Beach Access and Park Issues
February 15, 2012

There were no smiles in sight, but first day of permit sales at Hatteras was uneventful


There were sparks but no flames at the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse Wednesday morning when the National Park Service began selling mandatory permits to drive on the beach. 

There is a new trailer set up by the bathrooms at the historical landmark solely for the purpose of selling annual stickers to beach drivers.  It is the only place on Hatteras Island to get one.

“It’s not a permit fee, it’s a tax,” says Tony Kotecki who resides in Dundalk, Md., but his family has a non-rental house in Avon. 

By 7:30 a.m., folks were gathering in the parking lot at the lighthouse.  There was a cross-section of people -- some local and some not.  Some were there to buy permits and others just to watch.

There wasn’t a smile in sight as folks grumbled about the permit that will cost them $120 annually or $50 weekly for something that has always been free. 

“It is so wrong what has been done here on so many levels,” says John Mortensen, aka JAM on Internet blogs.  “But, I believe that right will persevere.”

To John Tiller, a regular vacationer from Deltaville, Va., this is just another way for the government to get money.

“Ain’t crazy about it,” says Tiller.  “But there isn’t a lot we can do about it.”

He is also concerned about the local economy and worries that a lot of local people will lose their jobs as a result of this new federal government requirement.

“I come here to fish, relax, to just enjoy the beach,” Tiller continues.  “I don’t ever see anybody doing anything wrong to hurt the birds.”

Among the couple of dozen people who showed up Wednesday morning, most seemed resigned that they will have to pay in order to drive on the beach.  Many cited the fact that most beaches up and down the East Coast already require a fee in order to drive on them. 

It was the permanent loss of access that enraged most of the people present.

“I’m not mad about the permit,” said Lee Heller of Frisco.  “I just wish the whole process was more science-based.  There was an agenda here.”

“The buffer zones are extreme,” Kotecki added.  “They are way out of line.  I wrote my comments but it didn’t work – just didn’t seem to matter.”

John Ochs, also from Frisco yelled from his truck, “This is against the law!  This has gone too far.  I have one freedom left, and that is the freedom of speech!”

Ochs' outbursts later led to a confrontation with a park ranger but no citation.

Tony Kotecki acknowledged that yes, you have to pay to drive on other beaches “but it’s not the same thing.  Those are just beaches.  This is a community.  This community will have its economy affected.”

At 8 a.m., NPS employees opened the doors to the trailer for business, and new chapter began in the local history of beach access. 

The structure is divided into three rooms.  Applicants enter the first room where the paperwork is completed. You will need a vehicle registration and driver’s license to apply.  Then they proceed into a middle room where the video is shown.  Next, they go into a third room where they pay and get the yellow windshield sticker then exit out a different door.  It is small but a good floor plan for moving small groups of people through.

Kevin McCabe of Buxton was the first person to obtain the yellow sticker on Hatteras Island.

District Ranger David Carter was on hand at the permit station.  He explained that the next month will be a transition period.  “We will take situations as they come.  We hope people will follow the letter of the law and will get all the information they need.”

William Brigman from Wilmington, N.C., was one of the early applicants inside the trailer.  His wife, who is handicapped from a hip replacement, was sad to learn from the NPS attendant that his favorite fishing spot was now off-limits to vehicles.

“Charging is not a bad idea,” Brigman said.  “I’m upset about the loss of access, too much care for the plover.”  He also thought that all the new infrastructure of parking lots and ramps to support the new law should have been in place before the NPS implemented the new rule.

Joe Owellette, 67, from New Hampshire, was resigned to paying to drive on the beach and said that he was not giving away 23 years of his life to give up fishing on the beach.  Owellette served 23 years in the Special Forces and with the U.S. Army Rangers in Vietnam.

“I am thoroughly disgusted by the federal government,” Owellette said candidly.  “Saw it happen in Cape Cod in 1984.”

Heller had concerns that the family vacation component would be compromised on Hatteras by the fees and inconvenience of obtaining the permit.

Many worry how permit sales will play out when the visitors increase for the summer, and they predict lines and traffic jams.  Others are concerned that too many disgruntled people standing in line to watch the mandatory video and to purchase the permit will ruin the lighthouse experience for visitors clamoring to see the island’s famous sentinel.

Not one person was in favor of the new rule.  Not one little bit.

There was another type of sadness that lay heavy on the crowd. Some areas that were once regular hangouts, including much of the area known as the Hook at west of Cape Point, will no longer be accessible by vehicle. Pedestrians can walk in the vehicle-free areas when they are not closed for nesting birds and turtles, but many who can’t make the walk won’t be visiting there again.

One by one, the people left – some with permits, others refusing.  People have until March 15, 2012 to obtain the permit, which is when the rangers will start issuing tickets for beach driving without the permit.

According to the Chief Park Ranger Paul Stevens, there had been 21 permits and 4 commercial licenses purchased by noon at the Hatteras location.  In Ocracoke, there were 20 permits and two commercial licenses sold and 17 permits at Coquina Beach during the same time frame.  These are the only places to purchase the beach driving permits.

“So far, this has gone real smooth,” said Stevens.  “Don’t know what to expect during the summer.  Right now, we are in the middle of our slow season.

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