Marc Spencer and Lora Sharkey at board retreat

The Southport Board of Aldermen defined its top-six focuses for the year at its annual retreat held Saturday.

The six were wastewater treatment, the waterfront, stormwater, strategic planning for city departments, developing creative taxation to address tourism and planning-related matters.

Board members each pitched a few issues and projects they’d either campaigned on or heard concerns about. At the end, there were 19 items on the “bucket list,” then the aldermen voted on each point and narrowed it down to six priorities.

There were four issues the board was in unanimous favor of putting at the top of the city’s to-do list.

Wastewater agreement

The aldermen determined there were three components of the Southport wastewater issue: the agreement with Brunswick County for sewer treatment; improvements and repairs to infrastructure; and a review of system development fees.

City Manager Bruce Oakley announced there would be a special meeting held at 6 p.m. on Monday, February 10, at the Southport Community Building to discuss reentering the sewer agreement with the county. A review of the contract was also one of the priorities at last year’s retreat.

Waterfront design

In a unanimous vote, the board considered the waterfront a top priority. There were several issues identified including erosion control, stabilization and the city dock.

Currently, the permit application for the city dock is on hold as the CAMA attorney ensures the plan does not interfere with others’ property rights. The shoreline stabilization project is designed and will be submitted for a permit application after the city meets with the adjacent landowners, Oakley explained.

Aldermen were also concerned about safety along Yacht Basin Drive and also along West Brunswick Street.

“It’s a tourist area. To get from, say, Fishy Fishy to where they want to go out on the gazebo, they’re going right up the road because there’s no place for pedestrians to walk safely,” said Alderman Lowe Davis.

The board concluded it could form a committee to address concerns in that area.

Planning issues

The board grouped several projects under “planning issues,” and the aldermen unanimously agreed those were of high importance for this year.

Alderman Karen Mosteller pitched several matters the city should address, including the creation of a short-term rental ordinance, continuing to update the unified development ordinance, and working on the entry corridor overlay district to ensure all properties along Howe Street must comply with zoning regulations.

The board also wants to develop an enforcement plan for the right of way.

“In the historic area downtown, we have 99-foot rights of way and we have a lot of encroachments moving into those rights of way. People just are assuming it’s part of their front yard,” said Alderman John Allen. “I think we need clearer policies.”

Alderman Lora Sharkey suggested the city review the ordinance because redefining the easements could address parking concerns, but she questioned whether it was realistic to try to clear all of the obstructions within 99 feet.

Oakley noted the city is inventorying the obstructions in the historic part of Southport.

While on the topic of planning, Davis added that the city should find ways to control development. Hatem said Southport needs to preserve its historic heritage while accommodating economic growth.

Planning, stormwater, tourism

Also in the top six, the board included strategic planning for the city departments, which received unanimous support, and stormwater, which got four votes.

When deciding the sixth goal for the year, the board was split between five issues with two votes each. The winner of the tiebreaker was developing a creative taxation plan to address tourism.

“I think that would help funding in terms of how we preserve our historic character. Whether it’s a meals tax or parking meters. Put everything on the table,” Hatem said.

106 acres

Also part of the tie was a proposal by Sharkey for the city to acquire some or all of 106 acres on Ferry Road for the purpose of a nature park.

“You want to talk about growth and everything – the person who owns the land controls the land,” Sharkey said. “If we are concerned about more concentrated development in this area, that is a rather large chunk of land that is zoned for mixed-use development. So, if we don’t want to see that, then you buy it.”

She added that she was in contact with the Clean Water Management Trust and the board should begin preparing now if it wants to meet the application deadline for grants on February 3, 2021.

Sharkey added that it is a “prime piece of land as far as habitat,” and it borders Prices Creek.

“There are a lot of contributing factors that would make it a really nice location to put in a conservation, and I think it’s something that the community would support,” Sharkey said.

Although Sharkey’s idea did not make the top six, the board may still pursue it this year.

Runner-ups

Street improvements, the environment, and continuing to transfer power lines underground all received two votes each.

Alderman Thomas Lombardi mentioned one of the top concerns he heard during his campaign was road conditions. He said he’d like to take inventory of all the streets to determine which need immediate attention.

“We have a lot of potholes around town from water laying at the edge of the road and if they’re not patched, all it does is spread,” Lombardi said.

He added that there are alternatives to repaving that would add years of life to the roads.

Mayor Joe Pat Hatem added the environment to the list. He stated several related issues such as efficiency in the electrical system, improvements to stormwater drainage, preserving trees, and “in particular, right now,” clean water and clean air.

“Our environment is being challenged and I really think our citizens want us to address this in multiple ways,” Hatem said.

Taylor Field

The board gave one vote to parks and recreation, which included the Taylor Field Park project. Heather Hemphill, parks and recreation director, announced at the retreat that Southport was awarded a $350,000 Parks and Recreation Trust Fund grant to build the park.

Back in the fall, the city was notified that it lost in a four-way tie for the grant because the project did not have an economic impact component. However, the representatives recently called back and told Hemphill that Southport would receive the full amount.

Hemphill said the city will start Phase 1 of the construction after the 4th of July Festival and complete it by the summer of 2021. The first phase consists of site preparation and building some amenities, such as the walking trail that will connect to Lowe-White Memorial Park.

Other ‘bucket list’ items

Other issues and projects that received one vote were parking, assessing facilities, improving and strengthening the coordination of the public safety departments with Dosher Hospital, and enhancing amenities for bicycling and walking.

Aldermen included on the list – but gave zero votes to – supporting public schools, continuing to seek resources from state and federal agencies, establishing a good rapport with the county and state, and protecting the 4th of July Festival. Alderman Marc Spencer said he thought the festival should receive funding from the state and that it was straying from military participation.

Last year’s goals

Oakley described the progress the city made with several of last year’s bucket list items, including Taylor Field Park, the city dock, the waterfront stabilization project, and creating a media policy and designating a public information officer. However, he noted Southport was not as successful with its top six priorities. The board met about half of its goals from last year.

The city did not move forward with plans to enlarge the community building. There was a push to expand the venue for larger events last year, but Oakley told The State Port Pilot it lost urgency amid other projects.

The city also did not complete a comprehensive plan or a long-range capital budget tied to a strategic plan, both of which were goals for 2019. Oakley said there were no funds set aside for either.

The city did clean debris from some waterways, one of its priorities for the year, and is working toward receiving permission from the North Carolina Division of Coastal Management to clear Bonnet’s Creek.

Additionally, the board approved bonuses last year to meet its goal of considering benefits for employees. It also revamped the performance evaluations to incentivize staff members.

Lastly, the wastewater treatment contract was reviewed “pretty thoroughly,” Oakley said.