TOPSAIL BEACH — More than a decade after the last attempt to protect 110 acres on the southern tip of Topsail Island, conservationists are wary of another push for government grants after the land was listed at a hefty $7.9 million late last week.
The land is one of few remaining on North Carolina’s coastal barrier islands that is privately owned and still undeveloped, according to N.C. Coastal Land Trust Director Camilla Herlevich.
She said her organization was recruited by the Town of Topsail Beach to buy the property in 2005, spurred on by a group of citizens called Conserve the Point. But initial momentum gave way to falling land prices leading up to the real estate crash in 2007.
Because large, expensive pieces of land require a lengthy process of acquiring state and federal grants, Herlevich said appraisals for the land became unreliable in a falling market.
“The real estate market was not conducive to buying a very expensive barrier island project,” Herlevich said. “Neither the state or federal grants we applied for came through. There just didn’t seem to be a lot of appetite for barrier island real estate in a falling real estate economy.”
As a barrier island, Topsail’s sand is constantly moving over time. But Herlevich said this particular tract of land was appealing — while sand is eroding on the northern end of the island, it is building up on the southern end.
“The [former] mayor of Topsail Beach, Butch Parrish, used to say, ‘Owning that land is sort of like having a lotto — every time you pull the slot machines, it comes up a winner.’ It just keeps adding land,” Herlevich said.
But state and federal funders were not persuaded to make a risky investment of barrier island property, compounded by growing uncertainty in the real estate market at the time. In 2006, the owners — extended members of the McLeod family — chose not to settle on a price less than its appraised value, according to Herlevich.
In 2008, a Wake Forest group called McLeod Family, LLC was registered with the state and still owns the property today. Attempts to reach Franklin McLeod, registered agent and manager of the group, were unsuccessful.
No sign of protection on the horizon
Although optimistic about future efforts in protecting the Topsail Beach land that she sees as a “wonderful conservation resource,” Herlevich said Coastal Land Trust has no plans to do so now.
“The Land Trust doesn’t see the path forward for a conservation option at this point, not at that price,” Herlevich said.
Before the recession, North Carolina was allocating roughly $100 million a year for conservation projects throughout the state, according to Herlevich. Now, she said the maximum grant available is $1.2 million — a fraction of the $4.6 million her organization applied for in 2006 from the state’s Clean Water Management Trust Fund.
Other conservation groups also said they have no plans to protect the land. Nature Conservancy’s Debbie Crain said the organization wasn’t currently involved in any acquisitions on the low-lying islands off the state’s southern coast.
“With sea-level rise, those areas are likely to be inundated in the not-to-distant future,” Crain said in an email. “As we evaluate land acquisition going forward, we are managing a changing coastline.”
She said they are currently focused on providing migration corridors for species on the coastal plain and forests on the Black River, “where we recently protected the fifth-oldest tree species in the world.”
Todd Miller, director of the North Carolina Coastal Federation, told Coastal Review that his organization also has no immediate plans to purchase the land, that “an acquisition at this significant price will require a lot of leg work and community support to make happen.”
It seems there have been no serious efforts to protect the southern tip of Topsail Island since 2006, according to Mike Lopazanski, a policy analyst at the DEQ’s Division of Coastal Management.
Asked if the division itself had any interest in protecting the land from future development, he said its Coastal Reserve program was already stretched thin managing more than 2,000 acres with limited staff.
“At this point we’re not looking to take on any additional sites,” Lopazanski said, although he added that, because the listing was only recently made public, the Topsail Island land has not yet been discussed.
Is the land developable?
Topsail Beach Mayor Howard Braxton said the town has been trying to purchase the land for several years to provide recreational space and use the area as part of a beach restoration and channel dredging project scheduled for this fall.
“They don’t want to sell and they still don’t,” Braxton said.
In February, town manager Mike Rose said the project will further open navigation channels to large boats by dredging Topsail Inlet and Bank’s Channel, then use the sand to add an additional row of dunes and widen the beach by roughly 175 feet.
According to Braxton, the town also wants to build up the southern tip of the island with this dredged sand, but they cannot because the land is privately owned. He also said one of the project’s goals is to deepen the channel by 17 feet while widening it to roughly 150 feet.
“But I don’t know if we’re going to be able to do it this time,” Braxton said.
Town clerk Christina Burke said the property is zoned a C-4 Conservation District, designed to preserve and protect areas of environmental concern and prohibit any residential use in inlet hazard areas.
“I don’t think anyone’s brought it to the Board as far as filing it for rezoning — I don’t think that’s ever happened in the past,” Burke said. “Six or seven years ago there was some talk about wanting to develop it, but nothing really materialized.”
She said the land includes a significant portion of wetlands, and if sold, there would be numerous challenges if the buyer wanted to develop.
Aside from its zoning restrictions, Herlevich said there exists substantial regulatory restrictions specific to barrier islands that would make any development a challenge. According to the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), any development in an inlet hazard area must adhere to extensive regulations set to protect dunes, salt marshes, mud flats, and beaches.
Just south of Topsail, a significant portion of Lea Island has been purchased after being subdivided for development decades ago, according to Herlevich. She said Coastal Land Trust purchased 15 to 20 lots beginning in 2000 and sold them to the state, which currently manages the property as a State Natural Area with assistance from National Audubon Society.
In addition to assisting the state in these efforts, particularly the management of nesting colonial waterbird populations, she said Audubon recently purchased one of the island’s last remaining tracts of land and transferred it to the state. Aside from some privately held tracts, most of Lea Island is now owned by the state, according to Herlevich.
She hopes the same sort of conservation approach will one day protect Topsail Island’s southern tip.
“I’m hopeful, over the long run, that there can be a conservation option,” Herlevich said. “I don’t quite see the path forward right now, but I am an optimist.”
Mark Darrough can be reached at Mark@Localvoicemedia.com or (970) 413-3815