By Allen Turner
The Fair Bluff Board of Commissioners Tuesday night received a 125-page draft recovery plan funded by the Hurricane Matthew Disaster Recovery and Resilience Initiative (HMDRRI), headed by Dr. Gavin Johnson, director of the Coastal Resilience Center at UNC-Chapel Hill.
Like an earlier, more preliminary version of the plan, Tuesday’s presentation didn’t contain real specifics. Town Consultant Al Leonard said that the plan will enable the town to begin preparing its wish list for projects it hopes the N.C. General Assembly will fund in the legislative session that begins in January.
Johnson and urban planner Lincoln Walther of Stuart, Fla., who was retained by HMDRRI to help come up with a recovery plan for Fair Bluff, presented the plan. The plan’s vision statement is to help Fair Bluff “recover from Hurricane Matthew and create a more resilient community that includes a vibrant downtown, a diverse and affordable housing market, and a local economy that serves the needs of the surrounding agricultural community and promotes ecotourism, drawing upon the beauty and recreational assets of the Lumber River.”
Broad goals for the town and population include enhancing public infrastructure and facilities, safe and affordable housing, and affordable healthcare. Also noted are the needs for stabilization and growth of the tax base; development of a town administrative system that meets the community’s needs.
Economic redevelopment that includes ecotourism are also called for in the plan, as well as development of a workforce that meets the needs of new employers.
The Lumber River, whose flooding devastated the town during Matthew, played heavily in the proposal. In addition to protecting the natural environment, the plan urges promotion of sound development practices that reduce future flood risk.
Recommended action items include conducting a storm water infrastructure inventory and mapping initiative; continuing street repair; establishment of a “rainy day” fund for sewer repairs; and moving the senior center to the downtown area.
The town also needs to improve communication regarding housing assistance, building and repairing affordable housing, according to the plan. Officials also need to amend the existing flood damage prevention ordinance to reflect areas damaged by Matthew, and maintain land following buyout of flood-prone properties. The town also needs to implement emergency management plans for senior housing developments, according to the report.
Downtown revitalization is a major part of the recovery plan as well. Among the goals suggested by the specialists include attracting a bank to downtown; development of a small business incubator facility; establishment of a retirement community, possibly on town-owned land. The plan also encourages creation of small overnight accommodations such as bed and breakfasts, an RV park or small hotel.
The natural beauty of the area could be a major economic boost, the report notes, if the town can take good advantage of the resource. Some of the suggestions included implementing a downtown beautification project; establish environmental tours and recruit an outfitter to promote river activities; creation of a comprehensive greenspace program; and development of a signage program and flood memorial. The plan also suggests a de-snagging project for the Lumber River.
The town can improve operations post-Matthew by working with other local governments, and hiring temporary staff. The town also needs to update plans and regulations, conduct a regional sewer infrastructure finance study, conduct a general governmental operations financial assessment study, create community gardens, and create a Fair Bluff jobs committee, entrepreneurship program and host a jobs fair.
Specific strategies for implementing that long list of action items were not included in the plan.
Leonard says the plan does give the town a blueprint as it prepares to request the General Assembly for assistance.
Two new full time town staff members, a planner and a project manager, are expected to be hired by August. Their positions were funded for two years, along with that of an additional police officer, in the budget just passed by the state legislature, and Leonard expects the planner and project manager to focus primarily on looking at specific funding agencies and state programs which could help reach the goals as outlined in the plan. “Hopefully, by about November the planner and project manager will have been able to come up with some specific dollar amounts, as well as suggestions for specific agencies from which to seek assistance,” Leonard said. “We can then present those specifics to our legislative delegation in the hopes they can obtain funding for implementation in the long session of the General Assembly that begins in January.”
Leonard added, “I think that now Fair Bluff has to dig in and say, ‘Let’s figure out, if there are things in this plan that we want to do, then how do we pay for it.’ That’s where our requests to the General Assembly will come in.”
In other action at Tuesday’s meeting, commissioners got their first look at Leonard’s proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year that begins July 1. The budget keeps the property tax rate at 65 cents per $100 of valuation and includes no increases in fees or utility rates.
The budget was referred to the finance committee, made up of Mayor Billy Hammond and Commissioners Carl Meares and Randy Britt, for further review. The board will reconvene at 7 p.m. on June 26 to conduct a required public hearing on the budget, as adjusted by the finance committee, and then take final action on adoption. State law requires adoption of a budget by June 30.
The proposed budget projects general fund expenditures of $766,928, up from the current year’s $675,543. The water and sewer proposal is for $371,170, slightly lower than the current year’s $373,542.