Update: The nonprofit groups seeking to challenge the permit for Sunset West LLC have been granted a hearing. Learn more.
SUNSET BEACH — With just a few days left before the deadline, the North Carolina Coastal Federation and the Sunset Beach Taxpayers’ Association are still waiting to hear whether they will be allowed a formal appeal of a developer’s Coastal Area Management Act permit for a 21-unit oceanfront residential project in the area of a former inlet in Brunswick County.
N.C. Coastal Resources Commission Chairman Frank Gorham of Wilmington technically has the final say – other than the court system – on whether the appeal of the Sunset Beach West permit issued by the state Division of Coastal Management on June 20 can go forward. The deadline for a decision is a Saturday, but a decision will likely come by Friday. Gorham has delegated the decision to the commission’s vice chairman, Renee Cahoon of Nags Head.
Gorham lives in Wilmington and fills a commission seat representing coastal property owners and land development, while Cahoon’s seat is for representatives of local government; she is a Nags Head town commissioner.
If the appeal does go forward, an administrative law judge will decide whether the division improperly issued the CAMA major development permit for the project, which is proposed by developers Sammy Varnam and Greg Gore on nearly 25 acres of land that stretches between the last developed lots on the west end of Sunset Beach and the Bird Island Reserve.
Southern Environmental Law Center Senior Attorney Geoff Gisler filed the appeal on behalf of the federation and the taxpayers’ group. Division staff recommended that Gorham not allow the appeal to move on to the administrative judge. Gisler has said the organization will appeal to state Superior Court if Gorham or his designee accepts that recommendation.
Gisler’s appeal of the permit claims that Varnam and Gore’s company, Sunset Beach West LLC, doesn’t own the land and that the town of Sunset Beach does. The appeal also asserts that the permit is in violation of state rules and the town’s land-use plan.
Gisler and the town base the ownership claim on a 1987 deed, and the town is pursuing that claim in court. Both contend that without solid proof of ownership of the land, the CAMA permit application filed by the company and approved by the division on June 20 should not have even been considered.
Division officials have said it’s up to the court system, not the agency, to determine ownership. Gisler says that’s not the case and that the general warranty deed on file with the application fails to meet statutory requirements because it was prepared without an opinion of title.
“Under the rules, they (the developers) have to demonstrate title to the property,” he told CRO last week. “The town has filed suit to assert ownership. The application should never have been allowed to proceed, much less a permit be issued.”
Varnam maintains that his firm does own the property and will defend its rights.
The debate goes back to 1987, when Ed Gore, the original developer of Sunset Beach, deeded a portion of the land to the town on condition the town use it to build a public parking lot within three years. The parking lot was never built. Gore died in 2014.
In 2004, the town council adopted a resolution declaring that a parking lot would be too expensive because the town would have to either buy the last developed, oceanfront lot at the west end of West Main Street or build a bridge to access the land on which a parking lot could be paved. The town board decided then to return the deed, but now says it never did.
Gisler said environmental concerns and land-use issues are just as important as the ownership question.
For example, he said, the town’s land-use plan requires that all structures along Main Street – the road in question – be within 150 feet of the street, and the proposed new homes would violate that rule. In addition, he said, the homes would be built seaward of the oceanfront dunes, which would violate state statutes intended to protect life and property.
It’s particularly hazardous, he said, because even though Mad Inlet isn’t there now, it has opened and close numerous times over centuries. But the land is not in the state’s inlet hazard zone. The commission removed it from that designation based on a determination that the inlet would not likely reopen.
Varnam on Thursday continued to maintain that the appeal is “frivolous.” The groups that oppose the project are “spreading propaganda that we’re going to bulldoze all the dunes,” he said.
“It’s just a scare tactic to sway the public against us to believe the lies,” he added. “It is not our intention to destroy dunes. The people who are spreading these lies should be ashamed of themselves for the misinformation they’re putting out.”
Gisler also cited the development’s proximity to Bird Island, which he called a “beloved” sanctuary enjoyed for its scenic beauty by locals and tourists. Development so close would threaten its value.
Until the early 1990s, when the inlet most recently closed, water separated the west end of Sunset Beach from Bird Island. Now there’s a roughly 1,600-foot stretch of sand between the end of Main Street and the reserve.
DCM staff recommended denial of the appeal hearing because it said the conditions under which the permit was issued allow no development seaward of the frontal dune and no frontal dune destruction. Further, the staff contended that the project doesn’t violate the town’s land-use plan because none of the proposed lots abut Main Street. Instead, they extend from a private road that is connected to Main Street via the authorized wooden bridge.
“Petitioners further argue that the development is contrary to (a land-use plan policy that states that) Sunset Beach desires as much as practicable that all development be designed and sited so as to be compatible with its existing coastal town and residential character,” according to the staff opinion prepared by DCM attorney Christine Goebel. Also, because the proposed use for this development is residential, the division staff contends that the permit is in line with policy, adding that this policy “is not so much an enforceable policy as a statement of desire …”
Gisler said he believes the appellants will eventually prevail.
“We’ve won some of these and we’ve lost some, and each case is different, but I think we have a good shot in this one,” he said. “The facts are on our side.”
Varnam said the local opposition is being hypocritical about coastal development.
“If coastal development is such a bad thing, then why did the Sunset Beach Taxpayers Association members develop and build houses on the island of Sunset Beach? Now they are against me and my company doing the exact same thing that they have been a part of. It all comes down to don’t block my view. That is nothing less than hypocrisy,” Varnam said.