December 19, 2014

Carteret County residents get an earful
from Dare at Cape Lookout hearing

By KIP TABB


Chaired by Rep. Pat McElraft of Carteret County, the N.C. House Select Committee on the Wise Use of Off-Road Vehicles on the Cape Lookout National Seashore conducted a hearing Tuesday at the College of the Albemarle's auditorium on that seashore's proposed Off-Road Vehicle Plan.

McElraft brought the hearing to Dare County to give voice to the experiences of Dare County residents when they went through the same process at Cape Hatteras National Seashore.
In 2007, the National Park Service began developing an ORV plan for CHNS that many Dare County residents and elected officials felt was arbitrary and based on incomplete and deceptive use of interviews and statistics. The plan became final in 2012.

As Cape Lookout National Seashore, immediately south of Cape Hatteras, continues its planning process, Carteret County residents are expressing anger and dismay with what is being proposed.

“I’ve been in government all my life,” Carol Lohr, executive director of the Crystal Coast Tourism Authority, said. “I’ve never seen such undocumented studies reviewed as they’re (Cape Lookout National Seashore) using.”

Lohr, along with Brent Lane from the University of North Carolina's Kenan-Flager School of Business and Tom Allen of Southwick Associates, spoke at the meeting, which focused on the economic impacts of the new rules on travel and tourism.

The speakers outlined findings—findings that stood in stark contrast to a picture of economic recovery on Hatteras Island and Cape Lookout painted by proponents of the ORV rules.
Lane, in particular, cited a number of flaws in the use of occupancy tax receipts as a measure of economic health.

“In general, we’re under-performing,” he said in his discussion of the economic health of the Crystal Coast. “I can tell you we are not realizing the full potential of our natural and cultural assets.”
Indicating a chart he presented, Lane noted an area of concern. “This is overnight business, and you can see it’s really tailed off.”

His discussion included information about the length of stay for visitors—information that showed why there was concern. “There is prospering going on, but it’s not going on for you communities that are dependent on Cape Lookout."

Lane’s remarks were supported by Hatteras Island speakers who addressed the hearing.

“We want to be clear that while we are aware that there are organizations that like to tout that occupancy taxes appeared to look higher in our area after the ORV ruling, they are looking at those numbers in a vacuum,” Beth Midgett of Midgett Realty on Hatteras Island said.

She noted that both the types of houses being rented and an increase in rental rates are accounting for the increase in occupancy tax. The actual number of renters, however, has gone down, “which is why our auxiliary businesses are reporting decreased revenue,” she said.

It is not only the rental industry that is affected by the ORV rules. Speaking without notes, Frank Folb of Frank and Fran’s in Avon described the effects of the beach closures.

“I’ve been in the fish and tackle business since 1988,” he said. “In the last two years, business has become (such that) in the winter time—something I thought I would never see —a line of credit must be established before we can pay an employee or myself. That never happened before the final decree that has been put into place.”

The winter struggle with credit was not Folb’s only concern.

“The shoulder season is effectively gone because of the early closures. In the fall, which is October and November, and which used to be our finest months of the year (are no longer),” he went on to say. “It’s now the summer where we see all our business.”

As Cape Lookout moves toward an ORV plan, speaker after speaker expressed the same view—that what is happening in Carteret County is too similar to Dare County’s experience to be dismissed.

“It does not take a crystal ball to look into the future and see what might happen in Cape Lookout. When all we need to look at is what has already happened here in Dare County,” County Commissioner Warren Judge said in his remarks.

Judge did note that recently passed federal legislation governing how ORV rules will be promulgated in CHNS was a huge step forward. “Both houses of Congress with bipartisan support have passed legislation that would return control of the seashore to the superintendent, not to the NGOs (non-government organizations), which is exactly what our residents and visitors have been begging them to do,” Judge said.

The rules seem commonsense: “Resource protection must be science based,” Judge said in explaining what is in the legislation. “It must be based on peer review. Access must be fair and equitable.”

Although Congress did pass legislation targeting ORV rules at CHNS, the legislation is specific to Cape Hatteras. There is no indication how it will impact the rules being created at Cape Lookout.

The concern of Carteret residents is that the first Draft Environmental Impact Statement on ORV rulemaking for Cape Lookout has been issued, and it is very similar to the document created by CHNS to regulate ORV access. Elected officials in the southern county say that they are feeling the same isolation from the process and lack of accountability on the part of NPS officials that occurred in Dare County.

“We’re being pounded from every side and it’s got to stop,”McElraft said at one point. “There’s no reason for it. We can live in harmony with the critters.”

The experience that Dare County—and especially Hatteras Island—has gone through is the reason McElraft brought the hearings to Manteo. “That’s why we wanted to come here and make sure that we heard the real story,” she said.

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