Friday, July 12, 2024

North Topsail tables added enforcement for wetland protections

North Topsail Beach Board of Aldermen decided to table a vote on local wetlands protections to review the legal definitions of wetlands amid litigation on the federal level. (Port City Daily/Amy Passaretti Willis)

NORTH TOPSAIL BEACH — A beach town wants to add local protection for wetlands, but any action to move forward was delayed this week.

READ MORE: N. Topsail considers tacking local protections on top of federal wetland regulations

The North Topsail Beach Board of Aldermen was in agreement on adding a fine for damaging and increasing the potential fine from $1,000 to $10,000 during its Wednesday meeting, but it tabled the issue. Members wanted to review the web of legalese, which has placed the definition of wetlands in North Carolina in flux.

The proposal from the town would add language to its development ordinance that requires property owners to preserve and restore wetlands when they build or face a $10,000 fine, with the potential to tack on more penalties due to lack of compliance.

Property owners would be required to replant and stabilize wetlands disturbed during development and protect their natural water features within the allowance of their individual construction permits.

The aldermen tabled the issue after town attorney Brian Edes and planning director Deborah Hill began to explain the convoluted legal decisions about what constitutes a wetland at the federal level. The proposed ordinance changes would tie the definition of wetlands to the state, which in turn recently decided to follow the federal guidelines for what’s considered a wetland. 

The definition was changed by a U.S. Supreme Court decision in May. The decision was then incorporated into the Environmental Protection Agency’s rule on what is considered “waters of the United States” according to the Clean Water Act.

And the changes are not done yet. There is an ongoing lawsuit brought by a coalition of Republican states against President Joe Biden’s administration over its definition of waters of the United States.

The gist of the bureaucratic and legislative movement is the Supreme Court dictated the federal government only has the authority to regulate water with “continuous surface connection” to navigable waterways. The change stripped some federal environmental protection from millions of acres of wetlands across the country, and potentially from North Carolina’s wetlands after the state moved to match the federal definition.

Hill said the effort to draft local regulations has been a moving target.

The board unanimously agreed to table the issue after Mayor Joann McDermon suggested the town take the time to review all the language tied to the issue.

The board still held a planned public hearing on the issue. Public boards are statutorily required to hold public hearings according to state law, but if the board revises the draft ordinance it will have to host a second discussion.

Michael Afify, a local contractor, told the board he cherishes the wetlands and believes builders have a responsibility to keep their properties safe. He also warned the board to be cautious about tacking on separate local fines to an issue already a punishable offense at the state and federal levels.

Afify said the town has fines to be used as deterrents but could be viewed as a way to take private property. He suggested giving contractors a grace period to fix mistakes during a build rather than immediately issue a large fine.

Laura Olszweski, a local realtor, asked the board to consider that a bad survey could result in a violation outside the control of a property owner or contractor. She asked if the town has looked at the regulations used by other beach towns.

Hill responded the town did look at nearby towns and noted New Hanover County, as well as Wilmington, have local regulations.

The town’s proposed changes were originally in line with regular permit violation fines of $1,000, but the aldermen agreed it was a light enough punishment that developers may ignore the requirement to not damage wetlands and opt to repair it later. The board matched the $10,000 fines for damaging dunes.

“We have to make it so people don’t do it on the front end with this type of thing,” Alderman Richard Grant said. “And the idea is not to get fines; the idea is to keep people from tearing up the dunes and tearing up the wetlands.”

McDermon asked what recourse the town has if, for example, a contractor were to install a pool in a wetland buffer area.

Hill replied if a pool were not placed, according to a permit, in a wetland area, it would have to be moved.

“There have been times where a pool has been within that 30-foot buffer by inches, and they have had to pick that pool up and move,” Hill said.

READ MORE: North Topsail proposed pool rules leave less room for interpretation

As it stands, planning staff do not have the authority to issue fines for wetland violations because they fall exclusively under the purview of the state and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Hill said now her team, the “boots on the ground,” can take action when they witness violations.

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