-- At 6 a.m. on a July day last year, volunteers posted themselves near
the entrance to the unpaved area on the northern tip of the Currituck
County Outer Banks and started counting.
were vehicles with North Carolina tags. Vehicles with Virginia tags.
Open “cattle trucks” with groups of tourists.
Guided tour vehicles.
day and into the night, they kept coming. By 8:30 p.m., the numbers
were impressive: A total of 1,136 vehicles -- 207 of them related to
tours -- holding 3,663 people. All driving along 11 miles of sand road
you imagine the impact that the Mid-Currituck Bridge would have on
these numbers?” Lynne Wilson, a Carova resident, said in an e-mail.
“The safety of beachgoers is threatened now and will be
disproportionately threatened if bridge traffic turns north, which of
course, it will.”
the state approaches the final step in the planning process to build
the seven-mile toll bridge from mainland Currituck County to Corolla,
many residents of Corolla and the unincorporated off-road community,
where 136 wild horses famously roam, are cringing at the prospect that
it may actually happen.
going to bring significantly more people,” said John Grattan, a
semi-retired environmental attorney who lives in Corolla.
when the weather makes beach-going impossible, he said, all those
vacationers, en masse, will head south. “Once they’re here, the first
rainy Thursday is going to be the biggest nightmare you ever saw.”
the same time, the $660 million project, which was first proposed about
20 years ago, is strongly favored by Currituck and Dare counties and
the towns of Kitty Hawk, Southern Shores and Duck, which have suffered
through hours-long traffic backups on U.S. 158 and N.C. 12 every summer
for years. At the height of the season, it can take four hours on a
Saturday to reach Corolla from Moyock, normally 1.5-hour trip.
bridge would shave about an hour off the drive from Virginia and
decrease the volume of heavy traffic. Proponents also say the bridge
would make hurricane evacuation time faster, increase employment
opportunities on both sides of the bridge, and decrease commuting time
for seasonal workers.
is a congestion problem, I agree, on certain weekends,” Grattan said.
“But the proposed bridge solution is a ridiculously expensive and
environmentally damaging option (that’s) solving the congestion problem
at the expense of Corolla.”
the project’s final environmental impact statement released in January,
the preferred alternative has the bridge anchored off U.S. 158 north of
Aydlett and landing between the Corolla Bay and Monteray Shores
subdivisions, at least 300 feet from houses and lots on Highway 12.
just a short drive to the north, the asphalt ends and the land of wild
horses and beach driving begins.
said that tourism promotion of the off-road beaches, featuring
photographs of the wild horses on the edge of the surf, has been wildly
successful. “The results are evident,” she said. “Tourists are flocking
to Currituck’s off-road beaches. And the outcome might very well be
self-defeating -- overcrowding and unsafe beaches are not a destination
the numbers of day-trippers have increased, so has development. But
many of the 180 or so year-round residents in Carova are concerned that
infrastructure is already being strained, and it’s only 20 percent
built-out. There are no restaurants, bathrooms or gas stations. The
only public parking is on the beach, where trucks bounce along just a
few feet from sunbathers. Sometimes, wild horses join the fray,
strolling down to the water to cool off.
year, more and more traffic comes up here,” said Jerry Gillet, the
secretary of the Carova Beach Volunteer Fire Department. “Sometimes the
beach is very, very difficult to negotiate because of the traffic and
the horse tours. Sometimes we have a hard time negotiating our
in sand is tricky, and often day visitors are inexperienced.
Consequently, they don’t let the air out of their tires, causing their
vehicles to get stuck or their tires to spin, leaving behind ruts.
you multiply that by hundreds of vehicles over 11 miles, it creates a
washboard effect,” said J.P. Peron, owner of The Outer Banks Real
Estate Co. in Carova.
a member of the volunteer fire department, said that the department
analyzed their calls between 2000 and 2010 and found that five times
more calls were responding to vehicle fires -- caused by people
overheating their transmissions while trying to get unstuck -- than
about 2005, Carova was truly remote and isolated. Gillet said that for
years after moving to the community in 1998, his North Swan Beach house
was the only one within a quarter-mile in either direction.
the building boom happened,” he said, “I’m guessing in the general
vicinity, there must have been 30 houses put up.”
in the late 1970s, the area was platted for commercial use, with
developers counting on a highway being built from Sandbridge, Va., said
Ben Woody, Currituck County planning director. But in subsequent years,
part of the land was acquired for False Cape State Park. Then the
federal government designated the entire off-road area as a COBRA zone,
precluding the purchase of federal flood insurance and restricting
they platted it, I don’t think they intended there would be no roads
there,” Woody said.
County later zoned Carova -- the name blends Carolina and Virginia --
as single-family residential with a minimum lot size of three acres.
developer of a proposed 37-acre commercial development in Swan Beach,
the northern-most subdivision, sued Currituck County in early July over
the county’s rejection of a request for a conditional zoning change
from residential to commercial. The proposal includes plans for an inn
with 32 suites, a fishing pier, retail shops and restaurants.
said that, as of 2011, a total of 3,150 lots were platted in the
12,000-acre off-road area. Of them, 665 have been permitted, and 2,526
are vacant lots. And many of those were grandfathered when the current
three-acre zoning was implemented.
have thousands of one-third- and half-acre lots that can be built
upon,” he said.
are no restrictions on the number of bedrooms in a house, he said, as
long as the parcel is big enough to provide septic. So far, the largest
house in Carova is 23 bedrooms, and there are numerous houses with 10
to 18 bedrooms.
with no central water or wastewater system in Carova -- it’s all wells
and septic tanks -- and a high water table, Woody said, there are
legitimate concerns about how much capacity remains for growth.
Beach Driving Committee last year recommended that the county hire a
consultant to conduct a study on establishing a permit system for
off-road vehicles. It also recommended that numerous improvements be
provided, including educational signs, a bathhouse, air stations and
better ramp maintenance. Some recommendations have been implemented,
but the permit system is not one of them.
County recognizes the value of an infrastructure study in Carova to
determine what must be addressed as the community continues to
accommodate more visitors and more development, Woody said. But so far,
he agreed that issues have mostly been dealt with in a piecemeal, as-
haven’t stepped back,” he said, “and really looked at that area
comprehensively to project into the future the need for planning.”
the Mid-Currituck Bridge is built, whether more people come or not,
Carova will become more accessible.
the bridge is not necessarily a done deal. In addition to stiff
opposition from a substantial number of northern beach residents, the
bridge is vulnerable to cuts in the state budget and to lawsuits.
the project would be partially funded by user tolls, it is also
dependent on millions of tax dollars toward payments on revenue bonds.
“gap funding” appropriations for the bridge and another toll project in
Gaston County were cut from this year’s budget because they were not
expected to be needed until June 30, 2013, said Greer Beaty, a state
Department of Transportation spokeswoman.
Currituck project’s record of decision, the last step required before
construction can begin, is expected any time now, Beaty said. After
that is issued, those objecting to the project have 180 days
file a lawsuit.
legal action, Beaty said that DOT has “other resources that we can and
will use” to move the project forward if the $28 million in gap funding
is not restored.
opponent Jen Symonds, an Aydlett resident and a founder of No
Mid-Currituck Bridge, however, said she believes the Currituck bridge
may be doomed by a combined loss of political support and lack of
money. It’s difficult to defend, she said, spending $660 million -- and
charging a $28 toll each way -- to save tourists an hour of driving
about 26 days a year.
understanding is that the GOP leadership does not think this is a
viable project,” Symonds said. “I don’t think it’s going to get the
funding. I think the days of mega-projects for powerful politicians are
gone. The state can’t afford it.”
story is provided courtesy of Coastal Review Online, the coastal news
and features service of the N.C. Coastal Federation. You can read other
stories about the N.C. coast at www.nccoast.org.)