County Backs Away From Mad Inlet

SUNSET BEACH – Brunswick County commissioners have reversed an offer to let a proposed development in Sunset Beach tap into the county’s public utilities.

Their decision will not hamper plans for the controversial oceanfront neighborhood, according to public comments the developer has made since the commissioners’ ruling last month.

Commissioners unanimously rescinded their September 2014 vote to allow Sunset Beach West to connect to Brunswick County Public Utilities for water and sewer service.

Their decision came a little more than a month after receiving a letter from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service warning of possible implications the county could face if service was provided to a federally designated Coastal Barrier Resources Act or CBRA (pronounced “cobra”) zone.

Ann Hardy

Ann Hardy

While building is allowed in CBRA zones, the federal government discourages development in these hurricane-prone, biologically rich areas by prohibiting federal subsidies, including flood insurance and Federal Emergency Management Agency aid.

A Jan. 6 letter from service to the county explained that even establishing connections outside of the CBRA zone and allowing public utilities to travel through private pipes could cause the county to be cut off from receiving future federal funds.

Brunswick County has over the years received federal contributions to put toward the county’s water and sewer service.

“We learned that any county money related to development that was federal, including FEMA emergency repairs after a storm, would be in jeopardy if the county allowed water or sewer to run through lines to the coastal barrier zone,” County Manager Ann Hardy said. “We understood that could jeopardize past money as well as any potential future money.”

It’s a risk commissioners are not willing to take, commissioner Chairman Scott Phillips said.

“When we learned about this it caused the need to repeal,” he said. “The biggest reason is the potential of not being able to receive federal funds throughout the entire county. We thought it would put our clients at risk. If we have that natural disaster and we eliminate that help from FEMA we just do not think that makes good business sense.”

The proposed development of 21 lots on just fewer than 25 acres would be built on land that was once Mad Inlet, a shallow, meandering channel that has opened and closed over the centuries.

The inlet once separated the west end of Sunset Beach from the Bird Island Reserve until it dried up in the early 1990s, leaving a stretch of more than 1,600 feet of pristine beach between the end of the town’s Main Street and the reserve.

Scott Phillips

Scott Phillips

Plans for the proposed neighborhood were rumored around the time the N.C. Coastal Resources Commission last year removed the land from its designation as an inlet hazard area and determined that the inlet would not likely reopen.

Sammy Varnam, a Sunset Beach West developer, has met with the town’s Technical Review Committee to hash out plans for the neighborhood. Preliminary plans, which include a private wooden bridge crossing over marsh and wetlands to the property, will eventually be submitted to the town planning board for review.

Varnam has insisted he will move forward with plans to build with or without county utilities, telling Coastal Review Online in January that private water, sewer and electric utilities will be installed if necessary.

Varnam could not be reached for comment for this story. He said in January that the land to be divided into half-acre lots has “perked” and is suitable for private sewer and well systems. Electric utilities may be provided in the form of a combination of solar and wind energy backed up by private generators, he said.

Phillips said it is his understanding that Varnam plans to seek a determination from the Fish and Wildlife Service to get an official ruling from the federal government.

“We have not received anything on behalf of the developer, Town of Sunset Beach, or Brunswick County requesting an official CBRA determination for the proposed Sunset Beach West development in Brunswick County,” said Emily Jernigan, a fish and wildlife biologist with agency’s Raleigh field office.

If federal regulators determine that Brunswick County can offer utility taps to the proposed development then commissioners will revisit the issue, Phillips said.

Town leaders say that as long as the development meets the town’s core requirements the town cannot prohibit building on the land.

The development will require a Coastal Area Management Act major permit from the state and a CAMA minor permit, issued by the town, for each lot.

About the Author

Trista Talton

Trista Talton is a native North Carolinian who, shortly after graduating from Appalachian State University in 1996, took her first newspaper job as a reporter for the Hickory Daily Record. She has since migrated to the coast, covering everything from education and local governments to law enforcement, the environment and the military, including an embed with Marines in Kuwait for the start of the Iraq war in 2003. She has been a Coastal Review Online contributing writer since 2011 focusing on coastal-related issues from Onslow to Brunswick counties. She lives with her husband and two sons in Jacksonville.