BRUNSWICK COUNTY — After Brunswick County Commissioners tabled an item to get the Army’s OK in writing, a project requiring rezoning 30.2-acres abutting the Leland Rail Yard from commercial to high-density residential will move on to the Town of Leland.
The property will be developed as part of the Seabrooke development, a growing single-family neighborhood in unincorporated Brunswick County.
Owned by Seabrooke Development LLC, the applicant withdrew its county rezoning request, which was set to be voted on by Brunswick County Commissioners at their regular meeting Monday.
Reached Wednesday, a consultant for the developer, Frank Braxton of Coastal Land Design, said the project would instead seek annexation with the Town of Leland. Braxton confirmed the switch has a lot less to do with the parcel’s proximity to the rail yard than it has to do with road access — a sticking point that Braxton said would require Town of Leland’s oversight anyway.
“It was just a decision made, ‘Why waste Commissioners’ time?'” Braxton said.
Still, the rezoning process and work conducted by county staff and Commissioners helped cement an earlier concern for the proposal. As a condition for approval, the county agreed in October to require staff to obtain Military Ocean Terminal Sunny Point’s (MOTSU) approval in writing, which it received Oct. 31.
Braxton informed Commissioners at their October meeting that the developer was also considering annexing into the Town of Leland and would seek essentially the same high-density zoning designation with the town, R-6. Access to the new Seabrooke lots would require driving through town-owned roads in Lanvale Forest, a neighborhood where a majority of homeowners consented to be annexed in a referendum on this month’s local election ballots.
About 100 single-family homes are already built-out in the unincorporated Seabrooke. According to Braxton, those properties would not be included in the forthcoming voluntary annexation request for the property.
When first presented with the rezoning proposition, a MOTSU representative told the county the military was concerned with the change, but after consulting with the county, he said that the rezoning presented the “lesser of two evils.”
At full build-out, the single-family plans would, in MOTSU’s analysis, allow fewer people near the rail yard than if a commercial business were to be constructed at the property under its current zoning designation, C-I commercial intensive.
A portion of the rezoned parcel directly abuts land owned and operated by Military Ocean Terminal Sunny Point (MOTSU). MOTSU uses this rail yard to transport munitions that are temporarily staged at its terminal in Sunny Point. Munitions are picked up from inbound trains at MOTSU’s pill-shaped, 600-acre rail yard and delivered by rail to the terminal for maritime international transport.
In July, MOSTU wrapped up its yearlong Joint Land Use Study, which included 53 recommendations for local governments and the military to voluntarily adopt. One recommendation asked local governments to consider adopting policies that would limit high-density residential development near the rail line and interchange yard. Limiting the number of people in the vicinity of the rail line could help reduce evacuation issues in the event of an emergency.
The rezoning case appears to directly contradict this Joint Land Use Study recommendation (LU-1). However, after reviewing the context of the case, MOTSU’s installation manager, Malcolm Charles, said the military realized the change was actually more amenable to its mission.
“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 told Port City Daily in September. “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.”
“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.’”
In October, Brunswick County Commissioners first heard the rezoning case, which came with a unanimous recommendation for approval from the Planning Board.
At the meeting, Commissioner Marty Cooke said he’d previously visited the Sunny Point terminal on two occasions. Cooke said his general understanding is that the munitions being transported are inert and that this specific rezoning represented a concern no different than what is already in place across the state and country. The rail lines leading to MOTSU reach out across the country, and bring in about 80% of the cargo arriving at the Army’s terminal.
“The same conveyance — that railroad line — goes through municipalities, goes through industrial areas in other parts of the county as well as the state,” Cooke said at the October meeting. “So there is really no difference between what goes down that rail line, necessarily, than what would go through someone else’s hometown.”
Cooke said the responsibility of understanding the risk potential of residing adjacent to the rail line ultimately falls with the homeowner. “It’s incumbent upon any purchaser in the state of North Carolina to at least have the wherewithal to look into their proximity to a highway, or a river, or any other type of infrastructural aspect, anything,” he said.
Commissioner Mike Forte said he lives within 1,000 feet of the rail line. “I can tell you that when it goes by, you know it. Windows closed and everything,” Forte said. “I have concerns that putting this many people right next to the tracks. I have concerns with a gas line being there with explosives going over it. And I have another concern with the access to it going through Lanvale Forest and Lanvale Trace.”
Chairman Frank Williams shared a concern about the density of the proposed zoning and acknowledged neither the commercial development potential nor was the residential proposal ideal.
A consultant for the developer, Braxton said the plans leave a 30-foot buffer along the rail yard. A 100-foot buffer will remain as is and undeveloped along the long, skinny portion of the parcel that abuts the rail yard, according to Braxton.
“We’re looking at a development that’s comparable with what’s already there,” he told the board.
Commissioners opted to table approving the rezoning after a suggestion by Commissioner Pat Sykes to get MOTSU’s stance in writing.
Monday, the item was pulled from Commissioners’ discussion after the applicant withdrew. The project’s rezoning proposal with the Town of Leland is still forthcoming.
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