As developers move in, Columbus County debates preservation and progress

By Ivey Schofield

Jessica Inman McPherson watched as construction crews cleared a 44-acre tract of land that has served families like hers for generations. 

McPherson, 34, grew up in the Antioch Church Road community in Columbus County. Now she and her husband are raising a family of their own in the area, where they tend to cows and goats at their farm. 

They knew construction was coming. But McPherson said she was saddened by the sight of equipment clearing the way for what will be Antioch Farms, a new subdivision of 50 homes – enough to double the size of the unincorporated community. 

“We do live in a rural area,” McPherson said. “I don’t see all these developments fitting into that nature.” 

The growth in Antioch, and resistance from local residents, represent a larger debate in this southeastern North Carolina county about identity, progress and the future. Well-planned developments are being cheered by some residents and county officials who say they will bring more jobs and money to the area. But others say new growth threatens Columbus County’s biggest asset – a nature’s playground ideal for hunting, fishing and country living. 

Stretching 954 square miles, Columbus is geographically one of the largest counties in North Carolina, although it is home to only about 55,000 residents. Much of the county farmland, a remnant from its profitable past as a tobacco powerhouse.

But now, as developers look to Columbus as an attractive and affordable option for families who want to live near Wilmington or Myrtle Beach, more than 70 acres in the county are earmarked for new subdivisions. 

“We know the growth is coming,” said Gary Lanier, the county’s director for economic development and planning. 

Thriving LLC, a Wilmington-based company, is responsible for most of the buildout. Owner Michelle Carlisle said her family saw potential in Columbus County because of skyrocketing prices in neighboring Brunswick and New Hanover counties, along with business growth like the BB&T commercial center in Whiteville. 

“Columbus County development has been stagnant for many years,” Carlisle said. “I would rather make less money on a project and know that there are more people living in a good home.”

Carlisle’s company is also building two other subdivisions in Columbus County: a 100-home development in Lake Waccamaw that is expected to be complete in 2025, and a 24-home development in Whiteville that will wrap up soon. 

Residents crowded City Hall last year to oppose the Whiteville project, called Magnolia Park. Their disappointment was palpable when the city council approved the proposal and annexation.  

The Magnolia Park subdivision is under construction a few miles from the Antioch Farms site.
Photo by Ivey Schofield

Carlisle said she also expected pushback from residents about the Antioch Farms project. But it wasn’t fair, she said, when county commissioners denied her company’s proposal last year. 

Like the residents who spoke out, several commissioners said they too didn’t want a subdivision as a neighbor. 

“Most people are against change when it’s at their home,” Bullard said. “I would be too.”

Carlisle sued. 

‘Fences build good neighbors’

The lawsuit, filed in Columbus County Superior Court in August 2021, argued that the county could not subjectively deny subdivision proposals like Antioch Farms that follow all technical requirements, including lot dimensions and erosion plans. 

A year later, the county settled with Thriving LLC, agreeing to pay $35,000 in attorney fees. During mediation, the county negotiated with the company to implement a homeowners association, adhere to a minimum unit size and switch from mobile homes to modular homes.

The situation ultimately led to changes in land-use regulations in Columbus County, which had still been using guidelines from 2012. It hadn’t seen a subdivision proposal for years. 

The county defined a major subdivision and implemented minimum lot sizes. 

“We’re more of a farming county,” Ricky Bullard, chairman of the county commissioners, said. “These were issues that we had never faced before.” 

McPherson said she wished county leaders could have stopped the subdivision from coming, but she understood why they couldn’t. 

“I do think our county commissioners and the other people involved in the reconstruction of this really tried their hardest to get some resolution that everybody could be happy with,” she said. “In some ways their hands were tied.”

Bullard said the commission “didn’t turn our back and just forget about” the residents of Antioch. 

“We learned along the way,” he said, “the property owner has rights to do what they want with their land to a certain extent.”

Now the county is working on measures that could strengthen its input on future subdivisions through a planned development ordinance, which would permit the consideration of surrounding land uses and require a public hearing before approval. 

“If it just is not a good fit for Columbus County, we wanted to make sure we had a way to tell the developer no,” Lanier said. 

A 44-acre lot at the southern end of Antioch Church Road has been cleared for construction of the Antioch Farms subdivision. Photo by Ivey Schofield

A key part of the proposed ordinance, county officials say, is the prerequisite of a 40-foot-wide vegetative buffer between the new development and the established farmland. 

“We do not want contention between the people who have lived here and worked here forever and the developers who are coming in to build new homes,” Lanier said. “Fences build good neighbors.”

‘It’s going to change everything’

Current residents say they are concerned about sharing water with future Antioch Farms families. The community is not connected to a county water line, and it struggles with dried up wells. 

“There’s only so much water on this earth we can suck up,” McPherson said. 

But state environmental officials say they aren’t alarmed. 

“Obviously the more wells we put in the ground the more concern we have, but I have found it to be extremely rare for subdivisions that have one well per home to cause a drastic change in the water table,” Wilson Mize, regional environmental health specialist for the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, wrote in an email to Samantha Alsup, former county planning director, last year.

Antioch residents are also concerned about sewer capacity. 

The new subdivision will double the number of septic tanks at the southern end of Antioch Church Road. The county health department says that’s not a concern. 

“Just the number of septic systems has no bearing on the success or failure rate of septic systems,” Kristie Priest, the county’s environmental health supervisor, wrote in an email to Alsup last year. 

Recently, crews expanded a sewer line from North Myrtle Beach about 30 miles into southeastern Columbus County, creating an opportunity for population growth. 

Three developments have already expressed interest in the area, Lanier said, although he hasn’t received official proposals. 

“That residential growth is key to a lot of good things,” Lanier said. “Jobs follow rooftops, and rooftops follow jobs.”

Lanier said he hopes more homes will entice large companies to move to Columbus County. 

Between 2010 and 2020, Columbus County lost nearly 13% of its population, and census experts expect the decline to continue throughout the next decade. But county leaders expect growth. 

The key, Lanier said, is to make sure the right kind of developments are built. Space is essential, he said. 

“We don’t want to be North Myrtle Beach,” Lanier said. “We can try our best to keep that rural atmosphere because that’s part of what’s drawing people to Columbus County.”

More development will likely add pressure to all aspects of Columbus County, which already needs more teachers, medical providers and volunteers for emergency services. 

“It’s going to change everything,” Bullard said. “Hopefully we can keep up.”

Many county officials acknowledge this change won’t be universally welcomed.

“We want planned, thoughtful, productive growth that benefits all of our citizens, both the existing ones and the new ones coming into the county,” Lanier said. “But we’re not going to ever be able to please everybody.”

McPherson is resigned to the incoming flood of new neighbors on Antioch Church Road. She just hopes her community’s hard work over the last year will help the next rural community that faces new development.

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The Antioch Church Road community near Whiteville has been at the center of a debate about new developments in Columbus County.
Photo by Ivey Schofield