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Coastal Sketch: David Paynter


David Paynter is doing a little bird watching at Congaree National Park. He’s the treasurer for the N.C. Coastal Federation’s board of directors. Photo: Cary Paynter

WILMINGTON — David Paynter eases his kayak through the marsh grass of Hewlett’s Creek.  It’s something the N.C. Coastal Federation board member enjoys doing. Today he sees a little green heron preening its feathers and a least tern taking flight.

Years ago he and his children swam in the creek. Now it’s closed to shellfishing because of high bacteria levels. That’s just one of the reasons that Paynter has been serving on the board of the environmental nonprofit for the last 10 years.

Born in Denver to a former WWII pilot and his English wife, Paynter and his family moved around the world when he was growing up. Much of his childhood was spent abroad in Germany, Spain and England. His favorite place was their home in England, a 16th century Tudor house in Cookham Dean — the village that is famous as the setting for Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows.

“It was really quite a remarkable house,” Paynter says. “It was built of old brick and dark oak beams with a stone foundation that went back to the 11th century.”

The gardens were quite untamed. Paynter thinks perhaps exploring its orchard and ponds is where his love for nature and the outdoors began.

“Even as a young boy, I was interested in landscapes and what was unique about them,” he says. He still remembers at age eight his fascination with the high plateau of Madrid and his surprise in seeing snow there during Easter.

Once he and his brothers built an underground fort near their home along the bank of a tributary to the Missouri River, unbeknownst to their mother and father. They disappeared for hours on end, day after day playing in that underground fort among the snakes and frogs. Later he would collect snakes to the dismay of his father, who would never set foot in his bedroom.

The brothers’ path diverged after high school when his twin brother attended the University of Virginia and he went to University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. “I always thought that it was a good choice to go to Carolina at that time, Virginia was not yet co-ed,” Paynter laughs.

It was at college that he met his wife, Cary. The two were married when he graduated and then they moved to Cary’s hometown of Fairfield, Conn., where Paynter became the city’s assistant library director. After a few short years, the South beckoned and the couple relocated to Florence, S.C.

In 1982, the director position opened up for the New Hanover County library system and Paynter jumped at the opportunity.


David Paynter at the Grand Canyon in 2011. Since he’s retired from his job as the director of New Hanover County library systems, he’s enjoyed having more time to travel with his wife, Cary. Photo: Cary Paynter

“We drove over the Cape Fear River and saw this compact city below us. It reminded me so much of Europe where there is often a much sharper definition between country and city,” he says.
Then, Wilmington was a mix of the Old South, a growing arts community, historic preservationists and people from all over the world making it a home. The couple settled in and raised their children:  two daughters, Adele and Sprague, and a son, Stuart.

Paynter’s curiosity was stirred in 1982 by a group of people meeting at his library to form an organization called the N. C. Coastal Federation in order to confront the threats posed by peat mining. Little did he realize that years later he would become intimately involved with the federation.

Paynter and his wife joined the federation in the early 1990s. They supported the work of Bill Ducker, the president of the Bird Island Preservation Society, who was working to preserve the island near Sunset Beach. He was a close family friend. Ducker was on the federation’s board and recommended Paynter’s appointment in 2004.

Paynter became treasurer in 2012 and currently serves on the executive committee. While on the board, he has been involved in two successful capital campaigns and served on several committees.

“Todd Miller, the executive director, provides outstanding leadership, which is complemented by the staff that he has hired over the last 30 years. Financially, it is very well run and that reputation assists in securing grant funds, which form the basis of the federation’s annual budget. Every board member has great pride in the federation’s accomplishments,” says Paynter.

Living in Wilmington, Paynter is very worried about the proposed Titan cement manufacturing plant along the Northeast Cape Fear River. He says the federation has done great work in organizing opposition to this plant and exposing the adverse environmental effects it will have.

“There are so many unanswered questions — what is the impact on our groundwater, which supplies drinking water to New Hanover County residents, the effects on air quality, the effect of strip mining on our rivers, the impact on our infrastructure, and so on,” he says.

The Northeast Cape Fear River is one of the last freshwater tidal marshes along the East Coast and the only one in North Carolina. “It is a beautiful river and should be preserved for its uniqueness. Like the Cape Fear River to the south, it forms one of those boundaries, which define our urban area.


David Paynter’s view from his kayak on Hewlett’s Creek. He volunteers with several environmental organizations besides the N.C. Coastal Federation. Photo: David Paynter

“If we want to keep the Cape Fear area as a place where people want to come,” Paynter says, “we should be highlighting our natural resources and not destroying them.”

Paynter is all too aware that the local community has changed dramatically since he first arrived in the early 1980s. Suburban sprawl has eaten up farms and forests, and unchecked development has affected the freshwater marshes.

“It bothers me that there seems to be no real planning on how we want our communities to grow,” he says. “We had urban density surrounded by rural wetland areas three decades ago. It no longer looks and feels the same.”

Both the city and county are involved in a new planning process, which Paynter hopes will address this concern.

Since Paynter retired as director of the county’s library system in 2008, he’s had more time to get involved with other organizations. He continues to be a member of the Rotary Club and enjoys the outings organized by the Southeast Chapter of the Native Plant Society. Besides the federation, he also serves on the boards of directors for the Cape Fear Audubon Society, the N.C. Conservation Network, the N.C. Audubon Society, and the Library Foundation of New Hanover County.

Retirement has been good to him, Paynter says. He and his wife travel and spend more time doing the things they love – reading, gardening, kayaking, bird-watching and spending time with family. This summer, David and Cary welcomed their first grandchild.

“Now I will have to drop some of my outside activities and concentrate on other things,” Paynter smiles. Next summer, Paynter hopes to plan a kayak ride with his granddaughter to show her the beautiful birds along Hewlett’s creek.

About the Author

Denice Patterson

Denice Patterson is a preschool teacher and free-lance writer in Ocean Isle Beach. She has degrees from Penn State and N.C. State universities and has been writing about people and places in North Carolina for 25 years. She has been published in the "North" and "South Brunswick" magazines, "Carolina Gardener" and "Our State" magazine.