SURF CITY — Dwight Torres is running for one of three contested seats on Surf City Council, joining fellow newcomers Richard Vessov, David Gilbride, Kathleen Sumner and incumbents Donald Helms and William “Buddy” Fowler. Councilwoman Nelva Albury is retiring from her seat.
Current sitting councilman Jeremy Shugarts is challenging Mayor Doug Medlin for the mayor’s seat. Town clerk Stephanie Hobbs pointed to two scenarios that could play out if Shugarts wins the mayoral race and vacates his council seat, as described in an article published by the UNC School of Government.
One, in an open meeting, a council member may make a motion to appoint an individual to fill the vacant seat. If the motion receives a majority of affirmative votes, that individual will fill the vacancy. If it does not, a new motion is in order.
Second, also in an open meeting, board members would nominate citizens to fill the vacancy then cast individual votes. The person with the majority of votes would fill the vacancy. If no person receives a majority, another vote between the front-runners would be in order.
Note: Candidate interviews are published largely without editing (besides minor typographical corrections) and without limits on length. All council candidates received the same questions, which appear in bold with answers in italics below.
Describe your background and platform.
I was born in Santa Isabel, Puerto Rico on December 23, 1968. I married my high school sweetheart shortly after joining the United States Marine Corps in 1986. We have two sons and one grandson. My family and I have been permanent residents of Surf City since 2004.
Throughout my time in the military, I experienced several long deployments. I deployed for the Persian Gulf War (1990) in support of operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. After the attack on 9/11, we again deployed for operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom in support of the Global War on Terrorism. My military achievements include the Meritorious Service Medal, Navy Commendation Medal, and Combat Action Ribbon.
I received my Master of Business Administration (MBA) in Information Technology Management at American Military University. I am currently employed as a Force Readiness Analyst for the Department of Defense and serve as Chief Executive Officer for Paddle 4 Troops, a 501(c)(3).
My priorities for the town are to continue to support Surf City’s beach nourishment project with the goal of obtaining ‘Engineered Beach’ status, work closely with the Director of Emergency Management and Disaster Preparedness to further refine the standard operating procedures, assist in expediting connectivity of walkways and pathways both on and off the island in order to promote safety and wellness, and to ensure fiscal discipline by working with elected officials and town administration to prioritize needs and reduce cost wherever and whenever possible.
How will you approach the balance of keeping Surf City a “small and quaint beach town,” which is how we have heard numerous residents and town leaders describe it, while properly planning for growth?
Surf City is one of the most generous and caring communities we’ve ever lived in. We believe in the small community culture. We are a town with a warm southern charm and a laid-back beach mentality.
From the beginning, our family has been very active in community service and has supported the multitude of local foundations that do so much for the town’s residents and veterans in need of assistance. Whether its Reel Housewives of Topsail Island (RHOTI), Saving 2nd Base, Neighbors Helping Neighbors, and Paddle 4 Troops, we have contributed, sponsored, and assisted in helping these organizations grow and prosper. The community’s fostering of organizations such as these is exactly what keeps our community united.
I also know the town’s growth is inevitable, as the small town charm and geographic location is so alluring to those longing for the quiet beach life. I’ve witnessed firsthand the population go from just 500 to well over 3,000 in the 15 years we’ve lived in Surf City. Even with this 500% growth rate, the town has not lost the “small quaint beach town” appeal we all have come to love and enjoy. I’m not alone in that sentiment.
I realize managing growth is a priority and we must work proactively with our department heads across all segments to ensure growth does not outpace the capacity to sustain and maintain the infrastructure required to meet the demand. In addition, we should explore other communities with similar growth rates in order to leverage against lessons learned and seek the advice of subject matter experts in respective fields of discipline. I am confident our community culture can thrive in a growing community due to the abundance of generous and caring residents.
What is your approach to beach nourishment, and how do you feel about the beach push last spring, a $300,000 operation some experts called ineffective in the long-term?
Coastal erosion is a continuous and cyclical phenomenon and living on the coast comes with inherent risk due to storm surges and hurricanes. Beach erosion is not a new problem for coastal communities around the world, nor is it a new problem for our coastline. The very first beach nourishment project in the entire world was conducted at Coney Island in 1922 at a cost of $1,900,000. In contrast, the first beach nourishment project in North Carolina was conducted at Wrightsville Beach in 1939 at a cost of $100,000, according to a worldwide study on beach nourishment conducted by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the fall of 2003 (Noble, 2003).
There are two options available to deal with this problem, and one of which is prohibited. The permanent stabilization of ocean shorelines utilizing hard structures such as seawalls, groins, and revetments is not the preferred option because the effectiveness for reducing erosion is limited according to the Coastal Resource Commission (CRC). These restrictions are heavily enforced by the Coastal Areas Management Act (CAMA). Therefore, we and other coastal communities in North Carolina are most often limited to soft solutions for beach nourishment.
Beach nourishment projects and the beach push conducted last spring are two separate topics in my opinion. In regards to beach nourishment projects in general, they are necessary if you want to have a safe and sustainable beach community with a thriving economy. As you know, a beach nourishment project is intended to do more than just combat beach erosion. These projects are also intended to protect both public and private structures along the coastline. In addition, they widen beaches in order to assist in protecting ecosystems such as sand dunes and marine life — all of which play an important role in promoting tourism in our area and sustaining our economic viability. Most experts are in agreement and will point out that these projects usually are temporary in nature and require future beach renourishment after storm surges or hurricanes. The beach push last spring is a clear example of that, but Hurricane Dorian actually had the opposite effect in that we gained more sand than anticipated. That is simply the cost of doing business when living in a coastal community.
In order to reduce cost going forward, it is vital that we achieve ‘Engineered Beach’ status and that is exactly what we are in the process of doing with our private project expected to begin in the middle of November. Once that status is achieved, Surf City will qualify for federal financial assistance and state grants which will significantly reduce our cost over the long-term. The next step would be to expand our efforts beyond small-scale beach nourishment projects in Surf City and pursue a more collaborative and comprehensive shoreline management plan with our neighbors to the north and south. The North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources and CAMA both agree that combating beach erosion is more successful when coordinated over a large stretch of shoreline.
Development is spreading along the coast — apartment complexes, mixed-use developments, etc. How has the town handled such development? Would you change anything?
Surf City has done a great job in managing the various development types found on and off the island. The zoning (e.g. R5/C1) and height (48 ft) restrictions on the island are intended to keep large buildings such as hotels, apartment complexes, and big brick-and-mortar retailers off the island. This allows room for single-family homes, duplexes, and smaller mom-and-pop stores, which helps maintain the small beach town feeling that appeals to our full and part-time residents, investors, and the countless guests we see return year after year.
On the other hand, the variable zoning on the mainland provides flexibility and allows for a broader use of space, such as mixed-use developments that continue to grow in popularity and are considered to be one of the most effective land uses in supply-strained environments like major metro areas and coastal regions. The town’s land use plan anticipated a significant increase in population and the need to shift towards this type of land use on the mainland. As a result, we’ve witnessed the construction of commercial, multi-use developments, and we will soon see an apartment complex (Surf City Crossing).
I believe the town has a great vision for the future and has made good use of its limited resources considering where we were just 15 years ago. I recommend we stay vigilant and make refinements as needed as we continue to experience growth.
Hurricane Florence brought up issues with emergency planning, particularly communication with residents. Some have said communication had improved during Hurricane Dorian. What will you do to continue this improvement in future storms?
In the aftermath of Hurricane Florence, emotions were high due to what was perceived as an unnecessary delay of re-entry for island residents coupled with a decentralized communication plan which, in some instances, caused a bit of confusion. During the first town meeting after the storm, I had the privilege and opportunity to address the town’s leadership and residents regarding some of our concerns. First, I thanked the mayor, councilmembers, first responders, and town employees for a job well done considering the circumstances, and asked that we approach the discussion with civility and respect. I recommended we look at developing a Standing Operating Procedure (SOP) and execution checklist for our Emergency Management and a Disaster Preparedness Plan. Additionally, I suggested we consider the formation of a committee to assist in identifying best practices and procedures for an Emergency Operations Center. With decades of experience in working on teams such as Crisis Action Teams and Combat Operations Centers during humanitarian assistance, disaster recovery, and combat operations, I felt I could provide guidance for our town to be better postured for future storms. The Mayor and Council unanimously agreed, and since then, we have hired a Director of Emergency Management.
If given the opportunity to serve as a Town Council Member, I will commit to working closely with Mr. James Horne, the mayor, councilmembers, and the entire team.
With regards to communication, Hurricane Dorian was completely different. We learned from our mistakes the previous year. The town had a more deliberate and centralized approach and shared awareness across all functions. The use of social media, the town’s website, and the new emergency phone number were primary drivers for enhanced communication. I’d recommend we continue to exercise and review our plan in order to capture areas of excellence in after-action reports and to continue to improve the process.
Some candidates at the PCD forum suggested the town was not communicating enough about its 25-year land-use plan. However, it is posted on the town’s website. What is your stance on this?
True, the Master Plan is located on the town’s website and, also true, it does get an occasional revision as needed based on changes in circumstances as things develop. However, I would propose a more simplified plan that lays out a clearly defined set of projects in order of priority with timelines and costs associated with each. The plan should be a living, breathing document that is updated by the stakeholder and project manager. At a minimum, reviews should be made quarterly. This should be done more frequently than required, when progress is being made on any particular project or there are changes in scope or cost. Instead of links directing you to long, drawn out PDF files, the town should develop a Plan of Action and Milestones (POA&M) in order to communicate the plan in a more clear and concise way. Similar to the improvements we made regarding communication during the storm, more can be done to improve how we keep our residents abreast of major projects and improvements over an extended period of time.
When you have a growing town, you have to plan for it. What would be your plans for keeping infrastructure on pace with a growing population?
Our infrastructure has kept pace well considering the growth rate we’ve experienced in the 15 years I’ve lived in Surf City. We’ve replaced our iconic swing bridge with a new high-rise bridge which includes a roundabout on each end. This improvement alone has made a tremendous difference in minimizing traffic congestion during the peak of our tourism season and has become a favorite destination for runners and those on leisurely strolls. In addition, we have built two new schools, Surf City Elementary and Surf City Middle School. The new schools required redistricting of neighboring schools and provided a much-needed relief by improving student to teacher ratios.
Our water supply, with five wells — three in reserve and two considered to be highly productive — produce sufficient water and pressure even during the 4th of July week, which is our most demanding time. Roads continue to be a work in progress with regards to resurfacing and directional changes (e.g. converting two-way streets into one-way streets for safety and better traffic patterns). There is a plan in place for walkways and multi-use paths. However, I would like to work with the local administration to look at the feasibility of expediting the plan.
Lastly, our wastewater treatment system is operating at approximately 90%. This rate includes future developments that have been approved but not yet completed. The optimal capacity is 80%, according to industry professionals. Surf City has several initiatives in place to help improve capacity which include the allocation of additional property, upgrading the water treatment plant to alternatively dispose of treatment byproduct (expected to reduce capacity to 79% once complete), and the relocation of an automatic valve.
The town has managed growth responsibly and I expect it will continue to adjust plans as necessary to accommodate future growth. If afforded the opportunity, I will use my experience and education to work as a team and continue to stay ahead of the supply and demand required of our infrastructure.
Parking is becoming limited in Surf City. Would you consider a form of paid parking to help fund things like beach nourishment?
I will ask three fundament questions when considering the adaption of any ordnance in the future: Is it necessary? Is it fair to all? Who may it hurt?
Surf City residents and property owners already pay enough property tax, of which a percentage (5 cents of the 41 cent tax rate) is earmarked for beach nourishment. In addition, our long-term beach nourishment plan for obtaining engineered beach status is expected to significantly reduce the cost of beach renourishment projects in the near future. Therefore, at this point in time, I don’t feel the need for residents or visitors to pay to park when visiting our town. It’s simple things like not paying for parking that makes Surf City unlike other beach communities. Let’s keep it that way for as long as possible.
The Atkinson Road fire brought up some residents’ concerns about house setbacks and a limited availability of water. What would you do differently, if at all, to be better prepared for structure fires on the island? (i.e. Would you consider a fireboat?)
First, our heart breaks for all our neighbors impacted by this tragic event. I witnessed this fire firsthand as we live just a few hundred yards away. Our first responders arrived just a few minutes after receiving the call and were courageous in fighting the fire. However, they were restricted by topography and could not position themselves well to battle the fire from multiple angles. Although water pressure was not an issue according to firefighters on the scene, the wind, extreme heat, and propane gas tanks made it impossible for them to reduce the flames. Eliminating any one of those elements could have helped in stopping the fire from spreading. Unfortunately, the extreme temperature and wind direction did not work in their favor.
Generally speaking, our lots have gotten smaller and our homes have grown in size over the last few decades. Naturally, this is going to put homes closer to each other, making it easier for fires to jump from one home to the next, as in this particular case. In addition, the materials we use to build homes today are dramatically different than they were years ago (e.g. plastics over natural materials, lightweight versus solid material, etc.). Needless to say, we should take a closer look at our current ordinances, building codes, and any other measure in order to do everything we can to mitigate fires of this magnitude. This will also require collaboration with government and private sector experts to ensure we are utilizing best practices and advanced technologies to prevent this from ever happening again.
Lastly, I would be open to discussing the need for a fireboat. However, I will leave that detail to our Fire Chief as he is the subject matter expert and responsible for prioritizing resources and equipping the department with mission essential gear.