A long-running battle over a resort-like project on the fragile barrier island of Sunset Beach appears on the verge of resolution: The state is prepared to buy out the developer and put the marshlands and dunes under the protective wing of a neighboring bird sanctuary.
A purchase price that everyone can agree on may be the final hurdle. The state budget approved last month set aside $2.5 million for the 35 acres, in advance of a required appraisal. The Coastal Review Online was the first to report the budget item.
The plan would bring a quick end to a contentious dispute that has dragged on for the better part of a decade. Reactions from Sunset Beach residents and environmentalists who have opposed the development range from guardedly optimistic to outright victorious.
“I’m absolutely elated, thrilled, happy — how many ways can you say it?” Sue Weddle, who has lived on the island for about 30 years, said Friday. “This gives a piece of the North Carolina coast, as it was since time immemorial, to continue to exist for the people of North Carolina. Can it get any better?”
A 3-mile long island about a three-hour drive from Raleigh, Sunset Beach has long been a popular vacation spot for Triangle residents and destination for retirees across the country.
State Rep. Frank Iler, a Republican representing Brunswick County, said the island has become home to the most heated debates over land-use issues in his district. Two years ago, Iler and state Sen. Bill Rabon, also a Brunswick Republican, unsuccessfully tried to pass legislation that would have taken control of that portion of Sunset Beach out of the hands of the town government because some saw the municipality as hostile to development.
Iler said last year town officials offered to drop lawsuits it had filed against the developer in a land-ownership dispute if the state would buy the land and preserve it. Iler said he and Rabon helped get acquisition money in the budget this year.
“We hope it’s a win, win, win,” Iler said Friday. “Everybody seems reasonably happy it’s going to work out that way.”
But developer Sammy Varnam, who has said he has felt besieged by town officials and a local taxpayers association intent on preventing all future coastal construction, declined to comment Friday on the memorandum of agreement reached last November between the town and the Gore family, which owns the land, and Sunset Beach West. Sunset Beach is the development company owned by Varnam and a member of the Gore family.
“What agreement is that?” Varnam said. “Everything’s pending. That’s the only comment I’ve got.”
The state Department of Environmental Quality said Friday that Varnam is in the process of getting the property appraised, which will determine the next steps. Sometimes a second appraisal is required. The state agency manages the Bird Island Coastal Reserve.
Varnam’s plan is to build Sunset Beach West on 15 acres of a 25-acre property with 21 eight-bedroom houses. The project calls for a private bridge over the marshlands, a 136-foot-long pier, and a 64-foot-long kayak dock.
The planned project is right next to the Bird Island Coastal Reserve, a 1,300-acre protected research area comprised of salt marsh, tidal creeks, dunes, loggerhead turtles and other threatened species. It’s a piece of Sunset Beach that is considered so fragile that no public money can be spent on flood insurance, utilities or disaster assistance. Each house in Varnam’s project would need its own septic system, well and power generator.
The memorandum of agreement says the land will never be developed but will remain as it is: without hiking trails, walkways, wooden decks or bathrooms.
The Southern Environmental Law Center joined the fight because there was a larger issue of protecting the entire coast from over development. It represents the Sunset Beach Taxpayers Association and the N.C. Coastal Federation. Attorney Geoff Gisler said Friday it was encouraging to see the General Assembly allocate the land purchase money.
“Hopefully, by the end of the year we can celebrate a bigger Bird Island,” Gisler said.