Carolina Beach Grows Up

Carolina Beach, NC – Carolina Beach is the quintessential beach town. There are miles of sandy beaches and good waves for surfing. There are tackle shops and a fishing pier, and a marina full of charter boats. There are vintage motels and cottages, and a boardwalk that boasts some of the oldest bumper cars in the country. It's an inexpensive, low-profile beach community that appeals to families and fishermen, tourists and retirees.

But things in Carolina Beach aren't perfect. Despite numerous attempts at revival, the town's once-vibrant downtown, especially the boardwalk area, has languished for decades. The Town Council wants to revitalize the area by morphing it into a year round resort community. They recently voted to approve two high-dollar oceanfront development projects, Park Place to the south and Arcadius to the north.

Not everyone is happy with the Town Council's efforts to make Carolina Beach more upscale. Many residents worry about higher property taxes, stretched emergency services, and worsening gridlock, especially during hurricane season. They worry that franchises will replace the mom and pop businesses downtown when rents go through the roof. Mostly they worry the town's character will be changed forever.

Sarah Friede lives in Carolina Beach. She says she's not against growth, provided it's well thought out. But she doesn't think town officials understand the potential impacts on people who already live and vacation here.

[Friede] It's really going to change what is a very small town, and very quaint feel in downtown Carolina beach, to kind of more of a Myrtle Beach feeling area, Virginia Beach, some of those other beaches where there's really a lot of high-rise growth, just a lot of the big city feel that I think that people come to Carolina Beach to get away from.

Friede points to the Surfside Motor Lodge and the Paradise Inn, and to Cobbs Corner, the local parrothead bar. These are unassuming landmarks that will be demolished to make way for Arcadius. She fears most tourists who now visit Carolina Beach soon won't be able to afford it.

The size of Arcadius, especially its height, causes the most concern for residents like Friede. The development includes 278 residential units, 56,000 square feet of retail space, and a nine-story, 1000-space parking deck. Three of the project's eleven buildings will be 130 feet tall. The developer, Ohio-based Arcadia Group, says it needs to build high to make the project economically viable.

Birdie Clark is a 30-year resident of Carolina Beach who also opposes the project.

[Clark] Their contention was that they could not get a return on their property if they did not go that high, and I say we're talking a difference here between taking a tractor-trailer load of money out of Carolina Beach back to Ohio, or a U-haul, and they might just have to be ready to take the U-haul instead of the tractor-trailer.

In early October, the Carolina Beach Planning and Zoning Commission voted to reject the Arcadius project because of concerns about height, density, and traffic. Nevertheless, the Town Council approved the project a week later. Birdie Clark says Town Council members, some of them elected by fewer than 50 votes, have no mandate to make such drastic changes in Carolina Beach. She says once Arcadius is built, the high-rises will keep coming.

[Clark] Once you get three thirteen-story buildings here, one up there, the bar has totally been lifted. I don't care what anybody says, there's nothing to keep them from walking all the way down to the north end. Not a thing, not a thing could stop that, except laying in front of the tractors or something maybe (laughs).

Before the first brick for Arcadius is laid, the developer must first obtain a permit required under the Coastal Area Management Act, or CAMA. But because the Arcadius project is not consistent with the town's CAMA land use plan, town officials have some work to do.

A CAMA land use plan is designed to be a blueprint for future growth. It considers things like land suitability for development, natural resource protection, and storm hazard reduction. The CAMA plan for Carolina Beach was written in 1997 and included extensive participation by town residents. It specifically discouraged high-density development and high-rise structures, and limited building heights to 35 feet.

To allow the CAMA permit for Arcadius, the 1997 land use plan must be amended to allow high-density, high-rise development in the Central Business District downtown. The Town Council says that by doing this, outdated buildings can be replaced, property values and business incomes will increase, and downtown will return to its glory days. Scott Chase is the Director of Planning and Development.

[Chase] Town council has chose a vision for the Central Business District and would like to see new economic development happen. With the way the current 1997 land use plan is written, it's very inconsistent in what the direction the town is headed. So these changes are very necessary.

Chase says the land use plan amendments will also protect the small-town character of the surrounding single-family neighborhoods by limiting high-density growth to the downtown area. Arcadius opponents remain unconvinced, and say the Town Council is changing the very foundation of the land use plan in order to accommodate developers.

Mike Christenbury is the district planner for the NC Division of Coastal Management. He says making changes to a CAMA plan while considering a specific proposal is a bit unorthodox but not illegal. Because the State is only mandated to ensure consistency between a project and the land use plan, he says Carolina Beach residents must speak up if they're concerned.

[Christenbury] The one thing that people need to realize is that these land use plans are the community's land use plan, so ultimately its up to that community to decide, is what we are proposing to amend is it something that is good for our community?

Birdie Clark worries that in the Town Council's rush to revitalize downtown, they may end up destroying the things that are unique to Carolina Beach, like the boardwalk and the bumper cars. Sarah Friede just hopes no high-rise condominiums spoil the ocean vistas or shade the beach.

[Friede] Most of us who live in Carolina beach feel just feel like we're not ready to say goodbye to the afternoon sun, and being able to see the sea oats and the palm trees, and people at these little hotels can stand in their second floor window and look out and see the ocean and they can see blue sky. I mean, this is Carolina Blue, this is what we're here for.

A public hearing is scheduled in December in Carolina Beach to discuss amendments to the land use plan.

For WHQR Public Radio in Wilmington, I'm Steve Meador.