Monday, September 26, 2022

“Rape and pillage of New Hanover County”: Tree conservationists go head to head with industrial developers over tree mitigation

US Highway 421 on Thursday morning. (Port City Daily photo / NCDOT)
US Highway 421 in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence. (Port City Daily photo / NCDOT)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Over 6,000 acres of industrial-zoned land could be exempt from a county-wide tree ordinance, drawing opposition from local environmental groups. 

On Sept. 1, the New Hanover County planning board voted to recommend an amendment to exclude developments along U.S. Highway 421 from any tree mitigation requirements. 

The tri-county route flows from western Pender County, down through Eagles Island and all the way to Fort Fisher in New Hanover County. Properties zoned I-2, heavy industrial, along the Hwy 421 corridor between the Isabel Holmes Bridge to the south, the Pender County line to the north, the Cape Fear River to the west, and the Northeast Cape Fear River to the east “shall not be required to mitigate removed Significant trees or Specimen trees” according to the proposed ordinance amendment.

The current ordinance requires developers to replace every inch of tree they remove with 2 inches of mitigation planting, specifically significant trees (determined by land ordinances) and specimen trees (any tree chosen as point of focus in an area).

The rules have been in place since 2001 but were updated in 2020 to include longleaf pines and cypresses at smaller sizes. Currently, these species must be mitigated at a size of 18 inches diameter at breast height instead of 24 inches. 

Replanting these trees would no longer be required per county commissioner adoption of the draft amendment. The move would mainly affect developers eyeing the 617 acres of vacant land along the corridor.

Tyler Newman, president and CEO of Business Alliance for a Sound Economy, spoke in favor of revising the ordinance at the Sept. 1 meeting. 

He explained to Port City Daily the hardships the mitigation puts on incoming businesses. 

“The tree provisions are really aimed at traditional subdivision development, not the type of industrial development we are zoned for, planned for and need in the 421 corridor,” he said. 

According to Newman, large industry plants have less flexibility in development design than smaller commercial or residential developments.

He said replanting the trees is potentially a “hurdle” to industries looking to place their facilities along the corridor. 

“We have investors and businesses trying to come in and build large rectangular buildings on flat sites and need trucks to get in and out,” he said at the Sept. 1 meeting. 

“To accommodate the employers and jobs, it requires grading the site, meeting the stormwater ordinance, building the building and driveways and parking, building the stormwater pond and installing the landscaping. All those essential site improvements require space and oftentimes do not lead to leftover land.”

Developers will be required to provide enhanced landscaping through tree buffers between the road and industrial sites to preserve an aesthetically pleasing entrance into the county. 

The planning department staff report explained the challenges along Highway 421 as compared to other large industrial sites, like Blue Clay Business Park in Wilmington and the ILM Airport Park. 

“Sites in this corridor were often re-planted with pine trees after previous clearing, so unlike other wooded areas, trees are all of a similar size,” staff wrote in the report. 

The document goes on to state replanting the trees may lead to a property consisting entirely of significant trees that would have to be replaced by developers. With the addition of a building and other industrial site elements, replacing the large amount of trees would make it very difficult to build on the land.

However, some community members think the county should not sacrifice nature for development. Nor should mitigating trees be a bonus, rather a necessity. 

“Trees help clean and cool the air, clean stormwater and reduce erosion and add immense value to property,” Bill Jane, former chair of the Wilmington Tree Commission, said at the Sept. 1 meeting. “Creativity can find ways to preserve valuable stands of trees.” 

Sherry O’Daniell, vice president of the Cape Fear Alliance for Trees, shared with Port City Daily that Highway 421’s strip of trees has particular significance to New Hanover County and North Carolina. 

“I was surprised to learn from a lecture that I attended at the NC Urban Forest Convention that only 5% of the Longleaf Pine Forest remains in North Carolina,” she said. “The last significant acreage of longleaf pines in New Hanover County is in the 421 corridor.” 

Longleaf pines are endangered, along with the red-cockaded woodpecker which habitats within their forests. Both species are only found in the southeastern United States. O’Daniell noted the corridor is the only land connecting the bird populations in each county. Developers would have to follow any state or federal guidelines to protect those endangered species. 

Clear-cutting trees also raises questions on erosion and flooding mitigation. As local conservationists pointed out, 2018’s Hurricane Florence essentially cut Highway 421 in half due to the amount of water drowning out the road. 

The planning board countered those concerns by calling attention to the county’s investments in fortifying the route. 

“The county has put millions of dollars into that Highway 421 corridor to install the water and sewer,” board member Donna Girardot said.

Cape Fear Public Utility Authority used a grant from the 2018 Connect NC Bond — of which it received $16 million — to construct six miles of water and sewer lines along Highway 421. 

During the meeting discussion, Girardot seemed to be the member most in favor of passing the amendment, expressing that the board could always revisit the ordinance in the future.

“I would hate to hold up our economic development,” Girardot said. 

Planning Board Director Rebekah Roth suggested the amendment was more proactive than retroactive. 

“We have not heard that other industrial properties are experiencing the same challenges at this point,” she said. “The amendment was not triggered by any project that has been submitted to the planning department for review.

Other members, like Jeffery Petroff, suggested a compromise between both sides. He said a complete removal of the mitigation requirements might not be necessary to still accommodate growth. Still, the amendment was approved for recommendation.

“I can sympathize with what is going on out there and what is needed for the development of that corridor,” Petroff said.  

The amendment likely will be introduced to commissioners at an upcoming meeting. Tree conservation advocate Andy Wood, member of Coastal Plain Conservation Group, had some words of warning for county leaders, as told to the planning board on Sept. 1. 

“As you’re planning the essentially rape and pillage of what remains of New Hanover County, please, bear in mind you’re talking about the future natural heritage that the next generation inherits from us,” Wood said.


Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at brenna@localdailymedia.com 

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