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Real Estate - Residential

Insatiable Demand In Brunswick County

By Johanna F. Still, posted Mar 18, 2022
Brunswick County Planning Director Kirstie Dixon and her staff have been fielding thousands of calls in recent years related to the county’s rapid residential and commercial growth. (Photo by Michael Cline Spencer)
Kirstie Dixon’s phone rings seemingly nonstop.
 
The Brunswick County planning director is feeling the latest development surge from all angles: approvals, applications, inquiries and more.
 
“The magnitude of requests that we get are incredible right now,” she said.
 
From callers wondering, “Can I put my shed there?” to the CEO of a company aiming to relocate their business, Dixon and her staff of six are wading through it, after fielding nearly 7,000 calls last fiscal year.
 
Since the fall, they’ve had to rely on outsourcing planning labor to a consulting firm to ensure the approval process remains fluid and on schedule to meet state regulations.
 
“We wouldn’t be able to process what’s coming in without it,” she said.
 
Like many industries struggling to find labor, Dixon has had two open planning positions since August and said she could use three or four more after those get filled.
 
Growth in Brunswick County is old news. But the latest land grabs, approvals and construction starts mark a new era of even stronger development activity, heightened by a confluence of pandemic-related and local factors.
 
Last year, about three out of every five residential building permits issued in the tri-county region took place in Brunswick County.
 
The county and municipalities within it issued 4,057 single-family building permits – a whopping 42% jump from 2020, far outpacing the year-over-year rate of change nationally (13%) and statewide (14%), according to data compiled by Cape Fear Realtors (CFR) and the Wilmington- Cape Fear Home Builders Association (WCFHBA).
 
With on-the-ground action surging, the development pipeline is just as teeming. Still, experts say the planned units aren’t enough to meet insatiable demand amid the housing shortage, with record-low supply and an eight-day listing period.
 
Development approvals are skyrocketing: The county’s planning department saw a 572% increase between fiscal years 2020 and 2021 by approving 8,864 new residential units within major subdivisions and planned developments. Approvals don’t mean each unit gets built (in fact, some recession-era ghost projects are getting resuscitated now), but they offer a glimpse of what’s ahead.
 
With still a quarter left in the current fiscal year, the county planning board has already OK’d 7,843 new units as of March 10, has 4,108 pending and estimates it’ll greenlight over 1,500 more before July. If met, those fiscal year-end approvals would represent a comparatively tamer, but still substantial 52% year-over-year bump.
 
On top of the climbing approval volume, the scale of projects is also mounting. Dixon points out three projects approved last year top 2,000 units (Timber Farms: 3,000; Stone Farm: 2,159; Rice Creek: 3,400). A majority of the units getting approved are single-family homes.
 
Hansen Matthews, partner with the commercial brokerage firm Maus, Warwick, Matthews & Co., scoured the county to find an off-market 1,137-acre property for the buyer of Stone Farms.
 
“Most any developer who hopes to build a subdivision and Brunswick County – for that matter between Myrtle Beach and Morehead now – has to look for off-market properties. All the low-hanging fruit’s been scooped up,” he said.
 
Despite the difficulty finding land, there’s still countryside left in Brunswick compared to a built-out Wilmington. Ripe with wetlands, streams and conservation districts, the county’s terrain necessitated flexibility within its development code, according to Dixon, which allows for density and other perks if projects avoid flood zones. “They have to work with the land,” she said. “And the land in Brunswick County has lots of challenges.”
 
Matthews attributed Brunswick County’s latest residential development swell to macro and micro trends. It’s bordered by South Carolina’s fastest-growing county, Horry (30% from 2010-2020, per the latest U.S. Census data), and long held the same title – before being knocked into second place by less than a percentage point by Johnston County – growing 27.2% over the same time period.
 
“As the baby boomers have entered full-scale retirement mode, the decades-long movement of retirees coming to Brunswick County exploded during the pandemic,” Matthews said. “Additionally, many pre-retirees discovered that they could work from anywhere, so why not work from a warm coastal region with a lower cost of living than where they’d been living before?”
 
Massive developments aren’t new for Brunswick County, Matthews said, pointing to St. James, Compass Pointe and Brunswick Forest (for an update on Brunswick Forest, click here).
 
“Brunswick County is fortunate to have an abundance of undeveloped land and much of this land has water and sewer lines within proximity,” he said. “What’s different now is the fast pace of development and absorption of the homes.”
 
National and regional builders have swooped in over the past couple of years, marking new territories. “We’re seeing development companies who have never been in this market,” Matthews said.
 
Spillover from the Wilmington market into the Leland area is sustained, as a largely built-out New Hanover County sees relatively far less activity because there’s little left to develop (New Hanover’s planning board approved 442 units – not including rezonings – in 2021, according to a county spokesperson; including Wilmington, 1,691 single-family permits were issued, according to the CFR-WCFHBA report).
 
Creeping growth from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, near the western end of Brunswick County is a newer trend Dixon is seeing. Before, growth in that area was more beach- and tourism-related, she said, whereas now she sees it as being fueled by land scarcity in Horry County. The western Brunswick U.S. 17 corridor has “become a bedroom to South Carolina,” she said.
 
Activity north of U.S. 17 on the western end is also novel, she said, driven by speculation surrounding the location of a planned highway, the Carolina Bays Parkway Extension, that would tie in S.C. 31 to Brunswick’s vein.
 
A 2021 construction heat map in the CFR-WCFHBA report shows construction scattered across the entire county. “Brunswick’s hot spots are racking up new home construction in several areas,” Matthews said. “Leland leads the charge, but Shallotte, Southport and the Hwy. 211 corridor are all chalking up impressive numbers.”
 
An increase in job opportunities could also be at play, according to WCFHBA’s executive officer, Cameron Moore. “You’re starting to see more employment opportunities, more employment centers, instead of just service-oriented jobs,” he said, referencing Brunswick’s tourism-dependent reputation.
 
Moore also credited the county’s investments in infrastructure. “Brunswick County has done an enormous job over the years by putting in water and sewer and trying to get out in front of development to know where it’s going and watching the market,” he said.
 
Since 2019, the county has invested $151 million in water and sewer capital projects, and plans to spend another $40.5 million through 2026, according to Dixon. The county is in the process of updating its water and wastewater master plans and work on the Blueprint Brunswick 2040, a joint parks and planning master plan overhaul, continues.
 
Though the onslaught of growth in the past year to year-and-a-half has been noteworthy, it hasn’t yet reached pre-recession levels. When Dixon first joined the planning department in 2004, the planning board had to meet bimonthly to handle the volume of requests (now, it meets one a month). The following year, the tri-county region (and the nation) clocked its new-home building permit peak; local activity last year was 9% shy of 2005 levels, according to the CFR-WCFHBA report.
 
As development cooled off, Dixon said the county took several proactive planning steps to prepare for what came next.
 
“What a lot of folks don’t realize is, we knew that development was coming,” she said. “We knew that would come back. People love Brunswick County. They love the beach, they love the atmosphere, they love the weather.”
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