Failure to launch: Currituck still seeking Corps' OK for dredging

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Meghan Smith (left) and her husband, Chris Smith, (right, in SUV) of Abingdon, Maryland, attempt to launch their JetSkis into Currituck Sound at the Whalehead Club ramp in Corolla, Wednesday. The couple said low tide and the shallow basin near the ramp prevented the launch despite numerous attempts. Currituck commissioners are trying to get the U.S. Corps of Engineers to approve the county’s request for a permit to dredge a channel large enough to accommodate small boats off Currituck Heritage Park. Citing environmental concerns, however, the Corps has denied the request.

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By William F. West
Staff Writer

Monday, September 3, 2018

COROLLA — Boaters looking to visit Currituck Heritage Park by water now have to hope the wind is blowing in a certain direction and the waters of Currituck Sound are deep enough.

Otherwise, their boat will very likely run aground in the shallow water near the park..

Currituck County officials have been talking about dredging a channel near Heritage Park for years. The park not only is home to the picturesque former Whalehead mansion and the modern Outer Banks Center for Wildlife Education, it’s also adjacent to the iconic Currituck Beach Lighthouse.

Currituck officials say the problem has been getting permission for the dredging project from the Wilmington office of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Attempts to obtain comment from a spokeswoman at the Wilmington office last week were unsuccessful. However, the Corps generally has opposed allowing any dredging of Currituck Sound off Heritage Park because of environmental concerns.

One dredging attempt in the sound by a N.C. Department of Transportation workboat in 2004 without Corps approval in fact resulted in serious repercussions.

Jerry Gaskill, then head of the N.C. Ferry Division, ended up being convicted in U.S. District Court of providing false statements to federal investigators looking into the illegal dredging. Although federal prosecutors wanted a prison sentence, Gaskill served a term of probation under house arrest. Meanwhile, DOT had to back-fill the area the workboat had illegally dredged.

The subject of dredging in the sound came up most recently during an Aug. 22 joint meeting of the Currituck Board of Commissioners and the Currituck Board of Education. 

School board member Janet Rose asked whether any of the county’s tourism tax revenues could be spent to “fix up” the basin by the Whalehead Club.

“We used to be able to get there by boat — and now we can’t,” Rose noted.

County Manager Dan Scanlon said the problem isn’t financial but regulatory. He said the county has been unable to secure a permit from the Corps to allow dredging of a channel off Whalehead large enough to accommodate boats. 

Scanlon recalled that Mike Doxey, Currituck’s since-retired soil and water conservation expert, began putting together an application to the Corps sometime around the late 1980s or early 90s to allow the dredging, but the application was never approved.

Currituck resurrected the effort again during a meeting with Corps officials in February, Scanlon said.

“And to say we were not well received would be an understatement,” he said. 

Scanlon indicated that paying for the dredging project wouldn’t be an issue; he believes Currituck’s tourism revenues could be used to fund it. The county’s problem is getting the Corps to permit the project, he said.

The Corps isn’t the only federal agency the county is talking to about the dredging project, however. 

Commissioners Paul Beaumont, Mike Payment and Marion Gilbert used their attendance at a meeting in Washington, D.C., with officials in the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs earlier this year to bring up the dredging project. The trio of commissioners traveled to the nation’s capital, along with other county commissioners from across North Carolina, to discuss with Trump administration officials their experiences dealing with federal agencies and bureaucrats.

Besides the dredging project, Currituck commissioners also informed Trump administration officials about the county’s difficulties getting the Corps to sign off on their efforts to fill large potholes in the Carova Beach area.

“I think we viewed this (opportunity) as our best bet at trying to get something that’s clearly an overreach by the Army Corps to get it fixed,” Beaumont said at the commission meeting. He added that he was “guardedly optimistic that we might actually get some traction” on both matters.

Reached last week, Beaumont said he spoke at length by phone with an official in the general counsel’s office at the U.S. Department of the Army, which oversees the Corps.

Beaumont said the official wanted to know what rationale Corps officials have given Currituck for the agency’s denials. He said the official was “very encouraging” about potential ways of resolving the impasse.

Beaumont said it’s his understanding the Corps based its most recent denial of Currituck’s request for a dredging permit on potential impacts to aquatic vegetation and fish-breeding grounds.

Beaumont, who considers Currituck’s dredging permit request “fairly reasonable,” claims the position the Corps’ Wilmington office is taking is hard to defend, particularly from a public safety perspective.

He cited the rescue this spring of two kayakers whose vessels capsized offshore amid four-foot waves and chilly weather conditions. Beaumont said it’s his understanding that had there not been favorable conditions at Currituck Heritage Park for rescuers to launch their vessel, “it is highly likely neither of those individuals would have survived.”

Regarding the potholes at Carova Beach, Beaumont said they’ve formed in roads behind the beach over time. After heavy rains, motorists in off-road vehicles go four-wheeling through the potholes for entertainment, creating even deeper holes, some capable of trapping as much as four feet of water.

That of course creates a hazard for vacationers, who lacking the proper vehicle, risk losing their engine when they drive over one of these deep holes, Beaumont said.

Currituck wants to fill the holes but the Corps has disallowed it because the agency has designated the areas, because of the development of certain vegetation, to be wetlands, Beaumont said. The agency continues to hold this stance, he said, even though water in the potholes isn’t draining into either the Currituck Sound or the Atlantic Ocean.

He emphasized Currituck needs to be able make the roads in Carova Beach free from hazards.

“There needs to be a certain element of reasonableness and/or balance between protecting the environment and protecting the safety of the citizens and visitors to Currituck County,” he said.