Thursday, April 18, 2024

Conditional rezoning of Topsail’s ‘The Point’ a ‘non-starter’ without conservation plan

Attorney Dana Lingenfelser and Laura Olson respond to questions raised by Topsail commissioners Tuesday about the conditional rezoning request.

TOPSAIL BEACH — Frustrations are mounting between Topsail Beach commissioners and Todd and Laura Olson, who hope to rezone a portion of the Point for development of a family compound.

READ MORE: Topsail commissioners extend timeline on Point rezoning

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

The two parties met Tuesday in the third workshop to agree upon remaining conditions, present the findings from an environmental analysis and hear from an architecture firm on aesthetic design of the buildings.

Architecture firm, in situ studio, presented to commissioners two options for a revised plan, which includes cutting down development from 11.2 acres of impervious surface to the possibility of as little as 4.2 acres. 

The rezoning request is for 23.3 acres of a “building envelope” — a general area of land where the structure will be constructed — down from 37 last year.

This is at least four times the plan has changed since the original was submitted in December.

Tuesday morning was the final open discussion meeting, giving both sides the chance to express opinions, address concerns and ask questions of what is expected. By the end, both appeared exasperated with the process.

“Our staff, everyone here, has spent a lot of time on this,” commissioner Tim Zizack said at the meeting. “Yes, it’s the first time we’ve gone through a conditional zoning, but I think the planning board had a timeline to make a decision and we didn’t have one, which is part of our fault. I’d like to see a final presentation and move on.”

Commissioners requested a firm date on a final master development plan to vote on the Olsons’ ask. The couple is under contract to buy 150 acres, currently co-owned by three families, at the southernmost tip of Topsail; they want to build seven houses, plus accessory structures, including a boat house, gazebo and dock.

They are scrambling to acquire all the resources asked of them, at their own expense.

“We’ve done a lot of work and invested a lot to obviously get to this point,” Laura Olson told Port City Daily. “Every little thing they’ve asked us to do is expensive.”

She’s referring to the number of professionals she’s had to consult at the commissioners’ request, such as for an environmental analysis, a wetland delineation and an architect.

Commissioners took issue Tuesday with the Olsons’ removal of a condition to place 120 acres in a conservation easement. They plan to only build on between 10 and 23 acres.

The Olsons’ attorney Dana Lingenfelser confirmed the family cannot agree to this condition at this time, based on tax implications.

Mayor Steve Smith said personal taxes are not the town’s responsibility, a sentiment echoed by commissioner Joe Gunter.

“But that does not mean our client does not have environmental stewardship in mind or anticipating other environmental protection,” Lingenfelser said. “We’re just saying it’s not practical to put that in a condition.”

The condition was added by commissioners more than six months ago to guarantee the preservation of the land surrounding the proposed development. The Olsons have been in talks with the North Carolina Coastal Land Trust but don’t think it’s appropriate to include as a condition.

“Two or three people say this is the best thing to happen because 120 acres will end up in a permanent easement that can never ever be touched,” Gunter said. “If it doesn’t happen, I think we’ve got a non-starter here.”

Commissioner Morton Blanchard commended the Olsons for “jumping through all these hoops” but was disappointed in the removal of the conservation easement.

“It’s hard to go forward with no guarantees,” he said. “We’ve got to work on faith and for the betterment of this town, that would be hard to do.”

The land is currently zoned conservation; Lingenfelser tried to explain that by leaving the 120 acres untouched, it will remain “status quo.”

“We believe it would be beneficial to only rezone a portion because it would have a minimal impact on the land,” she said. 

If someone, including the Olsons, wanted to build on the land outside the proposed area, the individual would have to approach the planning board and commissioners again for approval.

On behalf of Conserve the Point, a nonprofit established to protect the property from development, Michele Rivest said she is “deeply concerned” about the Olsons’ move to shy away from an easement plan.

“The fact they are no longer committed and we have no idea why other than comments about taxes and finances play in … we question the sincerity of the entire development,” she said.

Olson told Port City Daily Wednesday morning her commitment to environmental stewardship has been “unwavering.” It’s been part of the plan since the beginning, and Olson engaged environmental professionals earlier this spring for the best way to proceed. Her site plans and architecture design revolve around the most environmentally acceptable locations.

“It would be a pretty bold thing for us to be publicly saying we would have a plan around conservation and then not do it,” she said. “It’s our character and our reputation.”

She is still researching the best way to convince the board conservation is a top priority. 

“Right now all the ideas we have are not as straightforward as I would like,” Olson told PCD but did not provide details as she is still trying to brainstorm what might work.

Many residents have adamantly opposed the project since it was first announced last fall, as the property is a revered “treasured” location used by many for walking, fishing and taking in the sunset. However, by Tuesday’s meeting, a few seemed to have had a change of heart. Four spoke in support of the project, with one submitted comment urging commissioners to approve it. 

Resident Robert Jackson, with 30 years in the construction and real estate industry, said the Olsons’ plan would be a “nature conservancy’s dream.”

“With the financial commitment and process by doing a master plan, the impervious footprint — these are the type of people business development professionals that work for nature conservancies seek out,” Jackson said during public comment. “They look for a family like the Olsons to participate in a community in this way.”

Neither the Olsons or the sellers have released the contract price for the land.

He said their plan was the most favorable for the town and commended the Olsons’ dedication to the town and environmental stewardship. Both the town and the North Carolina Land Trust attempted to acquire the land in the past for conservation, but never gained traction due to the cost.

“Their plan, conservation wise, is more than what we’ve been going for the past 50 years on that property,” Jackson added. 

He added if the same conditions and requirements commissioners are putting on the Olsons applied to all homebuilders, no one would be able to live in Topsail.

Topsail resident Julie Spence was on board, too, with the commissioners proceeding to a vote to approve the project. 

“If the Olsons walk away, we could be faced with for-profit development,” she said. “We know how detrimental for-profit development would be. We’re at risk of eliminating our best option. Very few have the capacity to fund a build like this.”

She urged commissioners to discontinue delays and approve the proposal as is. Commissioners extended the timeline to approve the conditional rezoning back in August, from September to closer to the holidays.

“It’s clear the sellers are ready and selling, the train’s left that station,” Spence said.

One of the owners, Renee McCullen told Port City Daily in August the property has been on the market “for quite some time” and declined multiple offers over the years. She said the owners were on board with selling to the Olsons, who actually offered the lowest price, because of the low-density appeal.

Olson said she appreciated the residents’ favorable perspectives. She also thanked the seller Tuesday and reiterated their vision for the property, adding the only reason they made an offer was to avoid The Point being overdeveloped.

“We heard they had an offer and we got scared,” Olson said. “The way you’re all scared of us.”

“We thought we can find a way to merge this desire to conserve this special place and make it work for our family,” she added.

Tuesday’s presentation, which included input from architectural firm in situ studio — specializing in designing houses intentionally with the landscape. After architects Matthew Grifftih and Zach Hoffman walked around The Point, taking note of viewsheds, they recommended decreasing the size of development further.

The original plan had a 23.3-acre building envelope — a general portion of property where houses will be built within — and 11.2 acres of impervious surface. The updated plan calls for 5 acres of impervious surface, which is only 3.3% of the entire 150-acre parcel, with the same 23.3-acre envelope.

A third design being considered cuts back the size to 4.2 acres of impervious surface within a 10-acre envelope.

“We’re proposing a slightly different arrangement of family houses than you’ve previously seen,” Hoffman told commissioners. “It’s a vast improvement using less space and being careful in the many ways we’re responding to concerns expressed.”

Also the total building size for the main house was reduced from 5,000 to 4,000. Future family homes, once proposed for construction at 4,000 square feet, decreased to 2,500.

Hoffman and Griffith propose a two-slip boat dock that never crosses the beach and begins at the oceanfront. One of the concerns residents have expressed was if a boat dock would block pedestrians’ ability to walk the entire loop of The Point and if it would cause safety issues.

They also suggested adding more native vegetation to the already dense hedges to further obstruct the view of any development from the public beach.

The dunes on the sound side of The Point are 8-to-11-feet above mean high water level and provide a natural visual buffer to anything constructed on the interior of the island. On the oceanside, dunes range up to 15 feet above sea level.

As far as the roadway to access the Olson’s proposed site, as well as a beach walkway out to a gazebo, the architects recommend a curved pathway. This could be shielded from view compared to a straight shot.

“We call it hiding in plain sight,” Griffith said. “We want to design something unique to this place that responds to [the environment] instead of resists it.”

Griffith pointed to typical coastal homes seen in the present day, built three stories high on the dunes and often painted in bright colors.

“We’ll walk away before we do something like [that],” Griffith said.

Residents and commissioners have expressed a requirement that any structures not exceed the highest roof of Serenity Point, 41 feet tall. According to Hoffman and Griffith’s plan, the proposed buildings would be significantly shorter, around 36 feet at the tallest, based on the property’s grade. Though plans are very preliminary.

“To the Olsons’ credit, they have proposed a plan they see as having minimal impact,” Rivest said. “Any development will have impact; construction is really destruction, not a positive force.”

Rivest said additional acreage will be destroyed during the construction process.

An updated environmental analysis performed by Davey Resource Group confirmed the best locations to install septic tanks and build based on soil suitability. It also noted the area considered for rezoning does not provide adequate habitat for any threatened or endangered species. The property the Olsons want to develop is mostly uplands and animals, such as the piping plover, tend to forage and nest closer to the shoreline, according to the findings.

A wetland delineation, last performed on the property in 2005, is being updated as well. Davey Resource Group regional operations manager Christian Preziosi said it should be completed within the next two weeks for both coastal wetlands and 404 wetlands. Results will be submitted to the Division of Coastal Management and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, respectively, for approval.

“The level of analysis done for this property exceeds what is common for a low-density environment,” Preziosi said at the meeting.

Commissioners still didn’t seem satisfied.

“Do wetlands shift over time?” Gunter asked. “We need to understand what wetlands shift will likely be over a period of time.”

Griffith said where he is proposing the houses be built would avoid potential wetlands.

“It’s the intent of responsible development,” he said.

Gunter implied he wanted a wetlands modeling study, but Olson was frustrated by the request.

“Modeling takes more money and more time,” Olson said. “We will provide an updated wetlands delineation, not increase the scope to modeling. It’s increased so much in this process.”

For a wetlands study alone, the Olson shelled out $5,000. 

She told PCD her team will choose which plan it wants to submit after the results of the wetlands study are available The environmental findings also will guide the Olsons’ environmental stewardship assessment plan for the remaining property.

At the end of the meeting, Mayor Smith encouraged the Olsons to continue working with town staff for clarity before submitting its final plan, something he said they “failed” to do until recently.

Olson told PCD communicating has been like a game of telephone and the process has been challenging to navigate.

“Voters are talking to commissioners who are talking to staff, talking to us,” she said.

The planning board recommended denial of the proposal in May, after its mandated 60-day period. Commissioners have now hosted multiple workshops to hash out the details on proposed conditions and specifics on issues, such as building aesthetics, environmental concerns, regulations stricter than the town’s ordinances.

“The timeline is wearing on all of us,” Zizack said.

Olson, who has been spearheading the proposal for her family, agreed.

“We also want to be done,” she responded.

The Olsons and their respective team of professionals have until Friday, Nov. 17 to provide a date to the town on when they will submit a final master development plan, with all the specifics.

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