Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Could one pool change the rules for everyone in North Topsail?

Board asks planning director to review guidelines for construction along dunes

Contractors work to install a swimming pool in Dolphin Shores that has raised concerns from some residents and local officials. (Port City Daily/Amy Passaretti)

NORTH TOPSAIL — The Town of North Topsail Beach is considering a change in town ordinance to limit certain structures close to the beaches.

An under-construction single-family home with a swimming pool in the Dolphin Shores neighborhood has the town questioning whether the current regulations are strict enough to protect the dunes.

New property owners on the island requested a swimming pool permit for the 0.44-acre lot on Mar. 7. The permit calls for a 312-square-foot in-ground pool and a 1,073-square-foot pool deck addition. While the landowners are abiding by Coastal Area Management Act (CAMA) rules, the pool is being built on what appears to be a dune.

CAMA legislation protects natural resources along coastal areas in North Carolina. There are 20 counties subject to CAMA rules, one of them being Onslow. 

State law allows pools to be built on the oceanfront, as long as they are within the ocean hazard area setback; however does not allow pools within 30 feet of the estuarine shoreline.

At the North Topsail Board of Aldermen’s Apr. 6 meeting, member Rick Grant raised concerns over whether the pool in question was stable and encroaching on the preservation of beaches. He advised the planning board to review regulations and assess whether more stringent guidelines should be enforced.

“There’s a difference between what’s allowed by CAMA and what’s legal and what we should be taking a look at,” Grant said at the meeting.

He laid out three options: Do nothing, ban swimming pools entirely or create a middle ground. Grant proposed the same setback guidelines for pools the town adheres to for houses, which is 60 feet from the first line of stable vegetation.

Alderman Robert Swantek agreed: “If they start taking the integrity of the dune away, this is where the ordinance comes in. We put a lot of money into our beaches and dunes, and by allowing this, we’re just taking our money and throwing it out the window.”

READ MORE: North Topsail Beach finds alternative path to finance beach nourishment after withdrawing from federal project

According to planning director Deborah Hill, swimming pools are permitted between an oceanfront setback line and the vegetation line, if they don’t remove or alter primary or frontal dunes.

“They did exactly what they were allowed to do,” Hill said in reference to the pool’s installation at Porpoise Place.

She did say the owners’ first proposal was to build the pool right into the side of the dune, which she vetoed.

The beginning stages of construction on a pool at Porpoise Place in North Topsail. (Courtesy photo)

The board of aldermen voted in 2017 to allow pools, as long as they are consistent with CAMA’s general use standards. This was after waffling on the decision during multiple meetings, according to Hill.

The Division of Coastal Management, issuer of CAMA permits, has visited the Porpoise Place location twice and verified the grading work was up to standard and within the 60-foot setback. Hill added contractors are not yet done stabilizing the structure.

“I think as we try to address one issue, it’s important not to use a bazooka for a mosquito,” Hill said. 

From January 2021 to present, there have been 16 permits issued for pools in North Topsail. Hill said one pool can add roughly $100,000 to the property’s tax assessment, infusing additional tax money into the town.

Mayor Joann McDermon said at last week’s board meeting she has received several emails from citizens complaining about the pool construction, but assured aldermen it’s following the proper engineering protocols.

“There are all these safeguards in place to make sure that pool is installed in a way that it’s not going to rise up out of the ground and cause damage to that structure or the structure next to it,” McDermon told aldermen.

During past hurricanes, Grant said he remembers seeing remnants of swimming pools, some sticking out of the ground. Some fear a pool not properly installed could cause damage to nearby structures during a severe storm.

Grant referred to regulations as a balancing act between being strict and infringing on personal decisions on how people choose to upfit their homes.

“I’m not for taking people’s property rights,” Grant told Port City Daily. “We’ve asked the planning committee to take a look. But it’s more than just pools. What’s the town doing with respect to respecting dunes?”

Mayor McDermon said the planning board should review the ordinance in its entirety, specifically to revise rules for pools on the sound side and oceanfront. Alderman Mike Benson, also head of the Beach and Inlet Sound Advisory Committee (formed to create a long-term plan for the beaches), asked what issues neighboring towns have experienced.

The aldermen formally requested the planning board take a closer look at the issue, which the planning board motioned to do at its meeting Thursday. It will review the regulations of six similar towns along the coast. The board excluded Surf City and Topsail Island since Surf City’s lots are smaller than North Topsail Beach. Topsail lots require homeowners to install septic systems, which eat up about one-third of the land. Installing a swimming pool is near impossible, board member Paul Dorazio said.

Hill reminded both the aldermen and planning board that the town adopted its CAMA Land Use Plan last year. The plan incorporates CAMA’s rules, but also identifies higher standards that often go above and beyond what is required by the state.

“If there is an item in that CAMA Land Use Plan, unlike our zoning ordinance, there is no variance from it,” Hill explained. “And it’s enforceable by the Division of Coastal Management CAMA guidelines.”

She went on to say the policies and guidelines within it are “carved in stone.”

Board chair Hanna McCloud asked, “Then why are we discussing this?”

Hill will report back to the planning board with her findings next month, which will then be presented to the board of aldermen for further review.

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