TOPSAIL BEACH — A Raleigh millionaire’s plans to develop on the southernmost tip of a small Pender County beach town has locals and visitors alike concerned about the future of The Point.
Todd Olson, CEO of startup tech giant Pendo, is under contract to purchase a 150-acre property at 1 Shore Line Drive on Topsail Beach, owned by the McLeod family. According to Pender County property records, the land is valued at almost $3 million.
Olson’s vision is to construct a family compound on about 40 acres. To see it through, he proposed a text amendment to the town’s code of ordinances, which commissioners approved unanimously last month.
Preliminary plans include building eight single-family dwellings, various garage and maintenance buildings, swimming pools and associated decks and gazebos, a beach access walkway, a sound side cottage and pier, with nine boat lifts.
Married with six children, Olson said his extensive family is the reasoning behind the vast number of buildings. He will retain ownership — not sell it off or rent it out — to accommodate his family. Plans are still being devised, but he said the buildings will not be tall structures.
“In an ideal world, the residents wouldn’t see us and we wouldn’t see them,” Olson said.
Nearby residents received a letter from Olson’s land surveyor, Charles F. Riggs and Associates, notifying them of his intentions.
Located south of Surf City, Topsail Beach has a population of about 460 full-time residents; it retains a quaint beach-town feel across its 5.8 square miles. Some locals are afraid it may be lost if the acreage, currently untouched and in its natural state, is developed.
“I think that’s what has most of us residents so worried and scared is, there is obviously amazing, beautiful, healthy nature down there at The Point because it’s been undisturbed,” said Shannon Crownover, homeowner of Serenity Point, adjacent to The Point. “It’s such a unique, rare culture — a cute little beach town stuck in time. My concerns about this proposed development are many.”
Crownover noted the flooding it already experiences, adding how the recent hurricane brought intense water surge that came under her property, as the sixth house in from the sound. Nearly a dozen other neighbors experienced the same. She is also worried about impacts on the environment, ruining the “fragile ecosystem.”
“It’s irreversible,” Crownover said. “You can’t take it back.”
According to N.C. Coastal Federation Kari Allen, who published a document in 2019 about the land, there are several impediments to developing it per local, state and federal designations. These include its current zoning as a conservation district, and the fact that it’s located within an inlet hazard and Coastal Barrier Resources Act area.
In 2019, the land was listed for sale for $7.9 million and the town attempted to acquire it and ensure it remains undisturbed for the public to enjoy. The price tag was too hefty to place on taxpayers and the Coastal Federation was investigating opportunities for the state to buy it; however, neither succeeded.
Olson confirmed to Port City Daily part of his plans include preserving much of the property to ensure it does not get built on in the future.
“It would be a shame for someone to take away from the natural beauty,” he said. “The last thing we wanted was 30 homes at the end of the island. That’s not the best outcome.”
Homeowner Melissa Miller, who lives about 1 mile from The Point, said she regularly walks the 2.5-mile loop to enjoy the scenery. She’s worried growth will harm the wildlife — fox, coyote, pelicans and sandpipers — and the ecosystem.
“It doesn’t feel right,” she said. “It feels like it needs to be protected.”
She added that people in neighboring towns, Surf City, North Topsail, Holly Ridge, and tourists also enjoy the property currently.
The dwellings will take up a small portion of the property, while 75% will be preserved indefinitely, according to Olson.
“I want to work with the community in what that means,” he said, meaning listening to their concerns before constructing.
A current parking lot is part of the property, which Olson said he will keep intact, so the public can still use its beach access.
“We have no plans to change that or limit beach access to anyone,” Olson said.
He added, aesthetically, his buildings will “blend into the landscape” as single-story structures, not predominantly visible to the public.
“We all fear the slippery slope that starts with eight houses then becomes 30, and without information your brain goes to the worst-case scenario,” Crownover said.
A software developer and computer programmer by trade, Olson quickly pointed out he’s not in the development industry. In 2013, he raised $350 million to found Pendo, his third startup established from the ground up. The now billion-dollar company has locations in New York City, San Francisco, Israel, the U.K., Tokyo, and Australia.
Having vacationed at Topsail Beach over the last decade, he said his family often rented near the southend of the island.
“We just fell in love with Topsail as a beach destination,” Olson said.
He bought a home on N. Anderson Boulevard in 2019 and isolated there, working remotely, through the pandemic to escape city life in the Triangle. He said his family took advantage of the soundside property for water skiing, wakeboarding and tubing.
“I like how rustic it is and not built up,” Olson said. “It’s easy, quiet. When I go to the beach, I am purposely exiting a city. It’s kind of my speed.”
Crownover said with Topsail Beach retaining a small-town feel, she wished Olson would get more involved with the community, to not avoid the appearance of “the villain.”
“My request is that Todd introduce himself in a different way to this community,” she said. “It would be so much better if this was not a ‘force-this-down-our-throats’ by getting five commissioners to change the law and be more of a community engagement process.”
Crownover is referring to Topsail Beach’s recently approved change to its ordinances, now allowing conditional rezoning. Olson presented the modification to the planning board in June and to the board of commissioners in August.
On June 22, the planning board voted 3-1 (chair Cathi Litcher dissenting) to recommend the change to commissioners. In August, commissioners tabled the discussion though approved the amendment Sept. 14.
Olson’s proposal was to amend the town’s ordinances as a whole, though some commissioners asked if he had an “intent” with his request. At the time, Ward and Smith law firm representing Olson would not reveal what that was, as the application was only to add conditional rezoning as a planning tool.
Conditional rezoning allows for a local government to attach specific criteria to a proposed development and also requires a public hearing to consider community input.
Residents will get their first chance to offer public feedback at a community hearing held Oct. 29 at the Topsail Beach Historic Assembly Building,10 a.m. to noon.
“When folks see what we’re talking about, it should alleviate some concerns,” Olson said. “My goal is to be completely transparent. We care about this part of the island as much as every other resident does.”
Charles Riggens sent a letter on Olson’s behalf last week to neighboring residents of the property about the request for the rezoning.
It opened with a notice of a public hearing, indicating time and place and stated all the facts:
“Mr. Todd Olson is considering requesting conditional rezoning of a 37-acre portion of the 150-acre tract presently owned by McLeod Family, LLC, Pender County Tax Number 4201-59-8862-0000 located at the southernmost tip of Topsail Island.
This condition rezoning includes construction of pervious access roads with approximately eight single-family dwellings built to both Town Code and FEMA regulations, various garage/maintenance buildings, swimming pools and associated decking, gazebos, beach pavilion, beach access walkway, sound side cottage, and sound pier with nine boat lifts.”
Resident Anne Marie Pizzi started a Facebook group in response. The social media page has 288 members, half of Topsail’s population, many expressing opposition to Olson’s plans.
“That shows you, it’s a small town,” Crownover said. “You can’t have a Raleigh strategy in Topsail Beach. Work with the people.”
Olson admitted, in hindsight the letter, may have been “too terse.”
The conditional rezoning will be brought before the planning board — which will include another public hearing at some point — prior to the end of the year. Though Olson noted he’s in “no rush” to build.
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