BRUNSWICK COUNTY — Brunswick County Planning Board recently approved a rezoning request that contrasts with a recent U.S. Army recommendation that arose from a joint land-use study finalized a month earlier.
However, according to Military Ocean Terminal Sunny Point (MOTSU), the proposed land-use change represents the “lesser of two evils.”
A long, 30.2-acre parcel that abuts both MOTSU’s rail line and its interchange yard is currently zoned C-1 commercial.
Its owner, Seabrooke Development LLC, is petitioning to rezone the land to high-density site-built residential. Brunswick County Planning Board unanimously approved the rezoning request Aug. 12; the issue will go before Commissioners before final approval at their upcoming Oct. 21 meeting.
Considering the property owner’s by-right development potential under its current zoning designation, MOTSU officials realize high-density residential zoning would result in a less-populated scenario.
Leland Interchange Yard
The largest military terminal in the world temporarily stages munitions at its port in Sunny Point, receiving approximately 80 percent of its inbound cargo from a rail line. When munitions arrive, trains enter the Leland interchange yard. At over 600 acres, the Leland interchange yard is a pill-shaped Army property where MOTSU picks up munitions from inbound trains. Munitions are in turn transported along the military’s 16-mile rail corridor back to its terminal on the Cape Fear River, where container ships pick up and deliver the material around the world.
Despite its low-profile, MOTSU is a big deal: the terminal supplied 85 percent of wartime munitions in the Vietnam War and 90 percent in Operations Desert Shield and Storm, Operation Iraqi Freedom, and Operation Enduring Freedom.
In July, MOTSU, New Hanover County, Brunswick County, Leland, Boiling Spring Lakes, Southport, Carolina Beach, and Kure Beach appointed officials wrapped up a yearlong Joint Land Use Study. Funded by the Department of Defense, the study produced 53 land use recommendations for local governments to adopt at their discretion.
One recommendation — LU-1 — asks local governments adopt policies to help limit high-density residential development near MOTSU’s rail and interchange yard. LU-1 states:
“Local governments should consider implementing zoning regulations along the MOTSU — Leland rail corridor an around the interchange yard to limit the density and intensity of residential development and restrict uses that are incompatible with the potential need to evacuate in case of an emergency situation.”
Though the military owns “buffer zones” on Pleasure Island within explosive safety quantity-distance (ESQD) zones from the terminal, no such zones apply to munitions in transport.
Safety arcs measure the hazard potential of explosives. However, the lack of safety arcs or buffer zones in transport does not imply a reduction in risk. “An incident along the MOTSU rail corridor involving a train carrying an explosive cargo, however, could be reasonably presumed to create a hazard similar to if the explosive cargo was being temporarily staged on the terminal and no longer ‘in transit,’” according to the Final Joint Land Use Study (JLUS).
‘Lesser of two evils’
Because of the risk potential MOTSU’s mission carries, the military aims to reduce high-density populations around its terminal, rail, and interchange yard.
However, development patterns over the last 30 years in the region are in contrast to MOTSU’s best-case scenario. According to the JLUS, an estimated 11,000 residents and 5,000 residential structures are now located along the rail corridor. Leland’s 2020 Master Plan does not address MOTSU, according to the JLUS.
Brunswick County’s CAMA Core Land Use Plan, last updated in 2011, includes various references to MOTSU but does not include policies that expressly limit land use nearby, according to the JLUS.
MOTSU’s installation manager, Malcolm Charles, said the military was initially concerned with the rezoning.
“Essentially what it boils down to is in theory, if something is zoned commercially by the holding yard or by wherever, you could have a situation where you have a greater amount of people for a greater amount of time in the area,” Charles said Tuesday. “It’s basically the lesser of two evils because, in theory, you could have somebody go in there and employ 200 people. And they’d be in there 9-to-5 and maybe even on the weekends.”
Planning board approval
Brunswick County Senior Planner Marc Pages said planning staff did consider the recent JLUS. Staff ultimately relied heavily on direct input from MOTSU representatives — who did not oppose the rezoning — Pages said in a statement.
At the Aug. 12 Planning Board meeting, Pages said all development will take place in the northern portion of the property when asked about its narrow, southern strip. A private road maintenance agreement would be required to connect the property to Lanvale Forest, according to August meeting minutes.
Wayne Hickerson, a resident of an adjoining property in the Hearthstone community in Leland, spoke out against the rezoning at the meeting. Hickerson shared public safety concerns, urged local government officials to review the JLUS, and requested future land purchases include a copy of the JLUS accompanied by signatures affirming the disclosure to be recorded in the register of deeds.
Planning Director Kirstie Dixon explained the JLUS was not yet finalized, but Pages interjected, confirming it had been approved the previous month. Pages shared MOTSU’s initial concern and later, its resolved position.
The board unanimously approved the rezoning. Commissioners will host a public hearing on the rezoning on Oct. 21, according to the county’s spokesperson (rescheduled due to Hurricane Dorian).
Next door to MOTSU
About a dozen homes’ backyard’s border the interchange yard in Lanvale Forest, a neighborhood where the Town of Leland is nearing the end of a long the process to finalize a town-initiated annexation.
Seabrooke Development, the rezoning applicant, is comprised of over 550-acres. With approximately 100 existing homes, Seabrooke Development has plans to develop hundreds of new homesites on over 300 undeveloped acres, one of its developers told Port City Daily in July. The subdivision is located in unincorporated Brunswick County and has no plans to submit a voluntary annexation to Leland.
Charles said he’s not sure whether MOTSU will require or seek any additional security measures to address development next to the interchange yard.
“In a perfect world, there wouldn’t be anything there,” Charles said of MOTSU-adjacent properties. Former brigade commander, Col. Marc Mueller, shared a similar sentiment to an audience in Southport last year at a JLUS public hearing: “It’s beneficial to our mission not to have any development,” Mueller said in July 2018.
Noting the county’s designation as the fastest-growing county in the state, Charles said the military sees potential land-use conflicts as a recurring issue.
“These are issues that are not going away any time soon, for sure,” he said. “If there weren’t homes over there already, I think we would have more of a problem with it. But it’s kind of hard for us to say, ‘No you can’t build there.'”
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