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. 

Rabon had heard from concerned neighbors that the town was crawling too far into rural areas, and he philosophically opposed the mechanism Leland was using to do it: exchanging annexation for access to water and sewer lines the town jointly owned with H2GO.

Stripping the town of its annexation power was unprecedented. Some town officials felt it was punitive. “It’s just wrong,” Leland Mayor Brenda Bozeman wrote in an email after a key vote.

Leland has continued to enforce its arrangement with H2GO, excluding properties in a large area outside town limits from accessing utilities unless they are annexed—even though the town can’t legally annex them. 

The stalemate has left some projects in limbo and presents a legal timebomb if the region’s longtime adversaries can’t work something out.

– Johanna F. Still

The Land War in Brunswick

How an annexation-hungry town in the state’s fastest-growing county drew the ire of its most powerful lawmaker.

The town of Leland, one of North Carolina’s fastest-growing municipalities, has used annexation as a tool to help propel its growth. But this summer, the legislature took away its annexation power. (Photo by Johanna F. Still)

Catch up on an audio conversation on last week’s edition of The Dive here, or contact us with story ideas and feedback at wilmington@theassemblync.com.

Ghost Town

On Tuesday, Holly Plaza should have looked like many other neighborhoods–spooky decorations, kids in costumes, candy dropped into plastic pumpkins and pillowcases. 

But instead, it was a ghost town.

The residents of the housing project in Onslow County’s Holly Ridge had been ordered to evacuate due to mold. They have been directed to a hotel in Jacksonville, about 30 miles north, where they are expected to stay for a month while their homes are tested. They were told to take just the basics–clothes can be washed, but anything else that might be harboring mold spores had to stay behind.

Residents have been complaining about mold and pervasive maintenance issues for years, but nothing seemed to happen until this September when a resident brought an actual petri dish full of mold from her house to a town council meeting.

Then residents reached out to WHQR, and my colleague Nikolai Mather started looking into it. Within the span of a few days, council went from awkwardly trying to rehouse just a single Holly Plaza resident to making plans to move all 98 tenants

The situation is far from resolved: If the mold tests come back positive, Holly Plaza may need to be condemned. And there’s no clear way to immediately rehouse those residents locally. The Holly Plaza residents have banded together to try and get through this, but there’s no missing the fact that the outcome could make life more difficult.

And that’s where things get more unsettling.

Because, things have been bad for years. As Mather has reported previously, there were literal mushrooms growing out of the building at Holly Plaza, and residents reported a litany of health issues, many with links to fungal infections. At a town council meeting last week, a town employee spoke up to say officials weren’t doing enough, but acknowledged that she might lose her job for saying as much.

Why would she feel like she’d lose her job? And why had nothing been done for so long until this recent frenzy of action?

I’m not saying the town finally took action solely because there was a reporter on the story. Credit absolutely goes to the self-advocacy of residents, and to Holly Ridge’s leaders who are now trying their best with limited financial resources.

But this story, unfolding at the edge of WHQR’s broadcasting reach, almost went unnoticed. Maybe council would have finally acted, maybe not. We’d never know about it either way. A resident reaching out brought in some sunshine (which, turns out, does actually help kill mold).

It’s a reminder of what can happen in a news desert, where there’s no reporter to reach out to. And that’s not spooky. That’s terrifying. 

–Benjamin Schacthman

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A Whisper

The state budget is packed with $6.5 billion in earmarks for projects over the next two fiscal years. Utility projects attracted the most funding.

Among them was $35 million for Cape Fear Public Utility Authority to provide water infrastructure in underserved communities affected by emerging contaminants and to help it acquire Wrightsville Beach’s utility system.

The News & Observer examined the per-capita impact of budget earmarks and found that funding doesn’t necessarily correlate with population size.

The Dive further analyzed that data to see how our local earmarks stacked up, and found the Cape Fear region’s counties got a lower amount compared to less-populated counties.

Here’s how the funding and rankings break down: 

  • New Hanover, the ninth-most populated county in the state, will net $286 million, or $12.1 million per capita, ranking 21st.
  • Brunswick, the 19th-most populous county, will receive $139 million, or $9.1 million per capita, ranking 39th. 
  • Pender, the 41st most populous, landed $57 million, or $8.7 million per capita, ranking 42nd. 

– Johanna F. Still

Around the Region

‘We Look Like Fools’: Brunswick County Commissioners reluctantly OK’d a $3.4 million budget amendment to appease contractors working on its lofty water treatment and expansion project, which is years overdue, the Brunswick Beacon reports.

Keys to Burgaw: Judges crowned the winner of the Own Your Own contest on Sunday, Port City Daily reports. Karoline Schwartz, a chef from Colorado, will soon bring her concept restaurant Outland to Burgaw, and she’ll get a $1 million investment to make it happen. 

Renters’ Rights: Evictions are back to pre-pandemic levels—though without an increase, as some housing rights advocates had feared. But WHQR reports eviction appeals have spiked, perhaps a sign of tenants’ enhanced understanding of their rights.

Around the State

Contra Dance Meets the Culture Wars 

Contra dance callers have one of the toughest jobs you’ve never heard of. It just got even harder.

How Tim Moore Got a Sanctioned Lawyer On Bar Commission

The speaker named a longtime friend to a panel that oversees lawyer misconduct—and had just punished that lawyer.

Culinary Trails, To You

Sonker? Ground steak? Seems like everything has a trail these days.

Battle for the ’Burbs

Suburbs have historically been a key part of the Republican coalition in N.C., but they have begun to realign.

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