SURF CITY — For the fast-growing coastal town of Surf City, 2019 was a year marked by ongoing challenges in rebuilding its beaches and a controversial election season.
The year began with a three-to-one vote by the Surf City Council to allow the construction of ‘megadecks’ on unbuildable oceanfront sand dune lots. A group of residents opposed the ordinance, asking why the town would allow such structures on eroded sand dunes in the wake of Hurricane Florence — especially amid efforts to obtain federal beach renourishment funding.
RELATED: New Year’s Dolphin Dip in Topsail started with 20 neighbors, now it expects 2,000
Winter: Sand problems
Two weeks later Councilman Jeremy Shugarts announced his bid for the mayor’s office, telling constituents in an email that he and Mayor Doug Medlin agreed to a “clean and professional campaign.”
The end of January saw a local photographer selling pieces of the old Surf City Swing Bridge, which had connected residents and visitors to Topsail Island since 1955, causing some to question how one business was given sole rights to sell scraps of the historic structure.
In February the town approved a $5-million sand-haul operation to properties marked “imminent critical,” but there was some confusion as to whether the town or FEMA made the determination.
This foreshadowed months of challenges for the town’s beach renourishment project — the state shut down the operation in March after pebbles were found in delivered sand; experts said a secondary beach-scraping project was primarily an emotional benefit to property owners with little to no long-term improvement (the town later acknowledged the beach push exposed temporary dunes to erosion); and Northeasters in March and November eroded much of the restored dunes.
READ MORE: A full recap of Surf City’s fight with FEMA, state regulations to repair sand dunes
Meanwhile, the developer of the planned Waterside subdivision acquired a $22-million loan to begin constructing the first 414 single-family lots on land west of the Intracoastal Waterway.
Spring: New town hall, higher property taxes
In April the town received more than $400,000 in grant money for engineering and design work of the town’s new town hall — town officials have been working out of the Surf City Community Center ever since Florence heavily damaged the old building. A quarter of the money was allocated for repairs at Nelva R. Albury Park.
Throughout the year low tides exposed the remains of a 3-masted schooner which ran aground in 1919 while carrying phosphate rock from Puerto Rico to New York.
In May the Pender County tax assessor acknowledged that residents in the coastal region of the county were facing higher increases in their property taxes compared to the last county-wide assessment in 2011. A June report showed a steady rise of homes sold above $500,000 in Pender County; more than 95 percent of those homes were found in Surf City, Topsail Beach, and Hampstead.
And things got rowdy at the ‘Baddest lil’ show’ as more than 300 packed Surf City’s largest bar, Tortuga’s Nest.
Summer: Town manager demoted, political attack website, indictments, recusal
In June a group of residents from Dogwood Lakes challenged Surf City Council to prioritize the safety of their children, citing increased cut-through traffic that the proposed 346-unit Surf City Crossing apartment complex would bring to the neighborhood’s narrow roads. Council later gave the development a green light after city leaders agreed to regulate future traffic through Dogwood Lakes.
On July 19, councilmembers met in a closed session and voted to hire a new town manager.
In August three local surf buddies organized Topsail Island’s first Surf City Ocean Fest to teach young people with disabilities how to surf and celebrate their motto: “to surf, to protect, to party.”
Later in the month, the mayor (and his son) denied involvement in a mock website created to dig up dirt on the opposing candidate, Councilman Shugarts. A week later Shugarts was indicted for past elections violations.
In September town leaders sought a release from Pender County’s water system following a hot, dry summer that hampered the county’s ability to supply the populated coastal region.
After a prosecutor spoke at a Medlin campaign event, District Attorney Ben David’s office recused itself from the Shugarts investigation.
Later in September Port City Daily discovered that a week before the vote to hire a new town manager, Surf City Police officers were dispatched to a verbal altercation between the current town manager and the mayor’s personal assistant. Medlin and fellow councilmembers never responded to whether her demotion was related to the incident.
Fall: Fire on the island, election controversies continue to heat up
Fall began with an announcement from town officials discouraging residents from laundry during a week-long flush of iron in the water, which hit national news a few days later.
A week later, a fire broke out in a four-story home on Topsail Island, spreading quickly to six other homes and ultimately causing an estimated $5 to $8 million in damages. The fire chief said it was likely the largest fire in the town’s history.
While Mayor Medlin had been limited in his responses to Port City Daily regarding the controversies surrounding his campaign and that of his political rival, a local radio interview helped clarify some of our questions. Port City Daily responded to his radio comments.
Later it was reported, first by WECT, that a six-year-old girl enrolled at Surf City Elementary was sexually assaulted by a 13-year-old middle school student on a bus, sparking outrage from her mother who believes the county school system does not have policies in place to address the issue.
In mid-October Shugarts’ attorney said the state’s five-month investigation revealed that Shugarts did not benefit from using an old address when filling out past voter forms and a notice of candidacy. The investigation did find evidence that Shugarts had violated election law.
The town then announced some good news: a new skate park and walking trails were in the works.
A busy October ended with reporting that Surf City can only use a fraction of its Juniper Swamp wastewater fields as the sewer system neared capacity. Their search for other land to dispose treated sewage water highlighted infrastructure challenges for the growing town.
End of the Year: Mayor wins in landslide
The November elections ended with Mayor Medlin beating Shugarts with nearly 70 percent of the votes. His allies all won seats on the council as well.
A few weeks later Salty Turtle Brewing Company set up its inaugural canning line, becoming the state’s first brewery to use biodegradable, compostable can ring holders.
Using pre-sifted sand this time, the sand-hauling operation resumed in November.
In December FEMA approved $18 million for beach repairs at Surf City’s neighbor to the south, Topsail Beach. An official from the same beach engineering company involved with that project said FEMA committed only a quarter of the funds that Surf City had applied for.
The lack of funding, he said, explained why sand was hauled to “imminent critical areas” and not the entire beach.