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Growing South

By Jenny Callison, posted Mar 17, 2023
Shallotte Mayor Walt Eccard is shown on the town’s riverwalk. Shallotte is one of the southern Brunswick County municipalities where officials are discussing how to keep up with an increase in residents and businesses. (Photo by Madeline Gray)
Gracious live oak trees dot the landscape of south Brunswick County, lending character to this tourism-heavy area that’s seeing remarkable growth. And, just as a broad root system is vital to supporting a healthy tree canopy, so are plans, projections and infrastructure improvements to supporting Brunswick’s burgeoning southern municipalities.

One example is Shallotte, the area’s commercial center, which is eyeing a significant population wave over the next five years, officials say. The town’s current headcount is somewhere between the official census tally of 4,200 and the state’s calculation of about 5,100, according to the town’s mayor, Walt Eccard.

“There are 1,237 multifamily and 1,430 single-family units [in developments] we’ve approved or that are going through the approval process,” Eccard said. “If they are all built as planned, with a conservative estimate of two people per unit, our population would more than double.”

Shallotte is situated on the Shallotte River, not on the Atlantic Ocean, but its big-box stores and shopping centers are a draw for area residents in need of goods and services. Because of this, the town recently commissioned a study from the University of North Carolina School of Government. As part of the study, researchers drew circles on a map showing 15-minute driving areas from the city halls of Shallotte, Southport, Wilmington and Myrtle Beach. 

“We did not intersect with the other three, and the population within our circle was 50,000,” the mayor said, adding that nearby beach town tourists further boost Shallotte’s economic base. “If our population grows, it will increase business for the businesses in town, and when out-of-town businesses consider coming in, they look at population. If we tell our story about the available population, these businesses will come to Shallotte.”

Drive through Shallotte’s neighboring communities to the south and you’ll see subdivisions going up with single-family houses and townhomes. Existing developments are expanding as well. Sea Trail Plantation in Sunset Beach is one example of new construction happening within a golf community first developed in the mid-1980s.

In 2021, Sunset Beach-based Riptide Builders purchased all of the undeveloped land within Sea Trail along with community developer rights and began work on two subcommunities: one of 49 single-family homes and one with 80 townhomes. In late 2021, a release from Riptide Builders stated that the company and Sea Trail’s Master Association had adopted a seven-figure capital improvement plan “to complement the new amenities Riptide is bringing to Sea Trail.”

What’s happening in Shallotte and beachfront communities nearby is very similar to what’s going on in the Leland area, but with a difference, said Haynes Brigman, Brunswick County’s deputy county manager.

“They’re both booming, and there are the same opportunities and challenges associated with that growth,” he said. “But Leland is a larger municipality with a larger staff and the ability to grow and expand that some of the municipalities of the southern part of the county don’t have.”

Towns like Shallotte, Boiling Spring Lakes, Calabash and Sunset Beach can call on the county for help or turn to planners at the Cape Fear Council of Governments (CFCOG), which works with Brunswick as well as Columbus, Pender and New Hanover counties. Staffers at the CFCOG can be “an extra set of hands,” as Wes MacLeod, the organization’s local government services director, puts it.

“Many of these places were just one island,” MacLeod said of the beach towns. “Now they have expanded onto the mainland and are experiencing the type of growth they were not prepared to handle. There have been rules and procedures put into place; the town council may be involved in subdivision decisions and development decisions that in Wilmington, say, the city council would never see.

“Over time, this may likely change, and some development decisions would not go to the local governing board, but for now, there is a lot of oversight and concern that things be done correctly.”

Such is the case with Riptide Builders’ proposals for enhancements at Sea Trail. The developer is asking the town of Sunset Beach for conditional rezoning of several parcels to allow such uses as restaurants and other food and beverage services, retail shops, office space, multifamily development, a hotel and additional golf course-related facilities. 

Preparing for growth while trying to maintain the ambiance that existing residents cherish is a challenge, MacLeod said. 

“We’ve done land use plans in the last five or six years for Calabash, Ocean Isle Beach, Sunset Beach, Boiling Spring Lakes, Holden Beach, Shallotte and Southport,” he continued. “Land use plans are something they are willing to expend funds on since they underlie policies for growth and development that are in line with what their citizens want to see happen. [Officials] understand these plans may need to change, so they are constantly reassessing them.”

Shallotte is increasing the size of its police, fire and maintenance departments and expanding its recreation offerings, Eccard said. The latter includes extending Mulberry Park to the river, with a playground for young children, a picnic shelter, a kayak launch and trails. The town is also working in stages to lengthen its popular Riverwalk. And it’s in talks with the state Department of Transportation on affordable projects that would ease traffic flow through downtown.

Looking again at that live oak tree, the secret to its health lies partly underground, in the soil and the root system. A below-the-surface network of pipes is essential for the growth of south Brunswick communities that, according to MacLeod, only 15 to 20 years ago relied on septic systems for their wastewater. 

The county has provided a vital piece of forecasting for the area.

“We just finished our Blueprint Brunswick 2040 planning document,” Brigman said. “There are glimpses into certain areas of the most growth, which include the Highway 17 corridor and the N.C. 211 corridor; there’s so much interest there. A lot of utility infrastructure work we’re planning for water and sewer replacement or expansion will open up further opportunity.”

As the county replaces old pipes and water treatment plants that are reaching the end of their useful life, there’s the realization that replacement pipes and new plants need increased capacity, Brigman said. “It’s a challenge for us from that standpoint; utility projects take years of planning. You can’t just flip a switch. And we’re trying to do it without raising rates.”

The county’s utility department is on the job, according to its director John Nichols, who said that the department is completing both a wastewater and a water master plan that will guide required infrastructure improvements over the next 20 years. It’s also looking to ensure that the department itself operates efficiently. 

“The [Brunswick] Board of Commissioners has been supportive of initiatives to ensure sufficient water and sewer capacity for both existing and new customers of the enterprise system,” Nichols said. “Additionally, staff assesses the needs of the system on an annual basis and recommends and implements improvement projects each year.” 

Some municipalities will maintain control over their water and sewer systems, but Shallotte is in the process of transferring its water system to the county. It will, however, retain its own sewer system and is adding more lines and a new lift station, the mayor said.

Another growth lifeline lies underground as well: fiber optic cable to bring the information highway to current and new residents.

“Focus [formerly ATMC] and AT&T are actively trying to keep up with growth,” Brigman said. “New subdivisions will come in with at least one fiber provider. Where we’re lacking is areas that have been around for 20, 30, 40 years and rural areas that may have only five houses on a street. We don’t control that but have had very good discussions with providers. There are a lot of state and federal dollars out there to provide broadband, and I know these groups are taking advantage of that. We should be in good shape in 10 years. A high number of our citizenry already have access to broadband.”

Who are the incomers driving demand for more homes and more goods and services in South Brunswick?

“Our bread and butter will always be the Atlantic Ocean and the visitors it attracts, but we’re seeing more people moving here and living here year-round,” Brigman said. “They tend to be retirees, but we’re also seeing an influx of younger families who can work remotely or commute to Myrtle Beach or Wilmington. Apartments are sought after for singles, young couples and retirees. The ability to work remotely has changed things.”
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