NORTH TOPSAIL — A beach town could step up local protections for its area wetlands.
Wednesday, the North Topsail Beach Board of Aldermen will consider adding language to its unified development ordinance to require property owners to take additional steps to preserve and restore wetland areas.
Property owners will be required to plant vegetation and stabilize developments with mulch within two weeks after disturbing wetland areas. Owners are required to protect any wetlands within a property and not alter the natural water features of a lot to be altered beyond what is allowed in a construction permit.
Violators may be fined and required to repair wetlands within a week of receiving a notice from the town. If the wetland has not been repaired after a week, the town can fine a property owner every day the area remains damaged.
The aldermen directed the town planning board to review wetland regulations and submit a proposal to increase them locally. The proposed regulations were created after the town planning board met with Robb Mairs, local permit officer for the Department of Environmental Quality’s Division of Coastal Management.
North Topsail’s existing regulations do not focus explicitly on wetlands, but do place special requirements on building in floodplains, including wetland delineations from the USACE. Wetlands are supposed to fall in the town’s conservation and residential-agricultural zoning districts.
Wednesday, the board of aldermen will hold a public hearing on the changes ahead of the vote. The presentation attached to the meeting’s agenda about the update includes a recommendation to delete a reference to wetland definitions “to prevent conflict with Federal and State definitions or changes.”
The comment is referring to the first line in the proposed amendment:
“WHEREAS, N.C. Session Law 2023-63 created new definitions for wetlands that
apply throughout North Carolina.”
That law, passed by the North Carolina General Assembly via veto override in late June, is the state’s latest Farm Act. A new version of the act is passed each session ostensibly to aid agriculture.
Mixed in with this year’s provisions, along with provisions on turkey litter recycling and new rules on timber theft, is language tying the state’s definition of wetlands to the federal definition.
The change has the potential to strip protection from some existing wetlands based on their lack of permanent connection to another body of water. The federal definition of a wetland changed as the result of a U.S. Supreme Court decision in May.
The presentation for North Topsail’s new rules notes the change is not expected to alter the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality’s approach to the wetlands in the town’s jurisdiction because it falls in a special area of estuarine concern.
All of the Cape Fear is within the Coastal Area Management Act, a state law that passed in 1974 and dictates North Carolina’s eastern border counties have special environmental permits and protections.
On the federal level, the Army Corps of Engineers has sweeping authority to regulate activity on wetlands. The town was expecting the corps to respond to the Supreme Court ruling on Friday, but has not released a response as of press. The corps and the EPA, as of today, define wetlands as areas saturated by surface or groundwater to the point they support life specially adapted to live there.
Wetlands are habitats for critters that thrive in those environments. But North Topsail’s new measures, and wetland protections’ general focus, is on the flooding issues caused by building upon them.
“When wetlands are filled, the water that made them wet has to go somewhere,” a memo from the National Wildlife Federation reads. “If it isn’t seeping back into the basement of the house built on the former wetland, the water is likely leaking into formerly dry homes of downstream property owners.”
Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of the Farm Act, when it was still Senate Bill 582, took issue with the wetlands provision specifically. Cooper claimed the change would result in flooding of homes, roads and businesses, as well as dirtier water.
“The General Assembly has allocated tens of millions of dollars to protect the state from flooding and my administration is working to stop pollution like PFAS and other contaminants. This Bill reverses our progress and leaves the state vulnerable,” the veto message reads.
This is not the only time in recent memory federal wetland protections have been in flux. In 2020 a Trump-era EPA decision nearly tightened the definition as well.
Meanwhile, there have been a handful of local conservation efforts in the past year. In June, the North Carolina State Park Service and the North Carolina Coastal Federation planted thousands of native marsh plants and removed invasive ones to restore habitat in the wetland areas around Carolina Beach State Park. In December Coastal Land Trust preserved 32-acres of rare wetlands in Pender County.
[Ed. note: The article has been updated to reflect Mairs’ proper title; PCD regrets the error.]
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