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Beach driving limits OK'd in Currituck

Commissioner Bob White.jpg

Commissioner Bob White

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By William F. West
Staff Writer

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

CURRITUCK — Motorists who frequent a popular stretch of beach on the Currituck Outer Banks will be prohibited from driving along the shoreline there under an ordinance change tentatively agreed to by Currituck commissioners.

Commissioners voted 5-2 earlier this month to restrict off-road driving for a 2½-mile area between just north of the North Beach Ramp at Milepost 13 and Albatross Lane at Milepost 17.

Under the change, which would be in effect 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. from Memorial Day to Labor Day, motorists would be restricted to driving in beach areas closer to the dunes. They would be prohibited from using the beach’s harder surface, more commonly known as the “foreshore.”

Motorists would still be allowed to park in the beach's middle area, and they could still drive on the foreshore north of Milepost 17 toward the fence at the North Carolina-Virginia line.

Voting for the change at commissioners’ Nov. 6 meeting were Board of Commissioners Chairman Bobby Hanig and Commissioners Mike Payment, Paul Beaumont, Kitty Etheridge and Bob White. Voting against the change were Commissioners Marion Gilbert and Mike Hall.

Because the vote wasn’t unanimous, commissioners will have to vote on the ordinance change again at its next meeting in December. However, only a simple majority will be required then to approve the change. 

Supporters of the change, including White, said it’s needed to protect tourists, particularly children who play close to the ocean.

White, who led the 5-2 vote to adopt the change, said the Currituck Sheriff's Office had brought the issue to county officials’ attention. The problem is being caused, he said, by the high-density traffic in the off-road area between mileposts 14½  and 17 during the summer months. White said both off-road residents and vacationers are walking from their houses to the ocean at the same time motorists on day trips are using the beach.

No one yet has been struck and killed on the beach by a vehicle, and Currituck officials want to ensure that continues to be the case, White said. 

"So, this is really about public safety," he said. "It's not about inconveniencing anyone or causing any problems."

Prior to commissioners’ vote, however, at least seven members of the public expressed opposition to the change.

John Howland, president of the Northern Currituck Outer Banks Association, said the problem with the change is that motorists can't drive on the high part of the beach. That’s because motorists park along the dune line and use the sandy, sloping ramps to and from the off-road residential areas, he said.

“It will be a disaster,” he said.

Howland was among several citizens who asked commissioners to discuss the change with residents first before taking action.

Debbie Davis, a lieutenant with Carova Beach Volunteer Fire and Rescue, told the board her agency is worried about being able to navigate deep ruts in the sandy upper dune area to get to vehicle fires. She said she’s seen vehicles driven on the beach with their tires fully inflated first get stuck and then catch fire when motorists try to drive out of holes. 

Davis said she’d instead like to see a permit system that would limit vehicle traffic on the beach by curtailing the number of day-trippers.

County Attorney Ike McRee noted the ordinance change would exempt emergency and public safety vehicles.

Hanig also said county officials are likely to adopt a permitting system for motorists to park on the beach.

"I believe that will be in place before next season," Hanig said. "That's going to help with a lot of traffic."

As for vehicles getting stuck in the sand, White noted the county already has an ordinance requiring motorists to deflate their tires to 20 pounds per square inch to ensure better traction when driving on the sand. That ordinance has been in place since mid-May.

White also noted county staff are working to set up areas where motorists can reduce their tire pressure for off-road driving, then reinflate their tires before pulling back onto N.C. Highway 12.

Beaumont said the tire ordinance needs tweaking, but he recalled there being "a whole lot of pushback" from citizens about requiring “air-down” areas.

As for motorists' vehicles getting stuck on the beach, Beaumont said law enforcement officers should speak to those drivers when it happens.

"You can't force people to follow ordinances," he said. "However, you can certainly get their attention when they violate that."

Beaumont also called the beach driving ordinance a “living” document, meaning it can be amended as needed.

"If something starts going south on this, we have every ability and every opportunity to change it really quickly," he said.

Gilbert, to applause from opponents to the change, made a motion to hold off taking action on the amendment until the board’s next meeting. Gilbert wanted corrections to the ordinance to be publicized in advance for citizen viewing.

Hall and Payment supported Gilbert’s motion, but they fell short in a 4-3 vote. White then led the 5-2 vote in favor of moving ahead with the ordinance change, with Gilbert and Hall voting “no.”

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