NORTH TOPSAIL BEACH – Several property owners here at a public hearing Saturday morning spoke out against a proposal that would divvy a portion of the town into districts for special assessments to help pay for a multi-million-dollar, 50-year joint beach project on Topsail Island.
A majority of the nearly 20 property owners who spoke at the hearing said the creation of municipal service districts, or MSDs, will only divide the town.
“Municipal service districts sound great because they’re affecting other people, but in fact they open up a can of worms on all of us,” said property owner Stuart Gillman. “They’ve been used for very, very pernicious purposes. I think that municipal service districts will have us all hang separately. We all need to pay our fair share of taxes.”
Local city and county governments may establish MSDs to charge property owners assessments on top of property taxes as a way to provide more services to those who reside within those districts.
In the case of North Topsail Beach, assessments allowed by creating the proposed districts would help cover the annual estimated cost of $3 million for the next 50 years in a joint project with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Surf City, North Topsail’s island neighbor to the south.
The estimated $672 million project would secure beach nourishment along 10 miles of Topsail Island’s ocean shoreline, including all 6 miles of Surf City’s beach and the first 4 miles of beach at North Topsail Beach’s south end every six years.
Under an agreement, the Corps would pay 65% of the project’s initial construction. The towns and state would pay for the remaining 35%.
North Topsail aldermen for months have been discussing a multipronged approach to bring in more money to the town to help pay for the project.
Earlier this year, the town implemented paid parking at its public beach accesses. Surf City did the same.
North Topsail aldermen have also discussed raising the occupancy tax, a move that would have to be approved by the North Carolina General Assembly, and one town officials are not optimistic about because of the powerful tourism lobby.
The occupancy tax rate in North Topsail Beach is 6% and the revenues generated from that tax are split equally between the town and Onslow County.
Property owner Becky Dickson said Saturday morning that she is adamantly opposed to the proposed project and argued that the town needs to focus its spending on infrastructure improvements.
“Sand’s not a permanent issue,” she said. “We need to get back to taking care of the town and our citizens. I think we need to let go of this project. It’s a failed project. We don’t have the money for what we need to pay for.”
Lisa Kozlowski said the project, while needed, “is entirely out of the town’s financial league.”
The only fair way to address the matter is to divide the entire town into municipal service districts to pay for projects within those districts, she said.
“If you truly believe in this project you would have the whole town pay for this project,” she said.
Town officials are considering dividing properties within the proposed project area, referred to as the Phase 5 area, into two districts – an oceanfront district and a soundside district.
Officials have not discussed proposed tax rates within those districts.
The town’s current property tax rate is 41 cents per $100 of property valuation. The county tax rate is nearly twice that amount at 70.5 cents per $100 valuation.
Property owners and former North Topsail Beach alderman Bob Swantek said property owners should pay equally for the joint project.
“The beach is all of ours,” he said. “It’s not just phase 5, phase 2, phase 3. If you’re going to put an MSD on the island it should be equal. The tax should be equal across the board.”
Kenneth Chestnut, whose father built Ocean City, a mile-long stretch of land within North Topsail Beach believed to be one of the first Black-owned beachfront communities, said he and other Ocean City property owners oppose the town establishing MSDs.
“The MSD creates further division within North Topsail,” Chestnut said. “The oceanfront property owners already pay a premium because the land and the lots are more expensive. Everyone benefits from the beach and the beach nourishment project.”
Six letters from property owners were read into the record after those who attended the public hearing spoke.
Those who submitted their statements in writing included the homeowners’ association of Topsail Reef, a 240-unit oceanfront condominium complex at the north end of town. The association said it supports the town establishing the two proposed MSDs.
After the public meeting closed, Mayor Joann McDermon said that for the town to consider the project it needs a new revenue source.
“The reason we are here with you all today is because of the vocal response by citizens that are in favor of the project to the point that some folks were so in favor of the project that they were requesting annexation from North Topsail Beach if the project did not move forward,” she said.
Though not required, it is “likely” that a decision on whether to establish the districts will be made in June, when aldermen are expected to adopt the town’s 2021-22 budget, according to information on the town’s website. The board could opt to call a special meeting in which its members would then cast their votes.