January 16, 2015

Dare residents share concerns with
commissioners at special meeting


In what was the first town-hall meeting of Dare County’s new Board of Commissioners, citizens filled every seat and stood along the wall in the board meeting room in Manteo Wednesday night to listen or tell commissioners what was on their minds.

About 20 or so people came to the microphone to specify their concerns, with members of the board often offering a response.

Bob Woodard, the board’s newly elected chairman, told the audience that he organized the meeting as a way to reach out to people and involve citizens in their government.

“As we move into 2015, we need to put our arms around the needs in Dare County,” Woodard said, “and set aside the wants.

“We want new ideas,” he continued. “We want solutions. We want suggestions. That’s why I asked y’all to be here tonight.”

Commissioner Allen Burrus was derailed by an electrical problem at his Hatteras business and did not make the meeting. Commissioner Margarette Umphlett could not attend because she was ill.
During the 2.5-hour session, people maintained their civility and clapped agreeably most of the time after speakers were done.  Nearly everyone who spoke was polite and relatively concise, considering the unstructured nature of the meeting.

Here are the highlights:

•Tucker Freeman, of Colington, read several letters to the board that he had earlier written to the tax assessor,  complaining that the county had no right to dictate the sale price of his property. He said that with the property tax hike and insurance increases, it is no longer affordable to own investment property. “Real estate here has gone from an asset to a liability,” he said.

Gretchen Montague, Room in the Inn operations director, said that the nonprofit service has seven churches that cover 10 weeks of shelter for homeless people in the county.  Last year, the group served 30 people.  There are also 14 churches that serve three meals a day to the homeless folks.
Referencing recent cuts in county transportation, Montague asked the county to renew its assistance for transportation for these people in desperate need.
“I’m paid for five hours a day. I work five,” she said, choking back tears. “They have no voice and they’re homeless.”

James Fletcher of Manns Harbor asked the board to work with Currituck County to get a road built from Back Bay in Corolla rather than building the Mid-Currituck bridge. He also said that the county should manage oyster bed leases rather than the state.
“I know those are off-the-wall suggestions,” he said, encouraging the board to keep an open mind. “What would we have if the Indians had the same regulations we have in Dare County today?”

Judy Williams said that the flashing lights and concrete divide at the little bridge on the Nags Head-Manteo causeway have created a hazard that needs to be addressed by the state Department of Transportation. She also said that she is concerned about the lack of a dog park in the county. Up to 20 or so dogs use the field across from the N.C. Aquarium, she said, but there’s talk that even that may be taken away.

*Several people asked the board to try to save the Old Fort Raleigh hotel, which was last used as the administrative building for the county. A recent assessment revealed costs in excess of $2 million would be required to repair and renovate the building, which in addition to its overall poor condition is ridden with mold and mildew.
Woodard assured the speakers that the county is not planning to raze the building without listening to any ideas that could lead to its preservation.

Tom Murphy, of Rodanthe, asked the board to not be dogmatic with budget cuts. “You five Republicans in the majority, you scare me because I don’t understand your talk about needs not wants,” he said. “I urge you to do everything you can not to reduce services. Just don’t come at the county budget with a butcher knife.”
For the first time in years, the board is now majority Republican. 

Standing directly in front of Murphy, who had returned to his seat,  Woodard said that the board values the services of the county employees and no board member had said anything about cutting services and taxes. He added that “this is not going to be a political issue.” 

Fellow Republicans -- Vice-Chairman Wally Overman and Commissioners Beverly Boswell and Jack Shea -- also said that their intention was to represent the interest of the Dare citizens, not any party. 

“The Republican side may tend to look at things more conservatively,” Overman said, “but there are very few issues that come down to party lines, thank goodness.”

Sandy Semans, of Stumpy Point, told the board about a series of major issues the small mainland community is dealing with, including a failing drainage system. 

“Stumpy Point is drowning,” she said “The canal is so clogged it cannot drain back out.” 

Another problem, she said, is that the Point Peter Bridge has a metal plate that sticks up from the decking and nearly catches the underside of crossing vehicles. It also has deep potholes on either end of it. And the culvert in front of the firehouse has collapsed, making it a matter of time before it completely gives out under the weight of a fire truck. 

Finally, she said, the harbor – from where the emergency ferries back and forth to  Rodanthe operate – is clogged with sand and is threatened by a sunken boat that could start leaking fuel. 

Semans suggested that the county could find some funds to help Stumpy Point in the commissioners’ travel budget.

*Bob Muller said that the county needs to start thinking about long-term solutions for wastewater management.

Jim Harris had a gripe about Charter Cable. Since the company’s recent switch to new cable boxes, Harris said that his DVR player freezes up constantly. The problem has been brought to the attention of Charter, he said, but nothing has improved.

Jim Keene, representing the N.C. Beach Buggy Association, thanked the county for its help getting the recent ORV bill passed in Congress. But he said that much discussion still has to happen with the National Park Service about beach driving corridors and peer-reviewed science.
“I just want to remind everybody,” he said. “After this was signed, there were big sighs, ‘It’s done!’ Well, it’s not done. We’ve got 12 hard months of work to do.”

Bobby Culpepper said that the county will never attract anything but low-wage jobs unless it corrects an unfair tax advantage that out-of-town workers have. Between county taxes and high housing costs, he said, residents with jobs in the service industry have a difficult time paying their bills.
“It costs more to live here,” he said. “We don’t need any more jobs here on the Outer Banks that pay $10 an hour. I’m sorry, we don’t. We can’t live here for $10 an hour.”
Culpepper suggested that an income tax on non-resident wages would help even the playing field.

Ann Sjoerdsma, co-chair of The Alliance to Preserve Southern Shores, said that the group is looking for support from the county in preserving the town’s maritime forest and its ecosystem. She also asked for Dare County to “step up” and address the worsening heavy traffic in Southern Shores from tourists heading to Corolla.   

“It’s in your face at every hour of every day,” she told the board. “But it’s abominable in the summer . . . Frankly, it’s shocking that the Outer Banks evolved this way – that we have such a problem with congestion.” 

Not only do residents feel trapped in their homes by the crawling traffic on Duck Road, but also vehicles looking for shortcuts now clog neighborhood streets. 

Commissioners were sympathetic, but stopped short of offering possible remedies for the long-standing problem.  

“It’s not easy and there are great limitations,” said Commissioner Warren Judge. “We’re aware and we’re going to stay on it.”

Terry Burns, owner of Blowkite in Buxton, said that numerous outside kiteboard businesses have been setting up shop in rental houses in the villages, selling gear and lessons and sub-letting rooms without paying any of the taxes other businesses have to pay. 

“It’s out of control and there’s more and more of them every year,” he said “They’re stealing our business.”

Dare County Manager Bobby Outten said that the county is limited in what it can control with a property leased by a private company, although the county is entitled to the taxes on the subletting.

“A lot of things that are a problem for you,” he said to Burns, “are things we can’t regulate.”

Gail Sonnesso, who works with families coping with dementia, told the board that the county desperately needs a licensed adult day care center.
“We’re approaching a crisis,” she said.

Referencing Woodard’s earlier statement, Georgeanne Dunn said that EMS needs more vehicles to be able to respond to calls in a timely manner on the mainland and Hatteras Island. 
“Having an ambulance respond to your house because you’re having a heart attack is not a want,” she said. “It’s a need.”

Lilias Morrison said that the county’s business community needs more worker housing that is decent and affordable. 

Doc Sawyer of Manteo told the board that Dare County should improve its airport facility and broaden the educational offerings at the Dare campus of College of The Albemarle to attract more young folk to the area. 

“It seems like in the last 15 years, Dare County has not had a vision,” he said. “It’s been reactive, rather than proactive. I urge all of you to look at education as a business. If our kids won’t stay here, let’s go there and recruit those kids to come here.”

In addressing numerous Facebook postings about high gas prices in Dare County, Woodard asked if anyone was there to talk about gas. He appeared surprised that only a smattering of hands were raised.

“Well, that is good,” he said, adding that the issue will be addressed at the next board meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 20.

“It’s high on our radar screen.” 

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