information to determine how to proceed is next on Laura’s to-do list. For example, she said if she does an environmental assessment first and the answers result in something that would be a “hard no,” then it doesn’t make sense to do the remaining studies.

“I don’t think it’s work that doesn’t need to be done, it’s just, if we do all the work to get answers to everything, and the answer is no, I will have a very hard time with that,” Laura said to PCD. “But I don’t have a problem with questions.”

The Olsons also agreed to reconsider the route of their access road, to avoid running through the backyards of Serenity Point residents, submit a stormwater concept plan, and look into the need for a secondary access road for emergency vehicles.

“I think the commissioners want to make sure if they’re voting, they have all the information they feel they need to make a good decision,” Laura said. “If I put myself in their shoes, I would feel a lot of pressure and want a lot of information as well.”

Attorney Matt Nichols explained all conditions have to be agreed upon by both the commissioners and the applicant. The Olsons have until Aug. 4 to decide if they’re able to meet a September timeline for the town’s public hearing, based on the requested information. If not, commissioners could agree to push the meeting, which would also likely delay the final vote.

“Now that I have kinda gone through this, I would maybe approach it differently next time,” Laura said. “We’re doing the best we can, given this is our first time.”

If the rezoning is denied, the Olsons will likely not still purchase the property, Laura confirmed.

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