Saturday, April 1, 2023

Hampstead could become its own village, town, or city. What would it take? And is it worthwhile?

We sat down with UNC School of Government's Brian Dabson, a research fellow in the field of community and economic development, to explain the issue in layman's terms.

Rush hour traffic in Hampstead on Wednesday evening. (Port City Daily photo / Mark Darrough)
Rush hour traffic in Hampstead on Wednesday evening. (Port City Daily photo / Mark Darrough)

PENDER COUNTY — Hampstead currently finds itself in the center of an urban sprawl growing north out of Wilmington along the coast and up to the once sleepy fishing town of Surf City. But despite its rapid growth, it’s not actually a town — though newcomers to the area often hold that misconception.

History could suggest that such a community, faced with the emerging pressures of increased traffic on U.S. 17 and booming housing developments alongside it, would take the step towards becoming an incorporated municipality — a village, town, or city. (North Carolina allows municipalities to call themselves one of the three, but there are no actual legal or population distinctions between them).

For many, Hampstead has reached a point where it feels like an actual town: it is treated as its own distinct place apart from Wilmington, it appears in bylines in local newspapers, and community groups like the Hampstead Enquirer Facebook page are large — 8,330 members and counting — and vocal.

Also relevant is how the Pender County Board of Commissioners represents Hampstead.

“The county is divided into five districts,” Pender County spokesperson Tammy Proctor explained. “One commissioner comes from each district. Interestingly, all Pender County residents vote for all commissioner seats. So, for example, David Williams (district 2), David Piepmeyer (district 1) are both up for re-election. They are representing coastal districts, but all Pender County voters can cast a ballot regarding their service.”

In other words, while the Hampstead region is represented on the county’s Board of Commissioners, residents aren’t directly electing representatives specifically and solely for their area.

Hampstead wouldn’t be the first growing region to attempt to become a town.

Not far across the border in New Hanover County, Castle Hayne made an attempt at incorporation in 2010. A group of representatives hoping to become the town’s first council formed an incorporation committee, successfully petitioned the state, got approval in the general assembly with a bill backed by State Senator Thom Goolsby and ratified by the Governor — only to see it fall apart at a referendum of local residents a year later, where it was voted down three to one.

So, is it more worthwhile for Hampstead to retain such county services and representation, or branch out on its own? Port City Daily reached out to UNC School of Government research fellow Brian Dabson, with an extensive background in the fields of economic and community development, to try to find an answer.

UNC School of Government research fellow Brian Dabson. (Port City Daily photo / Courtesy UNC School of Government)
UNC School of Government research fellow Brian Dabson. (Port City Daily photo / Courtesy UNC School of Government)

Let’s start at the beginning. What is the difference — in layman’s terms — between an unincorporated community and a self-governing town?

An unincorporated community generally does not have its own form of government. In the old days, everything was being done voluntarily — you had your own fire department, police, and other things to look after your basic services.

Generally speaking, an unincorporated community today sits within a county and it is the county that provides all these services. As far as I’m aware, your EMS, fire, sheriff’s department, water system, and schools for Hampstead and Rocky Point are all provided at the county level. There is no localized form of government there: instead, it’s a direct relationship between the county and the people in that particular settlement.

Whereas in a town like Surf City, there is a measure of self-government  — a measure of localized control over certain essential services.

Do residents of incorporated communities pay or lower higher taxes?

There is an argument put forward by some that if you went to corporations for places like Hampstead, then it would introduce another layer of government which you’d have to pay additional taxes for. And there is a marginal difference in tax rates you’d pay.

But Surf City, for instance, is providing a set of services which is no longer provided by the county, and they are not paying for those services through the county. They’re only paying county taxes on county services that the city does not provide.

So, as Hampstead keeps growing so quickly, what are certain trigger points that could push the community toward becoming an incorporated town, village, or city?

I don’t think there’s a formal trigger point — just if there’s a sufficient number of people living within Hampstead who decide that certain services could be better provided at the local level. It’s a sense of local identity and local control, which they feel would be better than the standard of services they receive currently from the county.

It’s a local perception of whether they’re getting adequate services from the county.

In terms of adequate services, is there a sense that a fast-growing community like Hampstead would want to localize to avoid sharing county resources?

That could be one argument. The counter-argument is that all over North Carolina and the U.S., you have an issue where services are more and more expensive to supply. It is more complex these days for a variety of reasons: you need greater technical expertise to manage these services, and with many small governments, it often creates more problems than it solves.

Say, for instance, you decide you want your own police force, your own fire department, your own water system. You’re basically arguing that by having local taxes and local control, you can provide those services more efficiently than the county can. And that’s not necessarily going to be the case, and — in this increasingly more complex and expensive world — unlikely to be the case.

There are moves in many parts of the state where little communities which are incorporated are giving up their status because they can no longer provide the technical and financial expertise that is necessary. So they’re giving up their incorporated status to be part of the county, and pass all the services to the county.

Where is such a discussion — to decide whether to give up an incorporated status — currently taking place?

There’s a little place called Seven Springs down on the edge of the Sand Hills, which was one of these communities badly impacted by floods, and has been every time there’s a major flood. They can no longer afford to provide adequate water supply which meets local environmental quality standards. For them it may be better to combine with other areas and become a part of the county, to make sure they provide the quality of water that they need for their residents.

But there’s been a lot of discussion in the media about whether these very small settlements really can function adequately given the amount of money that is required.

In Hampstead, what would be needed to incorporate? And would it be feasible? 

There has to be a very serious discussion amongst the local community as to whether they feel that they are not getting proper attention from Pender, whether they feel they can provide a better standard themselves, and whether they’re prepared to pay for the costs of staffing up and organizing a unit of government as their own — particularly when the forces are really aligned against them these days.

It’s also highly likely that Pender County itself benefits from being a part of the Cape Fear Council of Governments which it shares with Brunswick and Columbus and New Hanover. Being part of the Wilmington metro area, there are certain services that the council provides which help and maybe improve the level of services that Pender can provide on its own.

So we’re in a situation where more and more units of local government are forced to collaborate in different ways, and may even, at some future date — and this is highly controversial — give up their status in order to better serve their citizens.

Mark Darrough can be reached at

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