Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Public debate over incorporation of Hampstead begins as group aims to fight ‘misinformation’

Public meetings will take place from mid-February to mid-March as incorporation committee prepares for a debate based on accurate information, noting "misinformation" present on both sides during the 2007 campaign to incorporate Hampstead.

Rush hour traffic in Hampstead on Wednesday evening. (Port City Daily photo / Mark Darrough)
Rush hour traffic in Hampstead on a Wednesday evening in late 2018. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)

HAMPSTEAD — A series of six public meetings to debate the incorporation of the Hampstead area is set to begin Tuesday, February 12, and will last through mid-March.

In the summer of 2018 a group of approximately 25 Hampstead residents first met to discuss the possibility of incorporating Hampstead as a municaplity, according to the group’s leader, resident Suzann Rhodes. The area had seen high population growth and sprawling development since a previous attempt to incorporate the area failed in 2007.

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, said a portion of the group consists of presidents of local homeowner associations. She also said that former North Carolina Representative Bob Muller acts as a de facto advisor on the political process going forward.

Related: This steering committee wants to make Hampstead a real town, and they’ve done their homework

Hampstead now a ‘sprawling bedroom suburb’

In December the group published its research findings to begin gathering the support it needs to bring a petition before the North Carolina General Assembly. The petition would need to include at least 15 percent of the registered voters living in what would become Hampstead’s city limits. If approved by the state legislators it would move to the N.C. State Board of Elections for a local referendum on the next ballot.

Rhodes said the Hampstead area contains more than 12,800 registered voters. According to the group’s published research, called the Hampstead Area Study, the area’s population density of 465 people per square mile dwarfs the density of the rest of the county, which Rhodes said averages 51 people per square mile.

“It’s continuing to grow and it’s getting denser,” Rhodes said on Monday. “People have told me, ‘It’s too late, it’s all developed.’ Well if you look at the area within our boundaries, it’s only 46 percent developed. So there’s a lot of land that’s still open and it’s not too late. We could have services, we could have control, rather than just getting a whole bunch more houses packed in.”

A summary of the study said the past two decades has seen a dramatic change in population and demographics.

“Once a rural community with less than 5,000 neighbors supported by local fishing and agricultural industries, waterfront residential homes, and golf course developments, Hampstead is now a sprawling bedroom suburb for Wilmington and Jacksonville,” the study said.

Hampstead services and taxes

According to the research, the Hampstead area now has 15,821 people, 7,049 households, 294 businesses, and a total property valuation of $2.17 billion.

The summary goes on to say that the increasing pace of change has resulted in a “fast-growing suburban area with more houses being developed and urban area problems” including increased traffic, loss of open space, drainage issues, and damage to the local ecosystem.

The study’s recommended services include localized land use control (zoning regulations), a Hampstead police department, road maintenance, street lights, household solid waste collection, and a town mayor, town hall, and town council. It also said that under state law, municipalities can provide parks, recreational facilities, sidewalks, and trails.

To cover the estimated cost of such services, the study said an ad valorem city tax of 20 cents per $100 of property value would be required – or $1.10 per day for the average Hampstead homeowner – and that a town its size could receive 40 percent additional funding from state and federal sources.

Residents would still be required to pay county taxes of 81 cents per $100 valuation to go toward schools, EMS and Fire, water services, Pender County Sheriff protection, and a county library, according to the study.

Misinformation, suspicion

A GIS map provided by Pender County shows the Hampstead area, which the study estimated to be 34 square miles -- 4% of the the county's 870 square miles. The boundaries of the draft map of the study area follow property ownership lines. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy Suzann Rhodes)
A GIS map provided by Pender County shows the Hampstead area, which the study estimated to be 34 square miles — 4% of the the county’s 870 square miles. The boundaries of the study’s map area follow property ownership lines and extend from Whitebridge Road in the south up to the Pelican Reef neighborhood in the north, according to the study’s leader, Suzann Rhodes. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy Suzann Rhodes)

Rhodes said she had discussed the issue with people who were on opposing sides of the failed 2007 effort to incorporate, and each told her that at the time there was misinformation coming from the other side.

She said that, now, her main concern was not opposition by itself, but rather a rising suspicion of her group’s motives as well as “misinformation and scare tactics” that came into play in 2007.

“People are very suspicious these days … I don’t have anything to gain out of this, other than the self-satisfaction of informing the public on one issue,” Rhodes said. “I’m sitting here with all this knowledge and information, and the best thing to do is share it.”

To provide accurate research the public can rely on for a “healthy debate”, Rhodes said facts and data used in the study came from a variety of sources, including the U.S. Census, Pender County Planning and GIS offices, N.C. Office of State Budget and Management, Cape Fear Council of Governments, and from discussions with public officials and private stakeholders.

We’re sticking to the facts, we’re talking about services, and we want people to make an informed choice. No emotion, just stay calm. Everybody stay calm,” Rhodes urged Hampstead residents.

The county maintains a neutral position

On Monday Pender County Manager Randell Woodruff said county commissioners and staff have not taken a position on the issue because it is a decision best made by the citizens of Hampstead.

When discussing the subject last November, Pender County Planning Director Kyle Breuer said his office also held a neutral position.

“My office has no opinion on incorporation as this is a function of the General Assembly and referendum of the citizens,” Breuer said. “We are, however, planning for future growth and recognize this area as a high-growth area that is urbanizing.”

Chad McEwen, the county’s assistant manager, said the group’s main challenge is to persuade Hampstead residents that the benefits of incorporation would outweigh the costs.

“If incorporated Hampstead would be one of the larger cities and towns in southeastern North Carolina. It would be substantial,” McEwen said. “But it’s an uphill process to convince the people affected by it that incorporation is in their best interests — they have to educate the community on the benefits, and convince them that it’s something worth supporting.”

A sense of “local identity and local control”

In November, UNC School of Government research fellow Brian Dabson said that a community’s decision to incorporate hinges on public perception of the services provided at the county level.

“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,” Dabson said. “It’s a sense of local identity and local control … It’s a local perception of whether they’re getting adequate services from the county.” 

But he said residents in communities like Hampstead should also take into account a trend he has seen across the state and the country: services are becoming more complex and expensive to supply on a local level. Such complexities, he said, come from the need for greater technical expertise to manage services like a local police force.

“There has to be a very serious discussion amongst the [Hampstead] 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,” Dabson said. 

Meeting times and locations

“We anticipate a lively discussion,” Rhodes said.

Public meetings will take place at the American Legion Post 167, located at 166600 U.S. 17 in Hampstead:

  • Tuesday, Feb. 12 (7:00 – 8:30 p.m.)
  • Saturday, Feb. 16 (1:30 – 3:00 p.m.)
  • Thursday, Feb. 21 (2:00 – 3:30 p.m.)
  • Tuesday, Feb. 26 (7:00 – 8:30 p.m.)

Additional meetings will take place at the Hampstead Library, located at 75 Library Drive in Hampstead:

  • Saturday, March 16 (10 a.m. – Noon)
  • Saturday, March 23 (Noon – 2 p.m.)

Read a summary of the Hampstead Area Study below:

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