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Beach-driving, parking limits should enhance safety

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Sunday, May 27, 2018

If a situation is unsafe, it’s best to make it unsafe, even if there are unanswered questions about the methods.

By instituting new driving restrictions and a new beach-parking permit system — one taking effect on Monday, the other in effect as of Friday — Currituck County officials are doing just that: trying to make an unsafe situation safer.

The Currituck Sheriff’s Office and others have warned for years about the increasing volume of vehicle traffic on the county’s northern beaches during the summer tourist season, noting the mixture of vacationers enjoying a day on the beach with a parade of 4-wheel trucks and SUVs is risking tragedy. It was only a question of time, they warned, before someone — likely a child darting out toward the ocean or back from it — was going to get hit by a vehicle cruising the beach.

Fortunately that hasn’t happened. But just because it hasn’t is no reason not to do something now to try and prevent a tragedy from happening.

The potential for a vehicle hitting a beach-goer is the basis for the new commonsense restriction Currituck commissioners adopted last December on where motorists can drive on a particularly busy stretch of beach.

Starting Monday, motorists are prohibited from driving along the shoreline, commonly known as the “foreshore, in the 2½-mile area between Milepost 14½ and Albatross Lane at Milepost 17. The restriction will be enforced between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

Motorists can still park in the middle of the beach between the dunes and the shoreline, and they can still drive on the foreshore north of Milepost 17. They just can’t drive on the foreshore in the restricted area.

Similarly, they can’t park in the restricted area without a parking permit. Under another restriction commissioners adopted this spring, anyone who wants to drive on the county’s northern beaches may do so. But if they want to park, they’ll have to have a permit. And if they don’t live in Currituck or own property in the county, that permit will come with a cost.

Currently only two permits are being offered: a 10-day one for $50 and a seasonal one for $150. County residents and property owners aren’t exempt from the permit requirement but they are exempt from the fees. They’ll receive a free parking permit for each vehicle they own.

The ordinance also allows for two additional permits to be issued to Currituck residents who live full time at the beach and to absentee property owners who have rental cottages there. These permits will allow renters and guests of residents to park on the beach.

Like the foreshore-driving ban, the parking restriction is specifically targeted at the 2½-mile area between Milepost 14½ and Milepost 17 where most beach-goers are likelier to congregate. It’s also only in effect during the vacation season: between the Friday before Memorial Day and Labor Day.  

There are criticisms of both restrictions.

Opponents of the foreshore-driving ban note it’s likely more vehicles will get stuck if motorists are forced to drive in the looser sand near the dunes.

County officials have noted a third ordinance change, in effect since last May, requiring motorists to “air down” their vehicles’ tire pressure to 20 pounds per square inch should reduce the number of vehicles getting stuck. The county also is now providing stations near the ramp to the beach where motorists can deflate and reinflate their tires.

Some opponents of the parking permits suggest the fees — $50 and $150 — are too expensive for someone driving in from Elizabeth City or Camden who just wants to spend one day, not 10, on Currituck’s northern beaches. While that seems like a valid concern, it may not be if county officials’ ultimate goal is to reduce traffic volume on the beaches during the summer months.

There are also valid questions about the speed at which Currituck commissioners are implementing the parking permits. County officials have been unable to provide estimates of how many vehicles are currently parking on the beach or how many belong to out-of-county motorists. They also have no estimate for how much revenue the parking permit fees will raise, and have not specified beyond the general “beach repair and needs” how the funds will be spent. Generally, you have the answers to those questions before you implement ordinance changes like these, not afterward.

There are also questions about enforcement, and how much time Currituck sheriff’s officials will have to spend monitoring beach traffic and checking permits for violations.

Finally, there are questions about what effect the new restrictions will have on the popular image of Currituck’s beaches. One assumes these measures will make them more attractive, because beach-goers will feel safer. But you never really know until you’ve put them into effect. We should find out what the public thinks of them soon enough.

That said, we think Currituck commissioners were right to take these safety measures now — not after a vehicle hits a beach-goer. At the same time, we also agree with what Commissioner Paul Beaumont said last year in response to criticism of the foreshore-driving ban: If these measures don’t work out, if they do prove to be too onerous, commissioners can always scrap them and try something else.

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