HAMPSTEAD — For those wondering if Hampstead will ever become its own self-governed municipality, there is a movement afoot conducting research on the matter.
A steering committee made up of 25 residents, including presidents of local homeowners associations and former North Carolina Representative Bob Muller acting as an advisor, will soon publicize its research on the costs and benefits of incorporating the fast-growing area — making up just 4 percent of Pender County’s area, but containing 27 percent of its population.
Leading the effort is Suzann Rhodes, a former planning director for the Ohio Department of Transportation, a fellow of the American Institute of Certified Planners, and an appointed member of the Pender County Planning Board.
“While talking with people in government and around the area, and as I continued to do research on the matter, it became obvious to me that the services a suburban area needs, wants, and demands are very different than those of a rural county,” Rhodes said. “The interests of Hampstead are different than the interests of the county as a whole.”
The committee is currently discussing how to structure community involvement and is looking to hold its first meetings with residents and elected officials by early 2019.
“We want the community to be involved and engaged,” Rhodes said. “We’re not just about putting the facts out there … we’re not just one group preaching to the other.”
Southeast North Carolina is one of the fastest growing regions in the state. With a growth rate of 16.7 percent between 2010 and 2017, Pender County ranked as North Carolina’s fourth-fastest growing county, based on a U.S. Census Bureau report released this past March.
If incorporated, Hampstead would become “about the 55th largest city in North Carolina” — out of 553 total — according to preliminary research conducted and funded by the committee called the Hampstead Area Study.
“By 2020 Hampstead could be the third largest city in the Cape Fear region — about the size of Leland,” the study said, using information compiled by the N.C. Office of State Budget and Management (OSBM) and the Cape Fear Council of Governments (CFCG), which also projects 62% growth for Pender County’s coastal area from 2015 to 2045.
Rhodes said that much of the population growth reflects changing demographics in Hampstead — where the median age of 44 is approaching the state’s median age of 38 — as more families with young children are moving into the area.
“In the last 10 years we’ve doubled in size,” Rhodes said. “And different types of people are coming in, not just old retirees.”
The committee’s study area includes approximately 34 square miles and more than 15,000 residents, 7,000 households, and 290 businesses. Rhodes said she began compiling research in April 2017 and in the process has discussed the idea of incorporating Hampstead with county commissioners, county management, and members of the county’s planning board.
“Just to put that in context, Burgaw is less than four square miles — that’s how big of a footprint it is,” assistant county manager Chad McEwen said.
The steering committee paid the county for a geographical information system (GIS) analysis to determine data necessary to one day bring a petition to the North Carolina General Assembly, which would then send it back for a local referendum.
Key data found by the study showed that the Hampstead area consists of 27 percent of the county’s population and makes up only four percent of its land area; its population density is 465 people per square mile, compared to the county’s average of 65 people per square mile. These figures are based on 2015 and 2017 U.S. Census estimates.
“My office has no opinion on incorporation as this is a function of the General Assembly and referendum of the citizens,” Pender County Planning Director Kyle Breuer said. “We are, however, planning for future growth and recognize this area as a high-growth area that is urbanizing.”
Losing space to dense development
Rhodes said an underlying motivation behind the committee’s research was fellow residents’ concerns of burgeoning development projects permitted at the county level. An incorporated municipality with its own government would allow for more local control of zoning and planning, she said.
Currently, Hampstead falls within the scope of Pender 2.0, a comprehensive land use plan addressing the county’s growing population.
“We’re losing space, stuff is getting developed before we get a chance to put in a park,” Rhodes said.
The study said that available, “buildable” land in the Hampstead area has become increasingly limited due to dense housing developments permitted by the county. These developments have resulted in drainage issues that could cause health and safety concerns for homeowners and increasingly harm nearby coastal waters, according to the study.
McEwen said that although minimum stormwater standards are set at the state level, municipalities do have the ability to enforce more stringent regulations such as the size and retention times of drainage ponds. Although the county sets development density requirements, he said it doesn’t dictate stormwater requirements.
The study also said that “industrial uses are being permitted by the County in residential areas.”
“We’re by no means pushing industry into residential areas,” McEwens said. “That would be a very poor idea. We are pushing industrial areas, like the commerce park on U.S. 421 … that’s where we’re focusing on getting industry, not in somebody’s backyard.”
Nonetheless, McEwens said the county is keenly aware of the growth in Hampstead and the secondary impacts of such growth, like increased traffic and stormwater issues — “which is front and center right now after the hurricane.”
He also noted the increased demands of a high growth area, such as a more localized approach to its parks and roads systems.
According to Rhodes, counties in North Carolina do not have their own roads departments; only the state and individual municipalities can own a road, she said, and the increasing traffic on N.C. 17 needs to be be managed at a city level.
“I’m interested to hear from their study and what they’re anticipating an annexation will solve in terms of the problems they see over there,” McEwen said.
A failed memorandum in the past, why now?
More than ten years ago, according to Rhodes and McEwen, a group of Hampstead residents formed a similar group and advanced a proposal past the General Assembly, only to see it fail at a memorandum of local voters.
“The people spoke and they didn’t want incorporation at the time,” McEwen said.
According to Rhodes, the failure to gather the votes came down to taxes and miscommunication.
“People didn’t want to pay more taxes, even an additional $.05 in the tax rate,” Rhodes said. “The group didn’t advertise the services, there was a lot of misinformation … it was a heated, ugly issue.”
But with the doubling of the population since then, and with more families now who need a different set of services than those needed by retirees — such as schools, parks, and a local city hall — Rhodes said the time is ripe to restart the conversation in a more fact-based, analytical approach.
Ultimately, Rhodes said Hampstead has reached a point where it needs its own governing body.
“There needs to be someone elected from Hampstead to run Hampstead, someone who cares about our development patterns here,” Rhodes said.
(Editor’s Note: This is the first of a two-part series examining the Hampstead Area Study. The second will explore the study’s analysis on the non-county services a city would provide, the tax revenue it would need to form a government, and the required process going forward.)
Mark Darrough can be reached at Mark@Localvoicemedia.com