BRUNSWICK COUNTY — The fastest growing county is preparing for unprecedented growth, and while it might come as a surprise, that county is not New Hanover or Wake, but rather, Brunswick County. For the past several years, the county has been among the fastest growing in the state, as well as the nation.
“Brunswick County is the fastest growing county in the state, we have either been first or second for the last five years … and the forecast is for that to continue,” Director of Economic Development and Planning Mike Hargett said.
While the county is excited and welcoming to the growth, Hargett said county leaders as well as staff are hoping to encourage the growth in a quality way. This is why county leaders recently revised the Unified Development Ordinance, a plan that serves as a guide for growth in the county.
The revisions were guided by two things, Hargett said, preserving the quality of life in Brunswick County, and promoting economic development.
“One being to preserve the quality of life here, residents enjoy the rural character of the area but they also at the same time want to enjoy some of the more urban level of services so they don’t have to go to Wilmington or Myrtle Beach. Residents have made it clear that they want to have good and services available closer,” he said.
When it comes to promoting economic growth, ensuring the entire population benefits from the increasing population is key for county leaders.
“We have a segment of our population that is not really enjoying the property that the growth has brought. We hear citizens complaining about sending their kids to college just to have them move away because there are no opportunities here,” Hargett said.
Providing quality development was an important factor for county leaders when it comes to new growth, and in order to get the quality development the county was looking for, leaders decided to think outside the box.
“We placed an emphasis on quality development and we did that through providing flexibility, in exchange for exceptional design. The ordinance provides that if a project incorporates exceptional design in their site plan, then the ordinance allows for more flexibility to achieve the project goals,” Hargett said.
Economic development and preserving the quality of life can seem like conflicting ideas, Hargett said, but for him, they go hand in hand. When new developments come to the county, it increases the tax base, which allows the county to provide services like expanding parks and recreation options.
“The county has spent tens-of-millions of dollars upgrading the parks, we just did a trail plan. In order to have the resources to implement those sorts of features, you have to have the tax base to do that,” he said.
What about mixed-use developments?
The concept of mixed-use developments, much like in New Hanover County and the City of Wilmington, is encouraged in Brunswick County. Mixed-use developments offer residents a place to “live, work, and play,” but these developments have also come under recent criticism in Wilmington because of the cost of living compared to the jobs provided.
“In the first round of major revisions, they expanded the planned development criteria from 10 percent to 20 percent non-residential allowed by right,” Hargett said.
Previously planned development projects could have a restaurant or other business but they were primarily to serve just the residents in that area. In addition to allowing more non-residential in these planned developments, the county recently expanded the types of non-residential businesses that are allowed. The amendments allow for light manufacturing and business parks to operate in some of the larger planned developments, Hargett said.
Unlike its neighbor to the north, New Hanover County, which has also seen its fair share of exponential growth, Brunswick County does not have the same issue when it comes to a lack of land. While providing infrastructure to currently undeveloped land to help prepare for growth in the future is something possible in smaller counties but for the fourth largest county in the state, it is something that will take time.
“Brunswick County is a huge county, it is 800 square miles … providing infrastructure to all of Brunswick County will probably happen, but not in my lifetime … the county has been very proactive so we have most of the areas covered with water and sewer,” Hargett said.
The trend for growth is not showing any sign of slowing down for Brunswick County, so eventually the unserviced areas will have too address infrastructure additions.
Michael Praats can be reached at Michael.email@example.com