2014 and Beyond - A Vision for the Future


2014 and Beyond—A Vision for the Future

Whatever new and unexpected challenges New Hanover County may face in 2014, there’s one challenge that’s certain:  How are we going to protect our quality of life from the increasing pressures of growth and development?  From the traffic on South College—to the quality of our air and water—how do we not just maintain but improve the livability and appeal of our region?

With each passing year, the choices get harder and the stakes get higher. And with our population booming and our open space shrinking, we are running out of time to make good decisions.

We can take heart, however, knowing the county has faced tough decisions—and made smart choices—before.


It was back in 1979 that the Brunswick Energy Company announced plans to build an oil refinery on the Brunswick County side of the Cape Fear River opposite Wilmington.  Brunswick County Commissioner Rozell Hewett was all for it.

“Nothing edible but catfish grows in that river,” he said, “And catfish live off sewage.”

Hewett, who served on the Brunswick County Planning Board, was a booster of economic development.   While some argued that industry would damage the Cape Fear estuary, Hewett thought the river was already beyond help.

“The Cape Fear River is a dirty river,” Hewett argued. “Why are they (environmentalists) trying to protect it?”

At first, Wilmington’s Congressman Charles G. Rose supported the refinery.  But as more and more residents expressed worries about the environment and disruptions to the local economy, he reconsidered his initial support.   He began warning of the risk of oil spills in the river and the adjoining marshes.

In Wilmington, Nolan O’Neal and his wife were also concerned.  O’Neal, a 35-year veteran of the US Forestry Service, had recently moved to Wilmington and was worried about the environmental impact of the proposed refinery.  Together, the O’Neals helped form a non-profit organization, Coastal Carolina Crossroads, to rally the opposition and campaign against it. 

 In a StarNews article at the time, O’Neal said, “The people have forgotten that they own the rivers, the oceans, the fish and the birds.” 

 The couple offered $1 memberships to “All those who believe a healthy economy is compatible with a living environment of high quality.”

The tide began to turn.  In May of 1980, Congressman Rose announced his opposition to the refinery saying he was sure that residents would block it once they fully understood the effects.

“They will think it’s…not worth the 250 jobs it will offer,” he said.

In the spring of 1981, the Brunswick Energy Company gave up. They announced that—after spending $3.5 million—they were scrapping their plans.  Congressman Rose issued a statement saying, “The land, the sea, and the people have won.  I am sorry Brunswick Energy lost money, but I am overjoyed that they’re gone.”

In 1982, Nolan O’Neal was elected to the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners.

Try and imagine today—thirty-two years later—standing on the Riverwalk and looking at the stacks and flames of an oil refinery across the Cape Fear.  And then imagine how the choices we make in the next few years will define Wilmington for generations to come.

New Hanover County is the second smallest county in North Carolina, and we’re now more densely populated than any area in the state other than Charlotte and Raleigh.  Our population grew 26% between 2000 and 2010.  Estimates suggest another 50,000 will move here in the next 10 years.

There’s no doubt we’ll need a dynamic and vibrant economy to provide jobs for our high school and college graduates. We need to make every effort to attract companies that embrace innovative technologies and provide diversified employment opportunities.  But the businesses and industries we need are those that will have minimal adverse effect on our greatest asset, our environment.

We need to invest in our schools, our infrastructure, and our people.  We need companies attracted to our quality of life…and our skilled and educated workforce.

All of us owe a debt of gratitude to Nolan O'Neal and the other stewards of the environment who fought to protect our air, our water, and the natural beauty we enjoy today.

The question we need to ask ourselves is this: what battles are we willing to fight…and how will our kids and grandkids look back on our decisions?

Rob Zapple and Doc Jarden

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