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The Dive: A land war in Brunswick, plus, a story at the edge of a news desert

The fast-growing Town of Leland, in nothern Brunswick County.
Town of Leland
The fast-growing Town of Leland, in nothern Brunswick County.

WHQR's Ben Schachtman sat down with The Assembly's Johanna Still to talk about the latest edition of The Dive, our joint newsletter. This week, it’s a look at a legal impasse in Brunswick County that’s blocked pending developments from getting connected to water and sewer services. Plus, reflecting on the recent reporting on the mold problems in Holly Plaza, a public housing development in southern Onslow County.

A deal with Brunswick Regional Water & Sewer H2GO helped fuel Leland’s latest annexation spree—the fifth-most adopted across the state’s 550-plus municipalities over the past two years.

Last year alone, Leland expanded its limits by 27 percent by adding about 3,740 acres.

But all of that land-gobbling came to a stop this summer when the area’s most powerful state lawmaker, Sen. Bill Rabon, championed legislation banning Leland from annexing any more land.

Read Johanna Still's report — A Land War In Brunswick.

Plus, some reflections on the reporting WHQR's Nikolai Mather has been doing on Holly Plaza, an Onslow County public housing complex where almost 100 tenants have been displaced by mold. The story, at the edge of our reporting reach, begs the question — how would things have gone if there hadn't been a journalist on the scene?

Catch up on the latest reporting here — and find the latest edition of The Dive here.

Benjamin Schachtman: All right, Johanna Still, thank you so much for being here.

Johanna Still: Thank you, Ben.

BS: Okay, in this week's edition of The Dive you wrote about the land war in Brunswick County, what's going on here?

JS: So without going into an hour-long podcast about what's happening: there's basically a utility stalemate. And so what that means is that there are certain properties that aren't able to access water and sewer. And that's onset from a new state law that was passed this summer that banned Leland from annexing and so maybe you would be wondering, ‘what does annexation have anything to do with accessing water and sewer?’

Well, Leland and a Sanitary District in the area in 2021, penned a partnership agreement that essentially allowed Leland and the utility to, you know, combine forces and properties outside of town limits could access utilities by joining the town. And so that arrangement is not very popular with lawmakers in North Carolina. About a decade ago, we outlawed involuntary annexation, which is annexing properties that don't want to be annexed. And so there's a group of people who believe that this arrangement is violating state law, they see it as illegal, they see it as forced annexation. And so partly because of that arrangement, Leland got its annexation power taken away altogether.

BS: And this is a story you've been covering in various ways for a long, long time. But the upshot of it right now is that there are some developments on the table that are now kind of in a weird situation, because they want to access water and sewer. But in order to get it, they would need to join the town of Leland, but Leland can't annex them anymore. And so that's kind of in limbo.

JS: Precisely. And so that's where we're kind of, once again, at this sort of trepidatious legal area, you know, who's going to – is somebody's going to sue, what's going to happen next. And that's where that's why we reported on this. And that's why we're going to be watching to see what happens. I mean, it doesn't have to necessarily go the lawsuit route, there could be some sort of agreement that's worked out behind the scenes, we do know that the leaders of a lot of these municipalities are meeting together trying to find a solution. So it's something that we'll be paying attention to. But in the meantime, the projects that are stuck in this predicament are being given conflicting messages about whether or not they can access water and sewer.

BS: And to be fair to Leland. from what we've seen from internal documents, the town kind of feels like it's been unfairly singled out. I mean, it is unusual for the General Assembly to pick one municipality and say, ‘you can't do this thing annexation that any other city or town can do. In fact, I haven't been able to find any other case of that happening recently.

JS: It's clear they weren't happy with this. It's clear that they objected to the law being passed in the first place. And it's clear that they are hoping and trying to work something out with the senator who passed the legislation as well, Senator Rabo.

BS: Yeah. Senator Bill Rabon pushed this legislation through sort of at the last minute earlier this year, right?

JS: Right. He was unhappy with the way that the town was has been conducting itself. And so there's a lot of things that he had qualms with. One of them being that the town has been creeping too far into rural areas. There's a lot of rural communities who have been fearing annexation really just fearing Leland's creeping reach because the town has been growing, growing growing. One of the things that he shared with me is that he doesn't like the way that the town has been doing it.

BS: It's also worth noting that Senator Rabon and his brother own some farmland in Winnabow, sort of potentially in the path of Leland development.

JS: Right. So Winnabow, the area tried to incorporate last year, unsuccessfully, but Senator Ramin is empathetic to those folks and also folks in the rural area around the town that are really just fearful of Leyland growth in general.

BS: All right. Well, I know that is a story that we will have to continue to watch because we really don't know how it's gonna play out right now.

JS: We will see — another story that is sort of in the middle, not knowing where things are going to turn out is what you guys have been covering and uncovering in Holly Plaza in Holly ridge.

BS: That's right. This is reporting that my colleague, Nikolai Mather, has been doing – this all happened very, very quickly, where we heard from some residents who live in a public housing complex called Holly Plaza, that's in the southern part of Onslow County in Holly Ridge – and within the span of a week, we went from hearing concerns about mold to the town holding an emergency meeting and trying to rehouse a single person, which was odd, and then a few days later, rehousing 98 people who are now being put up in a hotel in Jacksonville, for about 30 days while Holly Plaza is tested for mold. And the big open question is, if the units all come back positive for, you know, high levels of mold, the complex might get condemned, and then we really don't know where these people are going to live. I mean, we're in the middle of a housing crisis around the region and it doesn't seem like Onslow County has the capacity to find public housing or low income housing for almost 100 people. So it's definitely a story we're gonna have to continue to watch.

JS: And the town has the opportunity to sort of avoid the mistakes that the Wilmington Housing Authority made when faced with the same very similar circumstances, a couple years back that you guys reported on pretty rigorously.

BS: I mean, that's right. I mean, I think that's a point that was actually made in some internal discussions at the town was that they had followed the story of the Wilmington Housing Authority and didn't want to let it get that bad. On the flip side, I think the town is really going to struggle, they use the last of some COVID relief money to try and help these residents. But as the mayor told us, it's really just orders of magnitude above what they can deal with with their own financial resources. So they're hoping that the state or even the federal government would step in to help them.

JS: And a point that you make in our piece that we published in The Dive that I think is worth noting is that this is on the outskirts of your broadcast reach. And so you make the point that the media is paying attention, the inclusion of a reporter, that may be what's prompting a response or some sort of action? Can you reflect on that?

BS: Yeah, I mean, I can't say 100% that this happened the way it happened because we had a reporter there. And I also want to make sure that credit goes to the residents who really advocated for themselves. And to note, the town council is doing their best with the limited resources they have. But in general, I just don't have confidence that government bodies act the same way when no one is watching them as they do when the press is there. I think it's just an important backstop to government accountability. What I can say about this case, is that had a reporter not been there, we wouldn't have known which way it would have gone. I mean, if it had been an hour north, I mean, I think the story would have unfolded without anyone knowing about it. And if it had gone badly, there'd be no one there to hold them accountable.

JS: All right. Well, thank you. And we'll see we'll stay tuned to see how things develop.

BS: All right, Johanna, thank you.

JS: Thanks, Ben.

Ben Schachtman is a journalist and editor with a focus on local government accountability. He began reporting for Port City Daily in the Wilmington area in 2016 and took over as managing editor there in 2018. He’s a graduate of Rutgers College and later received his MA from NYU and his PhD from SUNY-Stony Brook, both in English Literature. He loves spending time with his wife and playing rock'n'roll very loudly. You can reach him at BSchachtman@whqr.org and find him on Twitter @Ben_Schachtman.