August 4, 2013

Ocracoke Real Estate:
A struggle to sustain the fishing village atmosphere


I have spoken about the resources with which our community has to work. Some are not tangible but have a powerful effect on the quality of life on the island. Others are obvious. 

I see our natural setting, protected by The National Park Service, as a valuable asset. We can rest assured that our beach will generally look the same through the decades. How we get to use the beach may change, but development will not alter the face of such a perfect environmental event. Born out of the natural setting, are the activities which involve the water and keep our guests coming back. This same environment has provided a way of life and a chance to make a living through fishing, which predates the tourist trade. The workings of a small fishing village are an attraction unto themselves.

Friendly people and a laid-back attitude round out a picture that produces a passion in our visitors, leading them to come back year after year and causing tears as they depart on the ferry.

After the planning board meeting in July, it was apparent that we are placing this passion in jeopardy. What I am hearing from my own customers in The Slushy Stand, as well as from neighboring store owners, is that the village is losing this appeal, the historic and quaint feel of a fishing village. The guests have gone so far as to beg for something to be done about the changing face of Ocracoke.

Right after that somewhat contentious meeting in July, I heard an interview with a director of a documentary on sustainable living. He was speaking about sustainable communities, such as the movement in Durham. I didn’t pick up on the details about Durham because I fixated on a statement he used -- “Community is the secret ingredient of sustainability; without that sense of community, it can’t exist.”

If you Google “sustainability,” you will find a simple definition -- “the capacity to endure.”

One article talked about the actions of today not having negative effects for future generations. Based on the current scuttle around the number of signs and the occurrence of pop-up businesses, I am hearing a desire for discussion about our sense of community and the picture which we present.

Folks have told me that we are ruining the “goose that lays the golden egg.” There is a fear that it won’t take very many years before we see a drop off in the number of visitors because we have lost our unique flavor.

The most visual of concerns was described to me as “the stadium effect.” The guy in the front row stands up to make himself heard. The guy behind him has to stand up just to see. Before you know it, everyone in that section is standing up to get what they came for, a chance to see. 

In our situation, when one person puts out a sign or a sandwich board, the next store owner might feel that putting out two signs will gain more attention. It doesn’t take long before the streets of the village become destinations for signs, flags, and sandwich boards instead of the opportunity for riders or people strolling to see the life on the island.

Why would they come to Ocracoke, when they could just as easily go to their local big-time beaches and witness that competition for the dollar?

I think that it is a question of what we value in this community, and that will require a lot of lively discussion and hard work. Living on an island requires a degree of resiliency to weather storms, ferry troubles, or delayed essential repairs.

The Ocracoke population is strong and hardy. The folks who choose this way of life are creative, smart, and resourceful. I have always felt that no problem was insurmountable for this community.

We have had more than one occasion to band together and make something happen. I clearly remember the village’s response to the surprise vote on a county occupancy tax which was taken while our commissioner was in Miami, at a hurricane conference. We were quick, effective and successful in moving the proceeds of that levy from the county coffers to an island fund. My point is that we have the where-with-all to tackle anything.

People are talking amongst themselves. I have had locals stop me and tell me that they agree with the idea of trying to preserve our historic village atmosphere. It was what drew them here in the beginning.

Now is the time for people to bring these opinions out into the open -- to make sure that the powers that be hear the will of the people. This too is a problem that can be solved.

(B.J. Oelschlegel has lived on Ocracoke Island for more than 30 years and has worked in the real estate business for almost as long.  She is a broker with Ocracoke’s Lightship Realty and a real estate columnist for The Ocracoke Observer. You can reach her by e-mail at [email protected])

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