Wednesday, October 4, 2023

Three-part series examines environmental cost of local development practices

Port City Daily staff observed multiple burns happening in recent months in the tri-county region and in December started getting emails from readers interested in the issue. Specifically, many were concerned over clear-cutting. (Port City Daily/File)

SOUTHEASTERN N.C. — The area’s economic surge is no secret. Along with the money comes fastidious land-clearing, burning and new construction rising out of the ashes. 

Port City Daily staff observed multiple burns happening in recent months in the tri-county region and in December started getting emails from readers interested in the issue. Specifically, many were concerned over clear-cutting.

READ MORE: Leland council requests open burning regulations

Dr. Bob Parr, quoted in the first part of the series, was one of the first to reach out.

“Is this the way it is done in Charlotte, Pinehurst, Southern Pines and Cary, or is this just the way we do it in New Hanover County because we have always done it that way?” he asked of development practices.

It was clear these issues were on people’s minds. The interest, and the relative dearth of local discussion from government officials, triggered a three-month quest to get a handle on what is going on. 

In the past year, an endless stream of stories have described new businesses and new homes springing up across the tri-county region. They hash out details on the number of units, square footage, amenities and traffic impacts, but not what this means for human and environmental health.

The goal of this three-part series was to assess what kind of impact development is having on the land and everything living here, while also creating a snapshot of local development regulations. More so, PCD wanted to present realistic methods to reduce any harm being caused. 

There were a couple dozen interviews, many emails exchanged, in-person meetings, a handful of records requests and a litany of documents pored over to tease out the fine print.

The answer at the end of this long road: Humans are causing harm. Habitat is declining, species are disappearing, and wood smoke is a proven hazard to the health of people with comorbidities such as lung and heart disease. Upon discovering these issues, a major point in the story became determining how much damage is being done. 

That answer: Nobody has a clue.

There is no comprehensive research that helps us understand what we are doing. There are no species surveys and ordinances do not consider factors like fragmenting habitat (cutting off one piece from another with development). Governments at the state and local levels do not attempt to quantify activities including tree removal or land-clearing burns.

PCD discovered more than 10,000 burn permits were issued by the North Carolina Forest Service between New Hanover, Brunswick and Pender counties in 2022. Missing was information on the amount of material burned and no consistency in descriptions of the area being burned.

The North Carolina Natural Heritage Program would be able to survey local ecosystems if it had more funding. Local governments do not keep track of how many trees come down for development and there are some state environmental regulations — such as rules from the N.C. Division of Coastal Management. 

Yet, the finer points of development, including the amount of open space preserved and whether conservation is a consideration at all, are left to the discretion of the dozens of government bodies in the Cape Fear —  hundreds statewide.

But they do have a tool that can help them strengthen conservation, as offered in the Green Growth Toolbox, free of charge. Listed are small incentives to develop ordinances along with a comprehensive tome of best practices. Not everyone is using the resource.

Mixed in with these revelations were some positive points: There is movement toward stronger environmental protections in Brunswick County in particular — the state’s fastest growing county. There are also some — well, at least one developer going above and beyond what regulations require.

To catch up on the three-part series, click on the reports below:

Why is Cape Fear on fire?

Clear-cutting is a widespread development practice, but it destroys habitat and harms people

Could the Cape Fear use trees to filter water instead of burning them?

This is the second part in a series on development practice in the Cape Fear and alternatives that could be used to land-burning

Can the Cape Fear build better?

Part three examines existing regulations.

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