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Currituck advances beach parking fees

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By William F. West
Staff Writer

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

CURRITUCK — A proposal to charge non-residents of Currituck fees to park on the county’s northern beaches will require a second positive vote before it can take effect.

Commissioners voted 6-1 Monday to amend county ordinances to charge the beach-parking fees starting the Friday before Memorial Day and ending the day after Labor Day. Commissioner Mike Hall cast the lone "no" vote, saying he wanted to hold off charging the fees until May 2019.

"I don't think we're quite ready to put this in place, but I think we're in the right direction," Hall said.

Commissioner Marion Gilbert, however, said the board needed to move forward with the fees, noting county officials have expressed safety concerns about too much traffic on the county’s beaches for years.

"This is something that we have put forth — and putting it off for another year is not feasible. We need to go ahead and implement something," she said.

Though a majority of commissioners voted to impose the fees starting this year, votes changing county ordinances are required to be unanimous. Because the beach-parking fee vote on Monday wasn’t, commissioners will have to vote on the issue again at their next scheduled meeting on March 5. Only a simple majority vote in favor of the fees will be needed then for passage.

Although commissioners have informally discussed charging non-residents a beach parking fee of $50 for a 10-day pass and $150 for an annual pass, the ordinance change they supported Monday didn’t set any fees. A fee schedule can be set later, officials said.  

Both property owners and those who have their vehicles registered in Currituck will be exempt from any fees set. They will, like non-residents, however, have to obtain a pass to park on the county’s beach areas.

During Monday's meeting, commissioners made significant changes to the proposal, with the chief one being the start date. At their annual retreat last month, commissioners informally agreed to have the fees take effect May 1.

Gilbert, however, asked that the start date be delayed a few weeks to the Friday before Memorial Day. Gilbert also asked that the fees’ end date be the day after Labor Day. She said delaying the start date would resolve some of the concerns she and other officials have heard from constituents and renters about the proposed fees. The change would also allow volunteers who help clean up trash on the beaches after the summer to continue their longtime practice, she said.

In another change, the proposal now also authorizes County Manager Dan Scanlon or his designee to establish areas where residents and non-residents can pick up beach-parking passes. Scanlon also agreed to a request by Commissioner Paul Beaumont to make passes available online. During commissioners’ retreat, commissioners had suggested the passes be available at the two welcome centers in the county.

Another key change came after beach resident Jane Overstreet told commissioners she has visitors who want to park on the beach for the day. Overstreet noted that without passes for them, she would constantly have to shuttle back and forth to the beach from her residence. As a result, commissioners said the ordinance will grant beach residents two free parking passes to use for guests. The change gives beach residents the same number of free parking passes given to rental property owners for each beach property they own.

Prior to commissioners’ vote on the beach-parking fees, a number of speakers expressed concerns about the proposal. 

Paul Gilbert, who lives in Suffolk, Virginia, said his group, Virginia 4-Wheel Drive Association, has been monitoring Currituck's beach-parking proposal and believes a $50 fee for 10 days is excessive. He noted he can drive from Suffolk to Dover, Delaware, via the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and Tunnel twice and pay less in tolls.

Gilbert said he’s been visiting Currituck's off-road beaches for some two decades.

"Yes, I'm a day tripper, but I also spend money when I come down here," he said. "I'm getting fuel. I'm getting food. I'm getting souvenirs. I'm talking with locals and I enjoy my time down here, but if I have to pay $50 just to come down here, I'm going to look at spending that money elsewhere."

Darcie Messina lives on Bells Island but has property in the Carova Beach area. She expressed concern that the fee might prompt some motorists, instead of paying to park on the beaches, to park on the nearest streets or on a resident's property and walk to the beaches. This could pose a safety concern, she said, as other motorists are driving near the dune line.

Messina also said she’s concerned about the Moyock visitors center getting backed up with people trying to buy a beach parking pass when N.C. Highway 168 is already heavily choked with traffic in the summer.

"I ask if it's prudent for this board to solve a minor safety concern in the four-by-four area and contribute to more problems on Route 168, which by fatality numbers is far worse than the area you're trying to fix," she said.

John Snowden, a longtime community activist who lives in the Maple Road area, told commissioners he was concerned about their tinkering with the Currituck Outer Banks, which he referred to as the county’s "golden goose." He noted the large amount of property tax paid by owners of beach property keeps the tax rate stable for Currituck mainlanders. If something were to happen to that, tax rates for mainlanders would go up “and we'd be no better off than Camden or Gates County," he said.

Board of Commissioners Chairman Bobby Hanig said later that commissioners are well aware of the Outer Banks’ importance to the county. But the bottom line for commissioners, he said, is that beach residents want safety on the off-road areas improved. 

"As a board, I think we're all doing that," Hanig said. "I think we're implementing great things. I think we're really moving forward to a safe and enjoyable time on the four-by-four beach."

Commissoner Bob White, whose district includes the Currituck Outer Banks, said he doesn't believe the beach-parking fee is as big a deal as some people are making it out to be. He noted he’s visited other beaches where he has had to pay fees.

"This is probably one of the last areas, if not the last area, that would charge to drive on the beach," he said. "I don't see it as a big of a physical deterrent to tourism as people have alluded to. So I think we'll be just fine.”

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