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Development on the ballot: Frank Williams and Erik Tammaru face off in Brunswick County Commissioner primary

Two side-by-side headshots of middle-aged white men. They're both wearing suits and smiling at the camera.
Erik Tammaru, left, will be facing off with Frank Williams, right, for the Republican nomination to the Brunswick County Commission's District 5 seat.

The candidates are running for the Republican nomination in District 5, which covers Leland and the northeastern part of the county. They both say that managing development is crucial to this race.

Brunswick County's fifth district covers the northeast corner of the county at three municipalities, Leland, Navassa, and Northwest.

It's one of the fastest growing parts of North Carolina. So it's no surprise that the candidates running to represent it have development on their minds.

Frank Williams, who has represented District 5 on the county commission since 2012, is running against political newcomer Erik Tammaru for the Republican nomination. Both candidates sat down with WHQR to discuss what they see as the biggest issues facing the district. Here's what they had to say.


Tammaru moved from Baltimore to Leland in 2020. In the four years he's lived here, he said he's seen "exponential growth."

"Voters are very concerned in Brunswick County of the overdevelopment – or some of us call it hyper development — and clear cutting of land to put up houses and high density housing like apartment buildings all over the place," he told WHQR.

Tammaru said that the forest behind his house was clear-cut to make room for about 400 new apartments. For him, that felt like the last straw. It made him want to propose a moratorium on development in the county.

"I mean, they just are tearing down forest areas and even in the wetlands," he said.

Williams was born and raised in Brunswick County. So he's also witnessed the population boon, particularly in the northeast. But he says that not everyone in the county necessarily agrees on the subject.

"The biggest thing is to make sure we listen to a broad base of citizens. Not just who's the loudest," he said. "Everybody that moves here from somewhere else says they want nice restaurants, they want nice places to shop. But to have that, you've got to develop that… And the challenge is just to make sure that it's good development."

When asked about clear-cutting, Williams pointed out that some of the areas that have been razed include timber farms. He said that he understood why residents were concerned.

"But there [is a] limited amount of things that the county can actually do," Williams said.

Housing affordability

For Williams, it's hard to talk about development without also acknowledging the lack of affordable housing. Brunswick County's growth has put local housing prices at a premium. He says that it's putting a strain on the workforce.

"Your teachers can't afford places to live in Brunswick County right now. Your first responders can't afford places to live," Williams said. "We need workforce housing for people who are just getting started for young families. We want to attract young families. They have to have somewhere to live and somewhere to work."

He believes the solution is to take another look at the county's development ordinances.

"Some people say you can use the carrot, some say you can use the stick, I would rather use the carrot so that if somebody is looking to build a subdivision in Brunswick County, then part of their plan is to include some multiple housing options so that people can have places to live," he said.

When asked about affordable housing, Tammaru brought up the apartment complex under construction by his house.

"Again, I look out the window and I see these 408 apartment units going in. But from what I understand, you know, one or two bedroom apartments are going to be close to $2,000 a month rental range," he said.

And that, he said, is a hard sell for young professionals.

"I don't know who can afford that," he said. "I think there needs to be planning done, as well, to keep that into consideration."

What about the bridge? What about taxes?

But the elephant in the room is, obviously, the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge. The aging bridge has been a source of consternation on both sides of the rivers. On Jan. 31, Frank Williams missed a Wilmington Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization meeting, where board members voted 8 to 5 to consider a bridge toll as a way of covering the costs of a replacement bridge. In Williams' place, Mike Forte cast a vote in favor of considering the toll.

"That whole vote got taken so out of context," Williams said. "No one wants to get a toll, myself included."

The vote did not concern actually imposing a toll — it was a vote on whether the board should explore a toll as a funding option. Nevertheless, many of Williams' constituents saw it as a controversial move.

"When you apply for a federal grant, they want to know that you've actually explored every available option for funding," he explained. "If you have not – if you can't check that box — it hurts your ability to get that grant."

Tammaru said he hadn't studied the issue. But he believed that a toll would place an undue burden on those living in Brunswick County, who he thinks already pay too much in taxes.

"Now Frank [Williams] likes to say, hey, we're the fifth lowest tax rate in the state and bragging on it. Like that's a great thing. Like that's a badge of courage," he said. "Where I would say — that's like saying, 'Hey, we're the fifth lowest level of corruption in the state.'"

Tammaru said that inflation should change the county's approach to taxes.

"In this time, this is not a time to raise taxes. This is a time to say: 'You know what, let's all tighten the belt together,'" he said.

Williams agreed, but said that inflation impacts county employees, too.

"One of the biggest challenges that people don't appreciate is the difficulty in keeping good employees," he said. "And if you call the tax office, you expect a qualified professional to answer your call and handle your issue. If you dial 911, you expect trained EMS to be on that ambulance. And we have to pay those people."

Since only one Democrat is running, there is no Democrat primary for the District 5 county commission seat. Early voting began on February 15, and ends on March 2. Election day is March 5.

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.