The Coastal Resources Commission, when it meets June 15, is expected to consider whether a rarely tried resident-led effort to extend an area of environmental concern for a Carteret County watershed should be pursued.
The Beaufort Citizens Alliance group nominated Gibbs Creek, a tidal creek watershed in the North River estuary, to be designated as a natural and cultural resources area of environmental concern, or AEC, as a way to encourage responsible development of the 86 mostly undeveloped acres surrounded by the creek, but not prohibit development entirely. The last AEC nomination was in 1994 for a site in Brunswick County, which was not approved.
The prospective developer says the nomination is an obstruction of private property rights.
The nomination was spurred by plans for the proposed 81-lot Salt Wynd Preserve subdivision. The developer went through the proper steps with the town, officials told Coastal Review, but some approvals have expired, and the family that owns 42 of the acres said they have no active contract with the developer.
If the commission approves the nomination, a management strategy can be put in place for Gibbs Creek, which is classified as SA High Quality Waters and open to commercial shellfish harvest. In this case, the applicants are asking that the watershed be afforded the same protections as outstanding resource waters, ORWs, which require an AEC that extends landward 575 feet from the normal high-water mark with a 25% limit on impervious surfaces. The nomination also proposes a larger buffer around all vegetative areas of federal wetlands.
One of the applicants, Dr. Jud Kenworthy, told Coastal Review in an interview that they feel Gibbs Creek and North River qualify as ORWs, though they’re not designated as such by the state. Kenworthy is a retired National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration research biologist and has been a Beaufort resident since the 1970s.
“We think that this particular watershed deserves the same sort of protective buffers that an ORW gets, given the enormous social and economic value of the creek as a nursery and the North River as a recreational and commercial fishery,” he said.
ORWs are determined by the state Environmental Management Commission and go through a different process than AEC nominations.
Gibbs Creek watershed is currently considered a coastal shorelines AEC, which extends 75 feet landward from high water. Within that 75-foot area, there is a 30% limit on impervious surfaces and a 30-foot buffer that extends from high water where only water-dependent structures can be built.
Kenworthy said he and the other applicants seek a bigger buffer than 75 feet, especially for the any waters deemed waters of the United States.
There are four types of AECs, though the natural and cultural resources designation is the only one that can be nominated by the public. These are areas with environmental, natural or cultural resources of more than local significance that could suffer damage from uncontrolled or incompatible development.
Submitting the nomination begins a five-step process with the commission and Division of Coastal Management. Once the division receives the nomination, a preliminary evaluation must be held within 60 days. This took place May 8 in the Morehead City train depot.
About 50 attended the meeting to hear the division, the Beaufort Citizens Alliance, town staff, the commission and its advisory council members, and landowners speak. There was no public comment period.
Mike Lopazanski, policy and planning section chief for the division, explained that if the commission does not endorse the AEC nomination, the process ends. If the commission does give the go-ahead, the division will create a detailed review of the proposed site to present to the commission at a future meeting. From there, the commission will then consider the formal designation, hold public hearings and then make the final decision.
Lopazanski said that in his 33 years there, he has not seen an AEC nomination approved.
Kenworthy, who spoke on behalf of the nominees, said North River is important as a recreational and commercial fishery resource for the community, tourism industry, hunting and wildlife. Because his property is on Gibbs Creek, across from the proposed development, he has been able to study the watershed for 22 years.
“There’s a lot of reasons that these tidal creeks need as much protection as they can get. There are extensive wetlands here that are really storing lots of carbon. They’re providing habitat for fish and wildlife. They’re acting as primary nursery areas,” Kenworthy said, adding that the creeks are also an oasis for wildlife.
“Our proposal for the AEC is really to build a buffering capacity around the edge of that landscape,” he continued, adding that the request is not to prevent development on that property, rather to put in place protections that minimize the potential effects from development.
During her presentation, Beaufort Agrihood Development Director Beth Clifford explained that she owns about 10 acres. The other property owners, which had representatives at the meeting, are the Bertie Eubanks Neely family, which owns 42.39 acres, and the Pearl G. West Trustee that owns 33.76 acres, according to Carteret County GIS.
Agrihood put together the plans for the proposed 81-lot subdivision. “I am not interested in damaging our ecosystem. That is not my interest. The entire property was designed to maintain and actually enhance a better ecosystem,” Clifford said, adding the development plans were based on legislation currently in place.
“We will not increase more than 10% of the entire flow of water that’s on this property, less than 10% will come off of our property by the way that we have done excellent engineering work to assure the sanctity of this natural area,” she added, and it will be retained and treated before it leaves the property.
Regarding the AEC nomination, Clifford said that there will be no adverse impacts to public lands, and the area does not contain environmental, natural or cultural resources of more than local significance. She closed by saying the applicants’ intentions are “prejudicial and absolutely against private ownership property rights.”
Ron Shaw, on behalf of the Eubanks family, said the preference would be, “Immediate revocation of the current application as written due to procedural errors of facts as the information provided in the application is no longer accurate.”
He said that there is “no active purchase contract with Beth Clifford, she has failed to complete the purchase of the Bertie Eubanks Neely tract of 42-plus acres of land within the timeline of the contract. Additionally, the Eubanks family is currently entertaining new offers of purchase on that tract of land.”
The nomination application was in response to the current Salt Wynd development moving forward, and the statements in this application “grossly and negatively affect the future sell opportunity the Eubanks family may wish to entertain,” Shaw said.
Shaw said that Kenworthy has a strong personal interest in the AEC because his home is directly across from the proposed development.
Roberta West, trustee of the Pearl West property, read from prepared notes, which were submitted to the Division of Coastal Management.
“This all began not with a concern for nature, but with a desire to prevent this development – for the perceived personal benefit of only a few Howland Rock residents,” she said.
West accused the applicants of trespassing on her property and questioned their scientific approach for “collecting items without an unbiased knowledgeable observer present.” West said she would have helped but, “now that I know your malicious intent, I might have shot you in the knees — I’m joking — And then I could have thrown you into that ditch. That’s just how I feel about it.”
Kenworthy told Coastal Review in a follow-up interview that he is not an opponent of development.
“What I am is an advocate for responsible development,” he explained.
“I think I was portrayed the other day as a NIMBY (not in my back yard),” he said, referring to the May 8 meeting. “From the start of our interest in the Gibbs Creek watershed, I’ve always advocated for responsible development — not to stop it, just have it be something that is as compatible as possible with the environment to protect that watershed, and that creek and all of its value.”
Kenworthy said the alliance had studied statutes and ordinances to find ways to protect the watershed, which is how they discovered that the public could nominate this type of AEC.
“When you think about and look at the scope of AECs and what they are, it’s another tool to use to minimize the impact of a development or any activity or any land use in a watershed that would affect public trust resources, and the status that it is now,” he said, adding he hopes the public learns that they can have a say using the right tools.
“This isn’t a fight to the death over one subdivision. It’s bigger than that. It’s what can you do as a resident or citizen? What are your options to be sure that your public trust resources are being managed appropriately? and that the folks in these state agencies are doing what they’re supposed to be doing, And I think that’s important,” he said.
He added that he did not trespass. Over his 22 years studying the watershed, he had permission from previous residents to access their property.
Next steps for the alliance are to keep an eye on the status of the development application and to continue to monitor permitting processes, and to attend the commission meeting when the nomination goes before the members.
Clifford, in a follow-up email response, told Coastal Review that the AEC nomination is “pernicious and prejudicial” and fails on merit on the two requirements for this type of AEC.
“It does not demonstrate that the area contains resources of more than local significance and that the development is uncontrolled or incompatible and would result in major or irreversible damage,” she said. “The properties in question are part of the North River watershed and provide stormwater swales to offsite, treated and untreated stormwater to gain passage to the North River. The project will provide more surface area for treating the existing stormwater, while building the most environmentally sensitive project proposed in Beaufort to date.”
About two years ago, there was a proposed 400-unit project for the 86 acres that was denied by the town planning board. A few months later, Beaufort Agrihood Development proposed the 81-lot subdivision, Salt Wynd Preserve.
Broken into two phases, the town and developer have been going through the approval process since late 2021. The planning board on May 16, 2022, approved the preliminary subdivision plat for Phase 1. Town commissioners approved on Oct. 10, 2022, the final plat to subdivide the 37.06-acre tract into 47 single-family residential lots. The town also approved annexations of both phases, on the condition that Agrihood had possession of the properties.
Because the final plat was not filed with the Register of Deeds within the required 60 days, or by Dec. 10, 2022, the approval expired.
The preliminary plat for Phase 1, which had a 12-month approval, expired Tuesday, meaning that the developer will have to reapply and go through the process again for phase 1 approvals.
Beaufort town manager Todd Clark said during the May 8 meeting that, with respect to the Beaufort Agrihood Development Project, the developer did proceed through the appropriate development approvals following prescribed town ordinances.
However, the property has not been annexed because the annexation was predicated on the sale of the property to Beaufort Agrihood Development, and that sale has not been recorded. That means the review and planning processes must start over again.
Clark noted that the AEC nomination had not been presented to the town planning board or commissioners, and therefore the decision-makers neither support nor oppose the nomination.
“The three property owners continue to work together on all contractual matters,” Clifford told Coastal Review when asked what the announcement regarding the 42-acre Eubanks property means for the future of the development.
A Division of Coastal Management representative told Coastal Review Thursday that the request by the Eubanks family does not change anything regarding the nomination or its process.
The nomination and review process does not depend on who owns the property or any specific development proposal currently under consideration. The intent of any underlying property owner to pursue, or not pursue, new development does not affect this process, according to the division.
Any AEC nomination should be based on unique natural or cultural resource areas that, in the petitioner’s opinion, are deserving of additional protections above existing state rules, according to the division.