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Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Topsail residents push for long-term protections of The Point, amid land use plan, zoning ordinance review

Topsail Beach south end lot (Port City Daily/Amy Passaretti Willis)

TOPSAIL BEACH — Months after a couple withdrew their rezoning request to build on an ecologically vulnerable Topsail property, residents are pushing to enshrine long-term environmental protections in the town’s regulations.

READ MORE: Pendo founder withdraws rezoning application to build family compound on The Point

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

Nonprofit Conserve the Point formed last year to fight against Todd and Laura Olson’s conditional rezoning application to develop around 20 acres of a 150-acre tract of environmentally sensitive land on the southend of Topsail, referred to by locals as “The Point.” 

Though the Olsons withdrew their request in November and backed out of purchasing up to 150 acres — with the goal to build a seven-home family compound on up to 20 acres with the remaining acreage to be preserved — Conserve the Point founder Roy Costa continues to push for greater conservation efforts in the town. He spoke at the Topsail Beach planning board’s Feb. 28 meeting and provided one of six public comments submitted beforehand, five of which focused on environmental issues. 

CATCH UP: Topsail residents form nonprofit, prep to purchase The Point if development fails

Two agenda items for the meeting are integral to future development policy — the draft of the municipality’s land use plan and conditional zoning ordinance, the latter of which the Olsons requested the town adopt to move ahead on their plans. 

As written now, the conditional rezoning allows an applicant flexibility in density and site dimensional requirements, problematic to conservationists who desire strict density and site guidelines if not a complete ban on development. It was the town’s first zoning ordinance of its kind, adopted in September 2022 at the request of Todd Olson — CEO and founder of Raleigh software production company Pendo — alongside legal counsel Ward & Smith. His attorney Clifford Parson confirmed he had an unspecified “intent” for the ordinance at the time.

“We have submitted a recommendation to strengthen that conditional zoning ordinance,” Costa told Port City Daily. 

In his written comment before the meeting, Costa submitted a draft modification request for the town’s conditional zoning ordinance, to require applicants to demonstrate how their proposed design would mitigate disturbances of environmentally sensitive areas. It would also permanently mandate the preservation of at least 80% of contiguous acreage on any area currently zoned as a conservation area.

Costa requested language specifying protections of “jurisdictional wetlands, marine and wildlife habitats of endangered or threatened species, primary dunes, designated high floodplain, and other features having conservation values including views, vitas, greenspace, native plants, coastal meadows, other unique natural features and undisturbed natural areas.”

He told PCD his organization is still hoping to purchase The Point property in a public-private partnership alongside other conservation groups if they’re able to raise funds through donations. 

He said strengthening language in the land use plan and conditional zoning ordinance reflects residents’ desire to maintain the environment the town has had for decades.

Board members decided to postpone action on the issues and review them at its next meeting after discussion and feedback from residents and Wes MacLeod — the local government services director for the Cape Fear Council of governments, an organization designed to help plan and administer federal, state and local policies in the Cape Fear region. 

The draft land use plan was previously recommended to commissioners in March 2023. They tabled the issue in May 2023 due to controversy surrounding The Point rezoning request and sent it back to the planning board in the February 2024 meeting.

MacLeod confirmed the pause of the draft plan came amid the south end’s conditional rezoning request: “It’s just being, for lack of a better term, ‘dusted off’ for review.”

According to MacLeod, the North Carolina Division of Coastal Management recommended the land use plan be reconsidered, specifically regarding language concerning the future land use district for the inlet area on the south end of the island, MacLeod told the planning board. He’d discussed the issue with town attorney Matt Nichols, whose intent of the review was not to rewrite the entire document but to consider revisions to the description of the inlet area.

“I fully intend to reread it,” chair Randy Leeseberg said at the meeting. 

Leeseberg asked MacLeod for specifics on what could change since the planning board’s previous iteration of the document last March. 

Not in consideration during the draft process were stipulations such as a complete ban on development or limiting it to a specific density in the south end, MacLeod responded. He added legal counsel for the town Matt Nichols and south end property owners — including the McCullens, McLeods, and Oppegaards, the three property owners under contract to sell land in The Point to the Olsons — have found a total prohibition on future development to be problematic.

The three property owners previously told PCD they had turned down other development offers to develop the majority of The Point, and believed the Olson’s offer was unique in that it would preserve most property in its natural state.

“Trying to tow the line between, you know, saying, ‘We want 30 units out there’ or some arbitrary number versus absolutely nothing at all is somewhat of a difficult task,” MacLeod said. 

MacLeod said he and Nichols discussed incorporating language to state any potential development in the area could be considered on a case-by-case basis through the legislative zoning process to determine low density, conservation, and coastal planning principles.

“We can’t possibly contemplate any and all proposals that could come before the town,” he said. 

He added he wasn’t certain that was the optimal approach, at the discretion of the planning board.

“It goes hand-in-hand with conditional zoning,” Leesberg responded. “So it’s all to be considered at once in my mind.”

MacLeod noted there are some conflicting provisions within the current land use plan and conditional zoning ordinance. It could allow limited residential development in some instances, while prohibiting it in others.

“But it’s time to figure it out,” Leeseberg said.

Changes to the conditional zoning ordinance under consideration include requiring applicants to provide a master plan with a maximum number of units and non-residential square units and all external access points. It would also mandate the rezoning of the entire parcel in question, submission of any revisions 21 days prior to the next board meeting and ban the provision of town utilities to federally designated environmentally sensitive under the Coastal Barrier Resources Act (CBRA).

Property owner Renee McCullen — one of three property owners under contract to sell land in The Point to the Olsons — took issue with some of the proposed changes in a written public comment before the board’s meeting. She argued prohibiting town utilities in CBRA zones could be dangerous in the event of a fire. 

She also contended the time limit on revisions was unrealistic in the current business climate, due to the need for outside consultants. Requiring an entire parcel to be rezoned would discourage conservation-minded buyers, McCullen suggested, who can receive tax benefits for preserving portions of the property with a conservation easement — which the Olsons would have received.

The issues will be further considered at the next planning board meeting on March 27.


Tips or comments? Email journalist Peter Castagno at peter@localdailymedia.com.

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