WilmingtonBiz Magazine

A Topsail ‘crown Jewel’ Sparks A Conservation Debate

By Audrey Elsberry, posted Apr 4, 2024
Photos by Madeline Gray & Jeff Wenzel
Few large waterfront properties remain undeveloped in coastal North Carolina unless wealthy, philanthropic buyers or conservation groups front the bill to keep developers away.

Preserved oceanfront properties are becoming increasingly scarce. So, what happens when a beloved parcel of undeveloped beachfront property is caught between a willing buyer planning to build and a passionate community hoping to conserve it?

About 150 acres of beachfront property with 1.6 miles of shoreline, known as Serenity Point to locals of Topsail Island in Pender County, were the subject of a tug-of-war between a buyer and community members for over a year before the buyer withdrew a rezoning request. Now the land’s future could lie with a regional conversation group that recently stepped in.


Topsail Island is a 26-mile-long barrier island about 40 minutes north of Wilmington. The island contains three municipalities: North Topsail Beach, Surf City and Topsail Beach. The 7 miles at the southernmost portion of the island are home to the town of Topsail Beach, which remains primarily residential, while the commercial and tourism markets descend on neighboring Surf City.

“(The town) has remained true to what the residents and property owners have requested,” said Steve Smith, the mayor of Topsail Beach. “They want a residential community … They’re not interested in lots of businesses or high rises or anything like that.”

Serenity Point is on the island’s southern tip in Topsail Beach. Cape Fear Commercial had marketed it as “one of the last remaining large oceanfront tracts in the region.” The tract is home to 31 different species, wetlands and primary dunes that protect the island from erosion, said Michele Rivest, a part-time resident of Topsail for over 35 years.

Rivest is the board of directors’ vice president for Conserve the Point, a community-led group dedicated to precisely what it sounds like: conserving the property Rivest refers to as the “crown jewel of Topsail Island.”

According to Conserve the Point, the 150-acre parcel has belonged to the McLeod family since the 1960s. The McLeods unsuccessfully tried to sell the property in 2005, which resulted in the first iteration of Conserve the Point and national coverage from The Wall Street Journal. The Great Recession compelled the owners to take the property off the market in 2008 until it was marketed again in 2019.

The current owners of Serenity Point didn’t respond to requests for comments on this story.


Although it has been privately owned for over 60 years, residents across Topsail Island have expressed a sense of shared ownership over Serenity Point. Several impassioned community members shared stories of their connection to Serenity Point at Topsail Beach Planning Board meetings. Rivest’s granddaughter, who’s now 21, called the stretch of beach “our beach” as a child. Rivest said many community members never considered the idea that the southern tip of Topsail would be developed.

“What became a huge crisis for our family, and for so many others, was when we heard that the property was for sale and that there was a prospective buyer,” she said, “an applicant who would put forth a proposal for development.”

Todd and Laura Olson, who live in Raleigh full time but are part-time residents of Topsail, requested that “conditional rezoning” be added to the town’s code to allow them to develop an enclave on Serenity Point. Topsail Beach approved the change in September 2022, and an official zoning application was submitted the following January.

Todd Olson is the CEO of Raleigh-based software firm Pendo.

According to town documents, the Olsons’ rezoning proposal included seven single-family homes, a swimming pool and pool house, a beach access walkway with a gazebo and a private dock to accommodate six vessels. The proposal would develop 20 acres out of 150 acres. The family stated an intention to conserve the remainder of the property. Although most of the property would remain untouched, community members and state and federal agencies maintained that any development on the property would be ill-advised. 

The town placed conditions on the potential rezoning, and the Olson family withdrew the application in November.

The Olsons’ retreat spurred members of Conserve the Point and Coastal Land Trust to renew their mission to place to property into permanent conservation.

In March, after months of negotiations with the McLeod family via Cape Fear Commercial, Coastal Land Trust signed an agreement to purchase Serenity Point for $8 million. 

The organization is pursuing state and federal grants to raise the majority of the funds as well as private donations to fund the rest, said executive director Harrison Marks (right). 

The organization has one year to raise the money, he said.

Conserve the Point last year began raising money to help with conservation efforts, before and separate from the recent announcement – exceeding its $5,000 goal with $25,000 in donations.

“We heard from people all over the country, really, which was shocking to us,” Rivest said, “that there was such widespread love and interest in conserving the point.”  

Now, Coastal Land Trust will rely on that kind of support – and a lot more – to help fund its purchase agreement.


Coastal Land Trust officials call the agreement to purchase Serenity Point an “ambitious campaign.”

Marks said if the group can’t raise $8 million by early next year, the trust will forfeit some earnest money and will be unable to purchase the property then. 

The group will have to take out a bridge loan to fund the purchase because the grants it’s applied for will not be available in time, Marks said. 

“We’ll end up borrowing a pretty substantial amount of money until the grant funders actually provide the money,” he said. “So, that nearly $8 million includes interest costs to borrow the money.”

The deal was worth the risk to ensure the property remains undeveloped, Marks said.  
“I can’t think of another instance right now, along our coasts or barrier islands, where you’ve got a highly developed island that still has that size tract of land undeveloped,” Marks said. “It’s pretty amazing.”

About 5,000 acres have been purchased and preserved by the Coastal Land Trust across Pender, Brunswick and New Hanover counties, according to the group’s database. Through varying methods, they’ve helped conserve and monitor almost 36,000 acres in the tri-county area.

Even if the Olson family had successfully purchased Serenity Point, Marks said his group had worked out a deal to preserve the 130 acres left undeveloped by the family. 

“This is one of the visible and most beloved properties that I'm aware of,” Marks said. “I don't know that we've had any quite like this.” 

The purchase agreement was made between the property owners and Coastal Land Trust without contributions from Conserve the Point, Marks said. But he hopes the community group will help stoke efforts to raise private donations.

If the Coastal Land Trust were to acquire the property, the town of Topsail Beach would want to discuss who would maintain it, Smith, the mayor, said.

If Coastal Land Trust closes on the property, it would be transferred to the state to be managed by the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality's Division of Coastal Management, according to Coastal Land Trust officials.

The group plans to meet with town officers and host public meetings in the future. Topsail town officials hoped to buy Serenity Point about five years ago, Smith said. They offered to pay a sum based on conservation value, but the McLeod family turned it down.


Often, those who plan to develop a property can pay more to acquire it than those who plan to conserve it, as was the case with the town’s offer. But when the seller is determined to sell to conservationists, they forgo the more valuable price tag.

In October, a 30-acre property in New Hanover County was sold from one private conservationist to another. The $17 million deal was still record-breaking for the county, but the seller could have gotten a significantly larger sum had they sold to developers, said Buzzy Northen, the Intracoastal Realty Corp. agent who represented the previous owners in that sale.

Queens Point, now called Angel Point after its new owner, Dolores Angel, is a marsh and wetlands property on Howe Creek in Wilmington. The parcel was sold by a group of friends who owned it for 20 years and did not want to list it on the market like any other property. They wanted to find buyers independently who were committed to conserving the land.

Northen was asked to find a buyer who would meet the seller’s guidelines, and he found Angel. A deal like this, where a dozen parcels with the capacity to be split up and developed are sold in one package with the intent to conserve, is “very rare,” Northen said.

There is no contract, however, ensuring Angel will never develop Angel Point, but a family representative told the Greater Wilmington Business Journal in October that the family does not plan to build more houses on the property, where two already exist.

The owners of Serenity Point could have received much more money in exchange for the property, Marks said. Their willingness to sell to the Coastal Land Trust made clear that they want to see the property conserved, he said. 

“They could have done other deals, I feel quite confident,” he said. “I feel like they cut us some slack.” 

Marks said the Coastal Land Trust has been successful in its past attempts to conserve land. The Point needs to be preserved and is very important to the group, he said.

“With thousands of people interested in doing this,” Rivest said, “we think that this is the time to put together that kind of funding package to purchase and conserve The Point.”
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