Thursday, June 20, 2024

Low impact? Grassroots group wary of flooding issues with Scotts Hill development

The current entrance to Abbey Nature Preserve will be closed for construction of a 137 single-family home neighborhood. (Port City Daily/Amy Passaretti Willis)

PENDER COUNTY — A controversial development in Pender County that will impact natural forest and a popular historic tourist attraction is touting its construction as low-impact development.

READ MORE: 242 acres sold to Mungo Homes in Scotts Hill, county to maintain Abbey Nature Preserve

ALSO: Pender County, Mungo Homes reach deal on new park connecting Abbey Nature Preserve

Meanwhile, neighbors living in the vicinity still fear extensive stormwater runoff issues and flooding to their properties once land is cleared and impervious surface is built.

More than a year ago, the Foy family sold 242 acres of wooded land in Scotts Hill to Mungo Homes for $16 million. The developer is planning to build 137 single-family homes in phase one, known as Indigo at Abbey Nature Preserve.

The purchase came with outcry from the public, as the sell included the 62-acre Abbey Nature Preserve, a popular recreation area with 2 miles of walking trails. The property also borders Poplar Grove Plantation, a National Historic Register Landmark.

Though Pender County commissioners and Mungo Homes have reached an agreement to allow for continued public access to the nature preserve, residents are still concerned with the impacts development will have on surrounding properties.

A grassroots volunteer group organized by Kim Meyer, Laura Puryear and Jennifer Mackenzie, Save Scotts Hill has a mission to preserve the character of an area that straddles the Pender and New Hanover county line. Organizers want to obtain a seat at the table with the county to ensure low-impact development occurs as promised by Mungo Homes.

“By collaborating on amendments to the unified development ordinance, which regulates all rezoning and building in Pender County, we hope to minimize impact on our valuable coastal environment and help create a better quality of life for generations to come,” the Saves Scotts Hill’s mission statement notes.

Mungo Homes has proposed to design its 64-acre neighborhood to meet the standards of low-impact development. Within the county’s UDO, this equates to a balance of development with natural resource protection and utilizing specific stormwater management techniques that maximize infiltration.

The project must “treat runoff from all surfaces generated by 1 and 1-1/2 inches of rainfall, or the difference in the stormwater runoff from all surfaces from predevelopment and post-development conditions for a one-year, 24-hour storm, whichever is greater,” according to the UDO.

“As far as ‘whichever is greater,’ I don’t see how that can be determined at this point in time,” Mackenzie said. “The county has not studied the pre-development stormwater runoff of these 64 acres.”

Adams confirmed the county doesn’t conduct pre-development stormwater runoff calculations for any development sites.

The Save Scotts Hill members note flooding in surrounding neighborhoods is already a common occurrence and additional impervious surface will only exacerbate the problem. With only a couple inches of rainfall, roads can flood and tributaries overflow.

A design engineer will have to certify that the project meets the county’s low-impact development standards, Adams told Port City Daily.

“This development is still in the design phase, so we do not have the full set of engineered plans yet that detail the functioning of their stormwater system,” he added.

The concept of low impact developments was incorporated into Pender County’s 2010 Comprehensive Land Use Plan. Considered green infrastructure by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, stormwater control practices such as hydrologic abstraction and recycling or reuse of water are often used.

Principles of low-impact development also include minimal land clearing and limited creation of impervious surfaces versus conventional development, which often involves clear-cutting and creating excess dense surfaces. The purpose is to manage stormwater as close to its source as possible when developing natural land to reduce pollution and impacts of construction.

“How are 137 homes and neighborhood roads going to be built on 64 acres of mature forestland without clear-cutting?” Mackenzie questioned. “Low impact development does not support clear-cutting to begin with.”

Adams told PCD he’d be hesitant to use the term “clear cut,” but confirmed Mungo Homes will be clearing the land to develop the site. Based on what has been submitted, he said he didn’t know if the company would be preserving some of the existing vegetation.

ALSO: New flooding research shows most vulnerable areas in Cape Fear

According to Save Scotts Hill, 64 acres of trees has an estimated canopy of 8,494,200 square yards of leaves and needles, along with many miles of roots. The canopy intercepts rain and helps the water evaporate back into the atmosphere. Once the site is cleared, there will be no underground system to act as nature’s pump. 

“Of course, staff reviews their plans to ensure compliance with our UDO prior to issuing any development approvals,” Adams said.

Frank Braxton submitted for county review a master development plan on behalf of Mungo Homes in November 2022. (Port City Daily reached out about the developer’s intended stormwater plans, but he did not respond by press; this article will be updated when and if Braxton replies.)

(Courtesy Pender County)

The land Mungo Homes plans to build on is zoned as a residential performance district, which allows for a variety of uses and densities, as well as limited commercial and agritourism. 

The residential performance zoning calls for maximum lot sizes of 12,000 square feet, but the added LID designation allows for a 25% reduction, decreasing lots to 9,000 square feet. It also can be developed by-right without any zoning approvals from the county.

“Obviously, this becomes enticing to a high-density developer, such as Mungo Homes,” Mackenzie said, referring to it as a “gift” from the county to the developer. 

According to Ryke Longest, co-director of Environmental Law and Policy Clinic and clinical professor of law at Duke University, 9,000-square-foot lots will have a large percentage of impervious surface “by necessity.”

“And when you have a high percentage of impervious surface, you increase stormwater runoff at the same time as you decrease infiltration — and that’s a one-two punch,” Longest said.

Mackenzie told PCD when neighborhoods flood, the people who suffer are locals, not the out-of-state developer. Mungo Homes is based out of Tennessee and has built five communities in the tri-county region.

“Pender County residents are not fools,” Mackenzie said. “They deserve to know why their neighborhoods might be flooding and who rubber stamped it.”

According to Pender County attorney Patrick Buffkin, in a presentation to commissioners July 10, land clearing and site work on the development could begin later this year or early 2024. He added the company is in various stages of permitting for compliance.

To ensure continued access to the Abbey Nature Preserve during construction, the public entrance will be relocated.

The current access point off U.S. 17 will be closed when construction begins, and a new temporary public entrance will open off Scotts Hill Loop Road, to the east of the Abbey Nature Preserve tract.

The 62-acre Abbey Nature Preserve — with cypress trees, a pond and historic heritage — is protected by a North Carolina Coastal Land Trust conservation easement, but the walking trails leading to it are not.

During the July commissioners meeting, Poplar Grove Plantation executive director Caroline Lewis said she hopes the restored manor house and buildings in the Gullah Geechee corridor will remain connected to the Mill Pond and natural habitat that served the plantation for years. She is advocating for extending the new trail location to Poplar Grove’s property line.

Last summer, commissioners entered into an agreement with Clayton Properties Group Inc., owner of Mungo Homes, and amended the agreement in July for leasing property that allows for public access to the park.

The short-term entrance off Scotts Hill Loop Road will include a gravel drive, portable toilets and mulched walking path to the trials. The current entrance to the park off U.S. 17 will then become the gated entryway to the neighborhood.

Once phase one is complete, Mungo Homes will gift the county the conservation easement, as well as an additional 5.5 acres for a future county-owned park.

As Mungo Homes begins clearing the property for building, it will perform site work for the future park including grading, leveling and utility connection installment.

“When we receive it, it will be ready for construction of a permanent park facility,” Buffkin said at the July meeting.

The public will be engaged in the future to help determine what the new park should entail, but initial options include permanent restrooms, picnic tables, playgrounds, and more.

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