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Nikolai Mather takes us through the most significant municipal elections in rural Cape Fear this year.

Surf City candidates forum: Growth, infrastructure, and what local leaders can and can't do

The Surf City bridge on a summer's eve. The sky is slightly cloudy, and the sun is going down. A tall bridge straddles blue brackish water. The bridge is framed by some docks and some green coastal grasses.
Courtesy of Surf City Government

On Tuesday night, about fifty people gathered in Surf City's town hall for an election forum. Candidates for town council and mayor spent the evening discussing some of the key challenges facing Surf City this year, including stormwater management, crowded schools and of course, growth. Here are WHQR's highlights.


There's a wide pool of candidates this year. Town Council incumbents John Koloski, Donald Helms and William "Buddy" Fowler are facing off against political newcomers Heather Allen, Alicia Hawley and Cheryl Hunter. Mayor Teresa Batts is running for re-election against local restaurant owner Marc Caldwell.

Andy Pettigrew, editor of the Pender-Topsail Post and Voice, moderated the forum. He kicked off the evening with a question: what is the biggest challenge facing Surf City right now?

Some candidates have lived in Surf City their whole lives. Others moved to Surf City just last year. Some are young, some are old, some are retired, some are just starting families.

Despite the differences, all candidates agreed: the biggest challenge is growth.

"I've been coming to these [town council] meetings for a long time," said Allen. "And I feel like there was a while where every other meeting, there was a man in a suit all like, 'I'd like to build 800 new homes here.'"

"I think it's crazy to think that we can stop the growth from coming. It's coming, whether we like it or not," said Caldwell. "Our job is to make sure we can maintain and sustain it."

What Surf City can and can't do

But how to 'maintain and sustain it' was exactly where candidates' perspectives diverged. Hawley and Caldwell had a couple of new ideas, most of which revolved around tighter restrictions on Surf City's builders.

"Even though the town can't control the schools, some way, somehow, we have to find a way to make these people accountable for helping to get our schools under control," said Hawley. "Whether it becomes the developers' job to implement new road structures, or they find a way to do different things with sewer."

Surf City's incumbents — Koloski, Helms, Fowler and Batts — have 60 years of municipal governing experience between them. That's 60 years of project proposals, 60 years of grant applications and, above all, 60 years of learning the limits of town government. So throughout the evening, they framed their answers around what Surf City can't do.

"If you've owned it and paid taxes on it for 15 years, you have the right to develop your property if it follows the comprehensive land use plan," said Batts. "You cannot stop someone from building on their property."

"Legally, we have no authority to do schools," said Fowler. "We can't lend anything, we can't do anything, we can't require anybody to do anything. That is a county and state issue."

Other key points

Another major point of concern was Surf City's sidewalks and bicycle paths. The town council is planning to open its first multi-use path for pedestrian use in spring 2024. Candidates agreed that it was time for more.

"We need more multi-use paths for pedestrians and bikes," said Helms.

"Safety is always a concern, especially when it comes to pedestrians walking. Multi-use paths are a must," said Batts. "That is at the top of our list."

Residents were also concerned with stormwater management. Hunter suggested increasing the amount of vegetation on the island to mitigate flooding.

"You need trees, and I've kept all mine," she said. "I can see where the water comes, it holds it back."

Koloski and Fowler discussed some different ideas for curbing flooding around the town, including new zoning laws and implementing a French drainage system.

"We've also got some grants, and we're working with state on putting in underground basins to drain the water from the roadways," said Helms.

Pender County early voting begins Oct. 19. Election day is Nov. 7. Find more election coverage from WHQR here.

Nikolai Mather is a Report for America corps member from Pittsboro, North Carolina. He covers rural communities in Pender County, Brunswick County and Columbus County. He graduated from UNC Charlotte with degrees in genocide studies and political science. Prior to his work with WHQR, he covered religion in Athens, Georgia and local politics in Charlotte, North Carolina. In his spare time, he likes working on cars and playing the harmonica. You can reach him at nmather@whqr.org.