Sunday, July 21, 2024

How Southport’s unique fan-shaped city limits affect zoning decisions today

For a handful of property owners in Southport, your front yard could be in the city, while your backyard could fall in the unincorporated county.

Southport's municipal limits are drawn following a 5,700-foot arc, following an 1870 corporate limit extension that hasn't changed much. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy City of Southport)
Southport’s municipal limits are drawn following a 5,700-foot arc, following an 1870 corporate limit extension that hasn’t changed much. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy City of Southport)

SOUTHPORT — Ever wondered why Southport’s city limits look like a fan? The coastal city’s arc, where some parcels are split, stems back to the 1870s.

Most municipal limits are jagged with a crawling pattern from a centralized point. Compared to surrounding communities, Southport’s rounded arc — not dissimilar to a baseball field with homeplate in downtown Southport — is an unusual feature in the region.

RELATED: Leland continues its path of annexation, aims to extend sewer service on Highway 17

According to Southport’s city planner, Thomas Lloyd, Southport’s arc was drawn from its center point, the Historic Brunswick County Courthouse.

The approximately 5,729-foot arc extends from the courthouse to the mouth of the Cape Fear River and the Intracoastal Waterway. “It is a cool unique design due to a historical reason,” Lloyd said.

Before Southport was Southport, it was incorporated in 1792 as Smithville, with just 100 lots. “We really were a town a built with 100 lots,” the city’s tourism director, Randy Jones, said. “That’s how the town was laid out.”

Smithville (now Southport) extended its corporate limits in 1870 when the General Assembly passed a private law after several readings. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy N.C. General Assembly)

By 1808, Smithville became the county seat of Brunswick County, according to the Southport Historical Society. A state record of private laws passed by the General Assembly shows Smithville extended its corporate limits one-half mile in every direction from its corporate limits in 1870. The bill was introduced in February and passed in March after several readings according to a chronology of Southport-Smithville history provided by the Southport Historical Society.

“As far as the uniqueness with the design, I talked to Randy Jones and our assumption is that our forefathers in Southport took the most prominent building in Smithville (The Historic Brunswick County Courthouse) and used it as the monument reference point for the city limits to extend in a 1 mile arc from the building,” Lloyd wrote in an email.

At the time, Lloyd said, drawing city limits around the community’s center point made sense. “To me, it seems like it was a pretty logical and rational decision to extend the corporate limits 1 mile out from the civic center and focal point of the town during that time period.”

Later in the 19th century, the city’s name changed from Smithville to Southport to accommodate a market shift toward railroad and river-based services. Now, the city’s arc is still prominent, with some slight variations.


Every so often, Southport’s planning department will review a property that’s split along the city’s arced lines. Because the limits do not fall along right-angled lots, these outlier parcels contain corporate portions containing two separate zoning and municipal designations.

“At this point, from a practical standpoint most of those issues have been worked out as far zoning over the years,” Lloyd said.

When these cases do happen to cross Thomas’ desk, he said the city’s Unified Development Ordinance (UDO) outlines what to do with split-zoned lots. For some properties along the arc, technically, their front yards could be in Southport’s corporate limits while their backyards fall in unincorporated county limits.

“We do have some properties that are split zoned as a result of this curve,” he said. “The rule of thumb for this according to our UDO is with split zoned lots, the zoning district where the greater portion of the lot lies shall be the zoning district for the lot.”

So long as the zoning extension does not exceed 100 feet beyond the parcel’s true district boundary, the property is officially zoned into whichever area it has 51 percent or more of its land in (a perfect 50-50 split apparently hasn’t come up).

Lloyd said recently, the city has made rezoning decisions to help make lots along the arc more consistent and to resolve remaining split-zoning issues.

A 1950 map of Southport shows the city's historic arc, while development began to sprawl around its downtown center. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna Ferebee)
A 1950 map of Southport shows the city’s historic arc, while development began to sprawl around its downtown center. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna Ferebee)

Send tips and comments to Johanna Ferebee at

Related Articles