Tuesday, March 5, 2024

700-unit development proposed near historical Black community gets boot by Surf City council

On Oct. 4, developers of the Applewood Trace project withdrew their application after council indicated it was going to deny a request for continuance. (Port City Daily/Amy Passaretti).

SURF CITY — A massive development spanning a couple hundred acres that caught the ire of nearby neighbors was defeated at the Surf City council meeting last week.

On Oct. 4, developers of the Applewood Trace project withdrew their application after council indicated it was going to deny a request for continuance.

Sandwiched between U.S. Highway 17 and the Villages at Turtle Creek neighborhood in Surf City, Applewood Trace would have brought 714 homes — 100 single-family, 314 duplex and 300 multi-family units — to almost 200 acres of land. Engineering firm Logan Homes and surveying firm McKim & Creed Inc., both based out of Raleigh, are behind the project. 

Council originally approved in 2006 for the land to be set aside for phases three through six of Turtle Creek. However, in the late 2000s, after constructing around 70 homes, the development folded due to financial troubles.

Existing Turtle Creek residents have made clear their opposition to Applewood Trace due to its size. Particularly, they have spoken out against the toll a large influx of residents would have on area’s schools, infrastructure and transportation networks. 

“Growth is inevitable, but it does not have to come with the destruction of our current communities,” HOA Turtle Creek President Abby Land said at last week’s meeting.

One resident spoke up for another nearby neighborhood, the historically Black Edgecombe community, of which the Applewood Trace properties would abut. 

“They didn’t ask for any of this,” Surf City resident Daniel Levins said at the meeting. “The Edgecomb community is a community based on slave ancestors — properties handed down generation after generation, cemeteries with five, six generations.” 

The land has served the Black community in the area since for over 150 years; graves in the area date back to the mid-1800s. Two key Edgecombe landmarks are located near Manhollow Church Road and Edgecom Drive — the Manhollow Missionary Baptist Church and Sloop Point School. 

Christian missionary Alvin D. Love started the Manhollow Missionary Baptist Church in 1861, four years prior to the end of the American Civil War, for a congregation of enslaved people from the Batts and Sidbury plantations in Pender County. After a  permanent church was constructed in 1868, it was led by Black ministers. 

Over the years, the church has been modified and upgraded, but it serves Edgecombe residents to this day.

Adjacent to the church, Sloop Point School is one of the only Rosenwald Schools — small school houses dedicated to Black students — left standing in the state. Between 1917 and 1932, nearly 5,000 rural schoolhouses were constructed across the South; 800 were built in North Carolina, more than any other state. 

The idea for these schools stemmed from a partnership between Booker T. Washington, a prominent Black intellectual, educator and advisor to several presidents and Julius Rosenwald, a German-Jewish immigrant, the head of behemoth retailer Sears, Roebuck & Company.

The Sloop Point School was completed in 1921; many Black residents with roots in the Edgecomb area have ancestors educated in the schoolhouse. One Sloop Point pupil, Mattie R. Sharpless, went on to become ambassador for the Foreign Agricultural Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. 

According to Pender County records, there are around 25 homes along Manhollow Church Road and Edgecomb Drive.

“And we’re going to inundate them with traffic because of a builder who will probably never walk into these doors or into this county,” Levins said to council.

One of the concerns the planning board requested was that the applicant’s address the site’s access points — one on Manhollow Church Road to reach the U.S. Highway 17 and one on Loggerhead Boulevard leading to N.C. Highway 210. Both access points direct traffic through nearby communities.

“This is putting a lot of pressure on the roads we have,” Mayor Douglas Medlin said at the meeting. 

To provide direct access to Highway 17, the developers claimed they needed more time to adjust the site plan — hence the continuance. To pull off that connection, the road would need to cross wetlands, requiring some bridge construction yet to be fully mapped out. 

Council was not keen on passing plans that could change in the future.

“There’s a whole lot to this development that we can’t see right now,” councilmember Donald Helms said during the meeting.

The Highway 17 connection was one of many bumps in the road for the city council; the planning board voted to deny recommendation of the development in September because the developers refused to accept the road adjustment, address water flow issues and set up a reserve account to fund the development’s utilities.

A month later, that position had changed. At the Oct. 4 meeting, Ward and Smith real estate lawyer Sam Franck, representing the developers, told council they would comply with their suggestions. 

While the developers were able to get Pender County to release water jurisdiction and were prepared to set up the reserve account, Franck said his team would need more time to present a new site plan with a connection to Highway 17. When it was clear they wouldn’t get that from the council, Franck withdrew the application. 

Referring to the pushback to the planning board’s suggestions, Mayor Pro-Tem Buddy Fowler told Franck “you wasted a lot of time doing that,” but Franck maintained the developers had good reasons for denying the requests. 

“Every development involves an evolution,” Franck said during the meeting.

Still, the sheer size of the neighborhood was hard to justify. 

“We didn’t think there would be this many people on that tract of land,” Helms said during council discussion.

While the density clocks in below the maximum amount allowed at 4 units per acre, council and members of the public thought the development would surpass the town’s infrastructure and services. 

Because Surf City lacks the wastewater capacity for a 700-unit subdivision, the property would need its own wastewater treatment plant onsite.

Another major concern was how the development would further strain Pender County schools. Six schools are over capacity, totaling 445 students more than they are outfitted for, and others are near capacity, according to PCS Superintendent Steven Hill.

A $178-million school bond on the ballot this November would provide over $100 million for the construction of an 800-student elementary school and 1,200-student middle school, along with five other renovation and expansion projects. 

The bond will address the currently enrolled student population in Pender County Schools, therefore; the development’s additional students would counteract the county’s measure to decrease school crowding.

At the meeting, Franck countered the claim that the development would just be a burden on schools. 

“[The development is] a significant resource going forward, not just for schools, but for infrastructure and other things,” Franck said. 

He advocated the development would increase Surf City’s tax base and allow the government to pay for more services. However, that was not a gamble council was willing to take. 

While Logan Homes and McKim & Creed Inc. could resubmit another application to council in the future, members of the public made it clear their position will not change. 

“No site plan in your hands, revised or not, will not change the minds of the people,” Levins said. 

Members also asked the council to continue to reject large development projects until Surf City’s infrastructure was in place to support them.

“I beg the council not to consider any new large development until we get the schools and infrastructure under control,” resident Larry Rice said.

Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at brenna@localdailymedia.com 

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