April 14, 2016

Board decides to expand Buxton nourishment service district

By IRENE NOLAN


At a special meeting last evening, Dare County's Board of Commissioners voted unanimously to expand the proposed service district that defines the properties whose owners will help pay for a beach nourishment project in north Buxton

This is the county board's second attempt to decide which property owners should chip in for the project, the total cost of which will be about $25 million.

Also at the meeting, the commissioners decided to postpone for a few days a decision on accepting the low bid for the project, which is $22.15 million from Weeks Marine of Covington, La., but which wouldn't get the project underway until next year -- a big disappointment to county officials and to residents who want the project as soon as possible to protect Highway 12.

Dare County has asked the four contractors who responded to the call for bids to submit a bid for this year and one for 2017. Only two of the contractors bid on the project for this year and both were at least $12 million or so over budget.

The county cannot squeeze another $12 million  out of its beach nourishment fund, which consists of a 2 percent occupancy tax paid by visitors who rent accommodations in the county. County officials are also under some time pressure to accept a bid and to clear the project with the state's Local Government Commission.

However, Commissioner Warren Judge asked if the board could send a delegation to Washington, D.C., to talk to the state's Congressional delegation about getting the extra money to get the project done this year.

And Commissioner Allen Burrus asked if board Chairman Bob Woodard would be willing to call N.C. Secretary of Transportation Nick Tennyson to see if the state might help with the additional funds.  Burrus also suggested that Woodard get Tennyson on the record with his answer, to make it clear to the public where the state stands in the effort to protect the highway.

At the urging of some other commissioners, the board decided that Woodard would make some phone calls today to see if a visit to Washington or Raleigh would conceivably help find any extra money -- or if it's a hopeless cause.

If the phone calls show the cause is hopeless, the board will take up accepting the 2017 proposal from Weeks Marine at its regular meeting on Monday, April 18, at 5 p.m.

Only two Buxton property owners spoke at last night's meeting and both mostly addressed the timing of the project, not who pays.

One was Carol Dillon, who owns the Outer Banks Motel on the Buxton oceanfront, and has often criticized the board for not acting quickly enough.

"I am very disappointed that you are not having this meeting on Hatteras Island," she began. "And I'm sorry there are not more people here."

Then she lit into the board.

"I don't care if you people borrow it, beg it, or steal it, but you better get money before hurricane season," she said. "You just need to do it."

Jim Hartshorne, who lives in Frisco and owns a house on the Buxton oceanfront, also said he  wished more people had attended and asked if there was a possibility of finding a shorter window of time from one of the dredging companies for a scaled-back project.

At past meetings, the commissioners have made it clear that they favor some sort of tax district for Hatteras islanders, so that there is parity with property owners from the northern beach towns who are chipping in to help pay for their nourishment.

In the northern towns, taxpayers are shouldering about 25 percent of the cost of the project, and the rest is coming from the county's beach nourishment fund.  The commissioners have said that they don't expect Hatteras Island or Buxton property owners to pay that much -- but they haven't said how much they will pay.

At one point, Judge asked, “What rate are we talking about?  How much will it be?” he asked.

Woodard answered that the board was not talking about the rate, just establishing the district.

"I've never bought anything without asking the price," Judge responded, adding that he hoped that before the board enacted a district, it could give property owners an idea of how much their taxes would increase.

In order to establish the district, the county must publish a report that outlines the need for the district, the reason it is impractical or impossible to provide the services countywide, and that it is economically feasible. The report must show that the taxpayers residing in the district will receive a benefit from the project that others taxpayers don't -- in this case, protection from storm surge and flooding from the ocean.

In early March, the county proposed that the special district include only 35 oceanfront properties, which obviously easily fit the criteria.  However, after a public hearing on April 4, the commissioners decided to consider expanding the district.

On the table for consideration yesterday were three options.

  • Map 1. Oceanfront properties only -- 35 valued at $17.4 million.
  • Map 2. The triangle bordered by Old Lighthouse Road, Highway 12 (and a few properties west), and the ocean.  This are would include 137 properties, valued at $41.4 million.
  • Map 3. All properties in an area bordered by Lighthouse Road (the Park Service road) and the oceanfront, including parcels on both sides of Highway 12.  This would include Diamond Shoals Estates, the old Coast Guard housing that is now privately owned, and  commercial properties on the south side and north side of Highway 12.  This area would add include 258 parcels, valued at $73.3 million.

County assessor Greta Skeen and David White, chief residential appraiser, discussed a map of damage done to the properties in the three areas during major storms dating back to Hurricane Isabel in 2003.

At least three commissioners -- Woodard, Beverly Boswell, and Jack Shea -- seemed to be leaning toward a Map 3 service district.

However, other commissioners noted that there had not been significant damage to properties in the Map 3 area during storms.

"I've been here 10 years, and I haven't seen any flood damage in those areas," White told the commissioners.

"I'm concerned about the catastrophic one that hits one day," Woodard said.

"I think we need to go with what history tells us," Commissioner Wally Overman countered.

County manager and attorney Bobby Outten, when asked his legal opinion of whether he could defend adding parcels in Map 3, said he would have a difficult time defending that action in court, considering what the county's employees had said about little flood damage in the area.

During the discussion, Woodard noted that "the majority is for (Map) 2" and asked for a motion.

The motion to establish the properties in Map 2 as the Buxton Service District for beach nourishment was made by Overman and seconded by Commissioner Margarette Umphlett.

Hatteras Island commissioner Allen Burrus had previously said he opposed raising any taxes to pay for the project, but could live with Map 1 or 2.

In the end, the vote to establish Map 2 as the proposed district was unanimous.

The county must now prepare a new report, publish a new map, notify property owners in the new proposed district by mail, and set a public hearing four weeks after the new information is mailed.

Judge asked that the public hearing be held in Buxton "after work hours," and Woodard agreed.


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