Monday, June 27, 2022

Hampstead residents pressure Pender to delay sand mine decision, move meeting venue

Neighbors of the Castle Bay subdivision join other Hampstead residents to protest the proposed Jamestown sand mine. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy Chris Oh)
Neighbors of the Castle Bay subdivision join other Hampstead residents to protest the proposed Jamestown sand mine. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy Chris Oh)

HAMPSTEAD — Responding to strong opposition to a proposed sand mine from nearby residents and Topsail school parents, county planners have tabled a meeting to make a formal recommendation to commissioners.

The Planning Board meeting, now set for April 7, has also been moved from the county’s main building in Burgaw to the Hampstead Annex auditorium, where a much larger crowd will be able to attend.

READ MORE: After land taken for bypass, developer looks to rezone over 500 acres for sand mine behind Topsail High

National developer Jamestown Properties is looking to rezone 561 acres of property, between the three Topsail schools in north Hampstead and the Castle Bay neighborhood to the west, for a sand mining operation.

The rezoning request comes amid concerns raised by Castle Bay residents and school parents at a required community information meeting at the Hampstead Library last Tuesday. During a crowded and often tense meeting, they demanded answers on how the mine might worsen air and noise pollution, increase traffic congestion on Highway 17, pollute the area’s water supply, decrease home values in the surrounding areas, and impact Topsail students’ health and quality of education.

At the meeting, there was also some confusion as to whether Jamestown’s proposed shopping mall would even be possible, as the land for the project has been set aside for a complex road interchange where the future Hampstead Bypass will merge with Highway 17.

Mounting criticism

Criticism of the proposed sand mine has grown quickly after petitions first began gaining signatures last week.

Castle Bay residents Peter Rawitsch and his wife, Stacy Kitt, have led the effort, circulating two separate petitions they plan to present to county commissioners after a hearing on the matter is scheduled, which requires a recommendation from the Planning Board.

By Friday afternoon, the petitions had collected just over 300 signatures from Castle Bay residents and 989 signatures from an online petition aimed towards school parents and the Hampstead community at large, according to Rawitsch.

Rawitsch estimated over 150 people came to the meeting, including Topsail school parents, teachers, homeowners, and environmentalists. Because of the county’s fire code limitations, the meeting was split into three different sessions to accommodate the larger-than-planned crowd.

Russell Weil, who is helping manage the project for Jamestown through his engineering firm Pintail Partners, made presentations of the project and took answers from those in attendance. He informed them that Jamestown was proposing the sand mine only after plans for a massive residential subdivision fell through when the state took a portion of the land for the planned Hampstead Bypass. The $340-million highway will cut through the middle of the property before merging with Highway 17 north of Topsail Middle School.

Some also raised concerns about how the mining operation may impact the Castle Hayne Aquifer supplying Castle Bay with its drinking water. The water comes from wells operated by Aqua Carolina.

Joel Mingus, an engineer with the company, asked Weil what would prevent Jamestown from digging any deeper than the proposed 10 to 20 feet. According to Weil, the soils below that depth is not conducive to further digging; he also told Mingus that, to his knowledge, there are no plans to use a groundwater lowering system — an operation that pumps water out of the ground to dry the sand before it is hauled off the site. He said they are instead expecting to filter the sand at the surface.

According to the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, Jamestown has not yet submitted any permit applications to the state agency. Weil said this will be done if the rezoning request goes through.

Another attendee asked Weil how the sand mine would not cause health issues like silicosis, a lung disease caused by inhaling sand dust and similar to the ‘black lung’ disease common among coal miners.

“How is this any different from strip mining?” he asked.

“We will be digging dirt on the property, yes sir, but it’s not strip mining. We use watered down material, and keep that to a minimum,” Weil responded.

Multiple residents also voiced frustrated concerns about the company’s estimate of 25-50 trucks leaving the property daily, first using a service road next to the water tower north of the Topsail tennis courts, then — when the bypass is completed — using Jenkins Road. That road is often used by parents entering the school campus from Highway 17 to the south.

A teacher and mother of Topsail students said the presence of sand-hauling trucks near the campus would negatively impact the schools’ learning environment.

“As we have it now, our schools are overcrowded,” she said. “The amount of traffic in and out of our facilities is dangerous. The noise level from 17 is already too high … You’re talking about putting a noise level that is detrimental to the learning of our students.”

In response, Weil said Jamestown only plans to have one to two excavators operating at any given time in an area that’s more than a thousand feet from the school. He also said daily traffic on the future bypass will be much more distracting than the mining and sand-hauling.

“I’ve heard tonight — ‘Well you’re going to [operate the mine] for 10 years and the state will be done in 2-3 years.’ I don’t know how familiar you are with state government projects, but if they finish that highway in three years, then that’s the best building job I’ve ever seen,” Weil said. “I don’t want to get political, but my point is that when [the NCDOT] is finished, they’re going to have 50,000 cars a day, that are going to be on the boundary [of the school]. And we are far back with vegetative covers from where we’re going to be working.”

One of the loudest reactions from the crowd Tuesday night came when a resident asked if Jamestown had considered alternatives to the sand mine, and Weil said that they had discussed turning the property into a blueberry farm. Some shouted that they would much prefer this scenario.

Jamestown has also discussed with the U.S. Marine Corps about using the property as a conservation area or donating the land to the adjacent Holly Shelter Game Land, according to Weil.

Currently, the company said it will operate the sand mine for approximately ten years before turning the excavated holes into ponds and, ultimately, turning the property into conserved and protected land. Plans already include protecting a foraging area for red-cockaded woodpeckers on the eastern side of the property.

Andy Wood, a local environmentalist with the Coastal Land Conservation Group and a Hampstead resident, said that considering the outcry of the community in response to the mine proposal, the company should more seriously consider conservation options.

“Would you be willing to consider, if we are able to raise the money to acquire that property for a fair market value, would you sell it for conservation, considering its inherent ecological value — not just to plants and wildlife, including endangered species, but also the ecosystem services that benefit the community?” Wood asked.

“We are very open to that conversation,” Weil responded. “We believe at the end of the day this ought to be a conservation zone.”

Shopping mall still planned?

In January, Jamestown submitted plans for 344,000 square feet of commercial retail space on Highway 17, north of the Topsail school campus. This is part of original plans for a massive mixed-use development, including nearly 900 residential single-family units.

But when the NCDOT froze Jamestown’s property in 2011 for the bypass route — inciting Jamestown to file a lawsuit in 2014 claiming it was an unconstitutional taking — those residential plans became a thing of the past.

But the commercial project, which is still apparently active, is on land where the NCDOT has planned to merge the bypass with Highway 17.

In January, Jamestown submitted plans to build a shopping mall right where the NDCOT is planning to merge the Hampstead Bypass with Highway 17. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy NCDOT)

There was some confusion Tuesday night on whether Jamestown was going through with the commercial aspect of the project. One resident said there was a large demand in Hampstead for more retail businesses to encourage drivers on Highway 17 to invest into the community, rather than just driving through it.

In response, Weil said, “that’s why we’re planning for 344,000 square feet,” on 53 acres for offices and retail stores. But later he seemed to contradict himself.

“There’s a master plan in place for that now in this 53 acres,” Weil said. “But this whole thing will be taken away by the bypass interchange.”

Weil did not respond on Friday when asked to explain the apparent discrepancy, and whether Jamestown was actually planning to build a project on land designated for the bypass-Highway 17 interconnections.

Background

Port City Daily has been covering Jamestown’s legal battle with the NCDOT since last year, up to recent developments with a shopping mall and sand mine proposal. Get caught up below:

Feb. 20, 2019: Larger than Wilmington’s The Avenue, massive development ‘The Preserve’ could be coming to Hampstead

Feb. 25, 2019: An overview of the long legal saga surrounding Hampstead’s potential “The Preserve” development

Dec. 30, 2019: Future of major Hampstead development waiting on Map Act case in NC Supreme Court

Feb. 6: Plans for Hampstead shopping mall submitted to Pender amid court battle with NCDOT

Feb. 12, 2020: After land taken for bypass, developer looks to rezone over 500 acres for sand mine behind Topsail High

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