3 seek District 5 seat in Currituck
By William F. West
Tuesday, April 17, 2018
CURRITUCK — The May 8 Republican primary for the District 5 seat on the Currituck County Board of Commissioners features an incumbent seeking a third term, a former county commissioner, and a political newcomer making his first bid for office.
Commissioner Marion Gilbert, who was first elected to the seven-member board in 2010, is seeking her third term. She’s being challenged by Owen Etheridge, a former commissioner who served two separate eight-year stints on the board, and by Fred Whiteman, chairman of the Currituck Planning Board.
No Democrat filed for the seat, so barring a write-in candidate surfacing, the winner of the primary will represent District 5 in Currituck for the next five years. District 5 is roughly the county’s growing Moyock community.
The three candidates have differing views on a variety of issues facing commissioners.
Asked about the recent Evergreen Solutions report on local spending on the Currituck County Schools, Gilbert supports the review that cost the county $49,500. Etheridge said the review could be beneficial if its recommendations are followed. Whiteman believes the review was a waste of money.
Gilbert, a 54-year-old vice president for a human relations firm, believes the information and recommendations in Evergreen’s report will help school officials make future decisions on how taxpayer dollars are spent. She said it’s commissioners’ job to be good stewards of taxpayer funds and to get the best bang for the buck.
"In any business, you have to have audits and checks and balances," she said.
Etheridge, a 66-year-old farmer, believes Evergreen's report contains a lot of good information that could be used by both the county and the school district.
"Now, whether it was a good use of dollars, we won't know until they begin to implement some of the recommendations in there," Etheridge said. "If they don't implement anything, then it was money wasted."
Etheridge said one good result from Evergreen’s report is that it got county commissioners and school board members communicating with one another, which he noted is always important.
Whiteman, a 52-year-old information technology employee for a military contractor, is critical of commissioners’ decision to hire Florida-based Evergreen to conduct the review of school finances.
"Not only do I think it was not worth the tax dollars, I think it was unnecessary," he said. "And I don't think that the county should be treating the school board that way."
Noting that past relations between commissioners and school board members haven't always been good, Whiteman, like Etheridge, believes the two boards need to act more cooperatively.
"Of any other boards in the county, these two boards need to get along. And if they don't, then it's just going to get worse and worse for the kids," he said.
Gilbert agreed that it’s important for both commissioners and school board members to work together.
"As commissioners, we have to fund the schools system," she said. "So we are certainly working in coordination together. We are having more meetings together. We are having more face-to-face conversations. And I think that is very healthy for boards."
Beach parking fees
The candidates disagree on commissioners’ recent majority decision to impose beach-parking fees in a heavily traveled section of the county’s northern beach area. The fees, which are still being developed, will be applied starting this May to most non-resident motorists who want to park in a designated beach area during the summer vacation season.
Gilbert, who voted for fees, believes there was no need to wait implementing the fee system.
"We have discussed the beach issues for the entire time that I've been on the board — and I think this was the most beneficial time for us to go ahead and implement something and try to benefit the off-road area," she said.
Etheridge, however, believes implementing the fee system is a bit premature. He noted commissioners already adopted a lane-shift regulation affecting those who drive on a heavily traveled part of the beach. During vacation season, motorists will be required to drive on the upper dunes and steer clear of the hard-sand area along the waterline known as the “foreshore.”
"I think they should have tried what they already had in place and see if that helped any and, if it did, what they could they do to strengthen" those measures, he said.
Whiteman said he believes the fee system is a "knee-jerk reaction" to a minority of people who live in the Corolla area.
"I sounded like, to me, that the squeaky wheels got the grease on this one," Whiteman said.
He said that while commissioners have heard personal accounts from those who live at the beach and the sheriff's office about overcrowding, no one has conducted a study showing “this is what's going on at the beach — and here's what we need to do to fix the problem."
The candidates also disagree about the county’s current moratorium on future solar farms in the county.
Gilbert, who voted for the moratorium, said it was necessary to control where future solar farms are built — something the board didn’t have prior to the moratorium when the first two solar farms in Currituck were built.
"We as board did not give specific direction in how we wanted the development to be developed," she said. "And we were taken advantage of a little bit because we took the developers at their word.”
Gilbert said commissioners are working on revised language to county ordinances to allow some future solar farms to be built on sites where they would compatible with their surroundings.
Whiteman said his view on solar farm development dovetails with his beliefs about landowner rights.
"I think that a property owner should be allowed to do what they want to do with their land, unless it significantly adversely affects surrounding property owners," he said.
He also noted that when officials with solar developer SunEnergy1 came before the Currituck Planning Board about setting up a solar farm in the northern end of the county, they were well-prepared and able to rebut every argument offered by the project’s opponents.
Etheridge noted that in the interest of disclosure, he and his brother are negotiating with SunEnergy1 about building a solar farm on their property in the Shawboro area. Regardless, he believes imposing the moratorium was unnecessary.
Etheridge said commissioners already had "the available tools" in the county’s ordinance to address concerns about the existing solar farms. He said the lease payments from solar projects are an important revenue source for farmers and other owners of farmland who are struggling now because of low commodity prices.
The candidates mostly agreed about Currituck commissioners’ decision to go on record in opposition to the Trump administration’s desire to lease areas of the Atlantic Ocean off the North Carolina coast for gas and oil drilling. They all suggested commissioners probably need to more about the risks of offshore drilling versus its benefits.
"I do understand enough that the gas drilling versus the oil drilling is safer, but that is not my expertise and I could not forecast or tell you which is the best," she said. "For the time being, I have not voted for it because I am not educated enough to know the outcomes."
Whiteman said he wants to see from experts what has been put in place since the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill off the Louisiana Gulf Coast. Specifically, he wants to know if the risk of a massive oil spill into marine waters has been reduced to near zero.
He believes there’s absolutely a need for offshore drilling in some cases. In others, however, the risk outweighs the reward, so in those cases, "I would say absolutely not."
Both Whiteman and Etheridge said they would have liked for commissioners to hold a meeting and invite experts on both sides of the offshore drilling issue prior to voting to oppose it.
For his part, Etheridge said he's not going to second-guess commissioners because he hasn't studied the matter that much. "But, if we're going to become energy sufficient and self-sufficient in this country, we're going to have to look at where we can develop alternative sources of natural gas," he said.
All three candidates agree on two Moyock-related issues: They don't favor Moyock being incorporated as a town; and they don't favor the community having full-time police and fire protection.
Gilbert said what a lot of citizens don't understand is that incorporating would cost them a whole lot of money.
"And right now we have the benefits of the taxes being low in Currituck," she said.
While Whiteman also doesn’t think the time is right for Moyock to become a town, he’s not completely opposed to it happening someday.
"I think we're probably at least 10 to 20 years away from something like that," Whiteman said. "And then, we can readdress it at that point."
Etheridge made clear he has always opposed incorporation of Moyock or any other community in Currituck.
"I think we are stronger as one than stronger than many, in terms of that,” he said. “You can't serve two masters.”
Occupation: Vice president of human resources, Cottrell Contracting, Chesapeake, Virginia
Education: Certificate in human resources management, Old Dominion University
Military service: None
Past political campaigns: Elected to Currituck Board of Commissioners, 2010; re-elected in 2014
Civic/community affiliations: Chairwoman, Albemarle Commission; board member, Currituck Kids; vestry member, St. Luke’s Episcopal Church
Occupation: Information technology worker for a military contractor
Education: Associate’s degree in electromechanical studies, Excelsior College in New York
Military service: U.S. Navy, 1983-2007, retired as chief petty officer
Past political campaigns: None
Civic/community affiliations: Chairman, Currituck Planning Board; former president, Eagle Creek Homeowners Association
Family: Wife, Jennifer; three children
Education: High school graduate
Military service: None
Past political campaigns: Elected as Democrat to Currituck Board of Commissioners in 1994 and re-elected in 1998; lost re-election in 2002 Democratic primary; elected as a Republican to Currituck Board of Commissioners in 2004 and re-elected in 2008; unsuccessfully sought election to the state House in 2012; ran unsuccessfully for Board of Commissioners in both 2014 and 2016
Civic/community affiliations: Chairman, Albemarle-Pamlico Republican Club; former chairman, Currituck Republicans; executive secretary, Currituck branch, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints
Family: Wife, René; has two children from a prior marriage; five grandchildren