By the year 2020, an additional two million people are expected to call North Carolina home. Much of the predicted growth is expected to occur along the coast.

How well cities and counties handle the population explosion depends on how well they are planning for the future now, says Walter Clark, North Carolina Sea Grant coastal community and policy specialist.

Planning is a tool to help communities balance environmental sustainability with economic vitality, he says.

Thanks to the 1974 Coastal Area Management Act (CAMA), coastal counties may be ahead of the planning curve. CAMA requires each coastal county to develop a land-use plan to protect its natural resources. Updates are required every five years.

Kate Ardizone, water quality planning specialist, joined the Sea Grant team in 2003 just as coastal communities began revising land-use plans under the new CAMA rules. The new rules link land use to coastal water quality — with attention to nonpoint pollution sources such as stormwater runoff.

Since then, Ardizone has convened roundtable discussions for local government agencies and developers to explore topics such as land-use compatibility and water quality guidelines. The dialogue begins with identifying natural resource features and their ecological functions — and how they might figure in land-use planning.

Part of the exercise is to help people think about issues in the long term, she explains.

For example, much of coastal North Carolina is still rural, but that could change as large farm and timber operations are sold to real estate developers. Increased numbers of outlying developments stretch any local government’s ability to provide services and resources.

“Land-use planning is proactive. It’s a vital component in a community’s ability to control its own destiny,” Ardizone says.

A strong land-use plan could serve as a benchmark for measuring future development proposals.

While CAMA land-use planning has been quietly at work for three decades, other development approaches more recently have made their way into the popular press. Sustainable Development, Green Building, Smart Growth, Low-Impact Design, New Urbanism and Mixed-Use Development have become buzz-words in development discussions.

Each is a variation on a theme: balance environmental and economic goals while creating livable communities.

Specific definitions get tricky. Mary Beth Powell, associate director of the UNC Center for Urban and Regional Studies, defines Smart Growth this way: “Smart Growth is about making places that are worth caring about, economically sound, environmentally friendly, supportive of community livability, and that enhance the quality of life.”

But a definition — even a comprehensive one — goes only so far. The devil is in the details.

Come along on a “tour” of two environmentally friendly building projects to see how — from planning to production — attention to details formed the foundation for success.

One is a large-scale community being carved out of a pine plantation in Pamlico County that takes the sustainable development approach.

The other shows how individual homeowners can build their dream house green and clean.

RIVER DUNES: A Sustainable Development

There’s nothing ordinary about River Dunes, a 1,300-acre pine plantation being transformed into a residential and boating community.

What sets this emerging Pamlico County waterfront project apart from others is the developers’ quest to balance environmental concerns with economic goals.

The land was earmarked for development, explains Ed Mitchell, one of four River Dunes Corporation partners who saw the value of keeping the parcel intact. “We wanted to be the ones to develop it using methods to preserve the land and waterways.”

Some call it smart growth. Others call it green or low-impact design. Mitchell prefers the term sustainable development — a comprehensive approach that combines the health of the environment with the strength of the economy to enhance the character of a community.

“If it’s not economically feasible, it’s not sustainable development. It has to go where the market allows,” Mitchell adds.

“The real estate market is changing. The demand for environmentally sensitive projects has increased,” says Bill Holman, executive director of the N.C. Clean Water Management Trust Fund The River Dunes project, he says, is an example of how developers can build attractive communities that protect water quality — and are profitable.

The $40-million venture is Pamlico County’s largest economic development project to date. Some 550-plus homes will be nestled in marina-, creek- and river-side sites, and are expected to generate a $279-million tax base. What’s more, the spending power of its 1,100 residents and marina users should give an economic boost to retail and professional services in nearby Oriental, Bayboro and New Bern.

Still, waterfront development poses special challenges and costs.

The geography of River Dunes — a peninsula surrounded by the Pamlico Sound, Neuse River and Broad Creek — calls for extraordinary measures to protect the waters that have defined the region’s history, culture and economy for centuries.

Also needing special consideration are nearly 394 acres of wetlands, as well as the Gum Thicket Creek watershed and major creeks — Broad Creek, Tar Creek, Cedar Creek, Mill Creek, Paris Creek — that are primary nursery areas for various fisheries. Several are open to shellfishing.

A Head Start

Collaboration has been the key to moving River Dunes from concept to site design and implementation.

Since the 1930s, the tract was in timber production, most recently owned and operated by Weyerhaeuser. In the 1990s, the company shifted the tract, known as Gum Thicket, from timber production to its real estate division. Mitchell, then the division manager with Weyerhaeuser, became responsible for guiding the project.

Mitchell began meeting with environmental groups, including the Neuse River Foundation (NRF) and the N.C. Coastal Federation (NCCF).

“It was important to get ahead of the curve on environmental concerns,” says Todd Miller, executive director of the NCCF. “A big issue was how to accommodate boating along the shoreline of such sensitive waters.”

Mitchell brainstormed with representatives of state agencies that oversee coastal management, water quality and water resource matters. “I asked a lot of questions,” he says.

Then, he hired the nationally renowned Land Ethics, Inc. of Ann Arbor, Mich., to design a conceptual site plan that would meet economic and environmental goals. The design disturbs less than an acre of wetland and sets impervious surface goals at 12 percent for the site. There are no curbs and gutters to channel rain into stormwater drains that lead to water bodies. Instead, roadbed grading will enable water to flow in sheets into swales and vegetated shoulders, then drain through sandy soils into the water table.

“It was an impressive plan. But there still were some water resources issues that needed to be addressed. That’s when we invited the Clean Water Management Trust Fund folks in to discuss the possibility of a grant to help offset the cost of eliminating house sites in the Gum Thicket watershed,” Miller explains.

Discussions led to a $1.25-million Clean Water Management Trust Fund (CWMTF) grant to NCCF, NRF and Weyerhaeuser to permanently protect nearly 238 acres of wetlands and watershed. The Gum Thicket site plan was reworked to move homesites out of the conservation area.

“We saw a great opportunity to work with a developer and two conservation organizations to create an environmentally sensitive community at River Dunes,” says Holman.

At the signing ceremony, Marion Smith, former executive director of the Neuse River Foundation, declared that the partnership “establishes a new benchmark for environmentally compatible development on the North Carolina coast.”

The transaction took place in 2001, just before Weyerhaeuser conveyed the Gum Thicket property to Granite Investment Properties. In April 2004, Mitchell and his partners, Jim Adams, Jim Goldston and Kenny Goetze, purchased the property from Granite for $12 million — and River Dunes officially was launched.

It’s an appropriate name change, Mitchell points out, because part of the tract is comprised of an ancient dune line. Besides, he adds, Gum Thicket doesn’t have a marketing ring to it.

Innovative Solutions

Buffered shorelines facing the sound and river will be kept natural. Individual boat slips in front of houses are prohibited to protect water quality and aesthetics.

So, if the boats can’t anchor along the shoreline that outlines the peninsula, where will they go? A tour of the River Dunes property provides the answer.

Mitchell’s SUV hugs the slope of the tree-lined “parkway” as a parade of giant earthmovers lumbers in the opposite direction. The narrow construction road fans out into an excavation site larger than eight football fields. There, a well-choreographed assembly line of earthmovers, bulldozers and compacters are digging, scraping and transporting sand from the site.

Their task is to create a 28-acre inland marina eight feet deep, which will satisfy state water quality and fisheries agencies’ requests to “keep the boat slips out of the sensitive waters” and “avoid 250 individual boat slip permits.”

Instead, the manmade marina requiring a single permit will accommodate 400 boat slips. Floating docks will hug its 1.7-mile living shoreline, where about 190 homes will be clustered. In addition, the clubhouse front door will open to the marina, while its back porch will overlook a salt marsh — and the Pamlico Sound beyond.

Once the basin is completed, a channel will be dredged to link the marina to Broad Creek and the nearby Intracoastal Waterway.

Along with protecting sensitive sound, river and creek waters, the inland marina provides a safe harbor in storms — a valuable asset.

In the end, the boat basin excavation will have produced more than 560,000 cubic yards of sand.

The material is being reused within the project for road construction and to elevate the dune field facing the Neuse River, the future site of a recreation and nature center.

Mitchell notes that his company is making an investment of nearly $2 million in the upgrade to the Bay River Metropolitan Sewer District’s (BRMSD) wastewater treatment facility and transmission lines that serve Pamlico County. Combined with grants from the N.C. Rural Development Center and North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources (NCDENR), it will finance capacity expansion to serve River Dunes — and future developments in the growing county.

The upgrade also accommodates one more environmental detail. Reclaimed, treated wastewater will return to River Dunes through a dedicated transmission line to be reused for irrigation of common areas.

Recapturing History

Few records or remnants remain of the activity on the land before timber operations began in the early 1930s. A Paris family cemetery near Paris Creek will be fenced and preserved. And, off the banks of the Neuse River, stands the battered remains of the Neuse River Lighthouse platform.

An archaeological study of the site performed by Wake Forest University and the N.C. State Office of Archaeology revealed evidence of Native American and colonial settlements, much of which have been eroded away by the Neuse River.

But, history gleaned from old newspapers for Pamlico County’s centennial celebration in 1972 refers to an 1859 advertisement in The New Bern Weekly Progress for the sale of land that might have included the River Dunes tract. The centennial publication describes it this way:

Thomas T. Goading offered to sell 2,500 acres on lower Broad and Orchard Creeks. The description mentioned two crops of turpentine boxes; excellent facilities for shipping; a fine large dwelling, kitchen, smoke house, gin-house, barns, stables and Negro houses sufficient to accommodate fifty Negroes; oysters and fish may be taken from the creek at back of the garden, and wildfowl abound in the vicinity; a good mill site with dam already constructed; and a good well of water in the yard.

While written records may be sparse, the developers are attempting to recapture part of coastal history by adopting Tidewater architectural style, circa 1920. The motif will be used for recreational facilities, guest cottages and homes throughout River Dunes.

To demonstrate the Tidewater look, the developers built a three-quarter-scale model village — complete with white picket fence, flowers and flag. With its waterfront backdrop, the quaint scene provides an unexpected surprise for River Dunes visitors.

For Miller, though, this attention to detail demonstrates that River Dunes is no ordinary project.

“It’s an unusual project that has taken an unusual approach. There’s a lesson to be learned for large- or small-scale developments. As a practical matter, engaging in candid discussions with agencies early on in a project can smooth out potential delay-causing wrinkles down the road. I see this as a model for future development.” Miller says.

In fact, Holman adds, the River Dunes prqjec: has spurred similar developer-local government-environmental organization collaboration to improve the design of projects. Holman cites Crescent Resources, Burke County and the Foothills Conservancy who are working on a development plan that will protect Lake James and enhance the local economy. CWMTF, Parks and Recreation Trust Fund and the Natural Heritage Trust Fund each contributed to the project.

“Projects like these illustrate that conservation and economic development are not necessarily mutually exclusive,” Holman says.

In the long run, it makes good business sense to bring experts and stakeholders together to brainstorm issues and solutions, Mitchell says.

“I never make a business decision on this project without looking at the environmental side. At the same time, I never make an environmental decision without looking at the business side. That really simplifies things,” he concludes.

ALL THINGS NEW AGAIN: Renew, Recycle, Reuse

“At one with Nature” may sound a bit Zen, but it aptly describes the home Nancy White and Dennis Saver designed and built in the Town of Kitty Hawk.

The couple has incorporated environmentally friendly design principles, building materials and systems from foundation to roof — all with minimal disturbance to their one-acre home site.

To achieve and maintain sustainable building goals, the couple draws from their combined expertise. White, founding director of the University of North Carolina Coastal Studies Institute in Manteo, holds a doctorate in forestry and a master’s in landscape architecture. Her research is on water resources and water quality issues. Saver is a licensed general contractor and owner of Earth Saver, an enterprise that focuses on “green” building and specialty commercial construction.

Even so, it took more than two years for the couple to research and design their home — and to identify sources for materials within a 500-mile radius to help support the regional economy.

“So-called ‘green’ building is really a tool box,” Saver says. “You pick what works best for individual lifestyles and sites. It incorporates renewable resources, recycled or reused materials.”

Building “green” takes patience and planning — and more planning. Inspiration sometimes comes in surprising places, White points out.

“We were on vacation in Barbados,” she recalls. “We drew the house plan out in sand on a beach and began to walk through it to get a feel for the flow.”

“That’s when we decided to move the staircase,” Saver points out. “It added two feet to the middle of the house.”

More importantly, it improved the function of a significant sustainable feature — the central, open stairwell helps circulate warm or cool air through all three living levels.

Nature’s Boundaries

The home site itself plays an important role in achieving sustainable building goals, says White. A crucial first step is getting to know the site’s natural features — from its topography and how a heavy rain drains, to its dominant trees and the way the sun moves across the landscape through the seasons.

Working with nature’s boundaries makes sense. For example, the transition zone between the live oak-dominated upper dune and the hickory-dominated bottom dune seemed to create the perfect location for their foundation and driveway. Besides requiring the least land disturbance, it opened up the south-facing dune line.

“Due south is the cornerstone of site planning,” says White. “It’s essential for both active and passive solar.”

Nature boosts the efficiency of the house in many ways, including the sun-filled rooms provided by passive solar. The foundation is nestled into the side of the sand dune — its year-round moderate temperature helps heat and cool the house. The roofline of the three-story house is even with the top of the live oak tree canopy, which buffers winds and shades the house from summer sun.

Waste Not Want Not

Saver used his mechanical know-how to develop the backbone of the household’s innovative rainwater reuse system — a high-tech adaptation of cisterns used in bygone days.

A dedicated gutter and downspout channels rainwater off the roof, through a filter and into an outdoor 2,100-gallon storage tank for use in toilets and landscape irrigation.

For personal consumption and other household water needs, the system is more complex. Gutters and down spouts also route rainwater from the roof, through two filter systems, and into two, 2,100-gallon tanks in the garage/basement area. A final pass through an ultraviolet purification system, and sweet-tasting water is delivered to sink taps.

The filtered water also feeds two, 80-gallon tanks located in the laundry room — otherwise known as Command Central. It’s here that rainwater reuse and renewable solar energy technologies meet.

Simply put, in a compactly engineered system, an antifreeze solution flows through a closed system from the roof-mounted solar panels to heat coils in the tanks. And, presto, hot treated rainwater on demand for sinks, tubs, showers and laundry.

In addition, solar-heated water is pumped to a unique radiant heating system. The water circulates through tubing installed beneath floors throughout the house to provide a healthy, evenly distributed, ductless heat source. Like traditional systems, it is controlled by a two-zone thermostat system.

They have planned for “what-if’ contingencies, such as a drought. Saver installed a back-up system to enable them to tap into city water during dry spells. So far, that has not happened. In fact, shortly after moving into their home in August, they recorded two, frog-strangling rainfalls, each more than six inches.

Still, they are not taking the abundance of rain for granted. The tanks can store two months worth of water, but the couple is carefully monitoring daily water use to develop a consumption “track record.” Rainfall is recorded and measured, with levels between rainfalls marked on storage tanks with blue tape. They plan to share their monitoring data with others to help improve future designs.

Green and Clean

In addition, White and Saver have installed a back-up HVAC heating/cooling system to augment the radiant heating in winter and the natural air circulation facilitated by the
house design.

“We have had a lot of sun for solar collectors so far, but this is our first winter in our home, and we just don’t know,” says White.

They chose wall-mounted heat pump/air conditioner units for various regions of the home. The units are economical to install and operate on an as-needed basis. They virtually are noiseless and require no duct work that might harbor molds and mildew.

“Clean” is as important as “green” for the allergy-prone couple, White says. They used low-emission paints and stains for interior and exterior walls. The insulation for the upper level is reused denim and cotton batting. The masonry block exterior walls of the first and second stories are filled with nontoxic Perlite for insulation. The foundation waterproofing also is a nontoxic, nonleeching material.

The roof is both clean and green. The shingles are made from recycled rubber and plastic, and impart hardly any residue in collected rainwater.

White also is proud that they have been able to incorporate North Carolina culture in their quest for reusable material. Many interior doors have been milled from lumber salvaged from tobacco barns; ceiling light fixtures once were DC-powered nautical lamps; and bathroom vanities are converted antique sideboards.

In addition, the wood floors are from suppliers who practice sustainable forestry, and the subflooring is a product of an environmentally sound manufacturing process. Their unpaved driveway is meant to help recharge the water table, and the landscape plantings are drought-resistant native species and well-adapted cultivars that require minimum watering.

Writing the Book

“It has been a challenge,” Saver admits. “There are no manuals or books to go to. No blueprints to follow.”

Saver is no novice when it comes to building “green,” though his work has centered on commercial projects. He attended numerous solar energy workshops sponsored by Southface Institute in Atlanta and HealthyBuilt Homes workshops conducted by the North Carolina Solar Center. He also completed Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) courses offered by U.S Green Building Council. LEED, which set national standards for high-performance, sustainable commercial building, also is developing residential building standards.

So, White and Saver literally compiled a book for residential application of clean and green design and implementation. Their binder is bulging with pages of calculations, product research notes and downloads from the Internet.

The key to success, they say, is to establish a team early in the project. They worked with Sam Olin, a friend and faculty member at the Savannah College of Art and Design, to design their open, Arizona-style home that suits their lifestyle. Ideas for the healthy and sustainable approach came from Gail Lindsay, a North Carolina consultant who is a major player in the U.S. Green Building Council.

“Dennis is the mechanical guy, and I am the design person,” White notes.

“No one person can do it all,” Saver adds.

“The end result is a home that is clean and green — and inviting — without being crunchy granola,” White says.

The cost of building a sustainable home is slightly higher than traditional methods and material. The cost for their home — 2,550 square feet of finished space with a 1,240-square-foot basement and below-ground garage — was $350,000. However, they expect a return on their investment in reduced energy and utility bills, and a healthy indoor environment.

“The house will take care of us,” says White.

This article was published in the Winter 2005 issue of Coastwatch.

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