The Hatteras Island Ocean Center moved a step closer to reality on Monday night when the Dare County Board of commissioners unanimously approved an amendment to the Dare County zoning ordinance.
The amendment adds piers to the conditional uses allowed in the C-2 H district.
The ocean center would be located on 1.5 acres of oceanfront property in Hatteras village where the Gen. Mitchell Motel was located before it was destroyed by Hurricane Isabel in 2003. The non-profit board that is planning and raising funds for the center also has a contract for a parcel nearby, on the west side of Highway 12, that would be used for parking.
The ocean center also has an eye on three pieces of property to the west of the pier site and on the soundside of the highway. If the board is able to purchase that property, it will be used for walking, launching kayaks and canoes, a skate park, and the educational component of the center, including a nature education and research center, classrooms, and environmental education exhibits.
The scope of the project promises to be a terrific economic boon to Hatteras village and to the southern Hatteras Island.
At a hearing on the zoning change on Monday, five people spoke in favor of the project, including Eric Kaplan, who had the vision for the ocean center last summer and has worked tirelessly to make it a reality.
Kaplan splits his time between Charlottesville, Va., and Frisco, where he built a home several years ago.
Joining him to endorse the project were Steve Nelson, owner of the Inn on Pamlico Sound, Beth Midgett of Midgett Realty, Liz Browning Fox of Buxton, and Ann Wood of Surf or Sound Realty.
One person spoke in less glowing terms about the project. He was Ben Gallop, a Nags Head attorney, who represents the Summer Place Homeowners Association.
Gallop did not so much oppose the zoning change as he did talk about his clients’ concern about the project.
“It’s clear that the board supports the ocean center and pier,” Gallop said in an interview on Wednesday. “My clients asked me to address some of the details.”
The Summer Place Homeowners Association wrote the Board of Commissioners a two-page letter outlining their opposition. Gallop addressed some of those issues in his three-minutes at the hearing.
The commissioners approved the zoning change, and said that other issues about lighting, erosion, and damage to the pier could be addressed later.
The Ocean Center will have to present a site plan to the county planning board and the commissioners for approval.
The homeowners association represents 40 owners of vacation homes in Summer Place, a very upscale development.
They stressed in their letter, as Gallop did in the interview, that they do not oppose economic development, more jobs, more education or any other aspect of the project.
In fact, they do not oppose the concept of an ocean center. They say in their letter and in e-mails to Eric Kaplan that they support it and want to work with him on it.
Their attorney stresses that they are “not opposed to development” next to their properties.
The homeowners knew when they bought their property that the neighboring land was zoned commercial and that condos or a restaurant or shopping center or the like could be built there, Gallop said.
In fact, one of the proposals for the land after Hurricane Island was a 51-unit condominium development.
That, Gallop said, the homeowners would not oppose.
The one and only thing they oppose is the pier.
The pier, they say, would ruin their unobstructed view of the ocean.
They like that, and they say the folks who rent their houses write in the guest book that they really like the view – and the empty beach and all that.
These people really need to get a grip on reality.
Not one of them came to the hearing. They sent an attorney to represent them.
Kaplan has tried to reach out to the homeowners and even meet with them as a group or in a series of smaller meetings, but the board prefers that he deal with them and not with the homeowners directly.
In e-mails to Kaplan and in their letter to the Board of Commissioners, the homeowners make a case that their interests are “aligned with other members of the local community.” They say that they are significant contributors to the economic vitality of Hatteras village and that “we are all in this together.”
They say in their letter that there is a possibility that there would be “very little net positive economic impact” of a pier.
Their reasoning is that studies show the vast majority of fishing pier use occurs between May and October, when rental units are already full or nearly so.
“Thus,” they say, “it is unlikely that the pier will produce a net increase in economic activity.”
The Summer Place Homeowners Association has completely missed the point of how the ocean center could significantly improve the economy of Hatteras village.
Sure, rental houses in the village are full in the summer season and folks who stay in them shop in the village and eat in restaurants and the like.
However, Hatteras village needs more.
It needs visitors who are staying in other villages or north of the Bonner Bridge to come to the village to shop and eat. As it is now, a lot of them come to the village, but most are on their way to the ferry docks and pass by most local shops and restaurants.
An ocean center with a fishing pier, a restaurant, some shops, educational programs, nature and kayaking trails, and much more would draw in those visitors. It would give them a reason to come to Hatteras village and stay a while instead of just passing through.
One of the concerns the homeowners put forth is their concern about storm damage to the pier and whether the non-profit board would be able to pay for repairs.
That’s valid to discuss as the project goes forward.
The Summer Place Homeowners need to realize that fishing piers are a traditional use of oceanfront property, not only on the North Carolina Coast but up and down the East Coast.
Folks love to fish on them and stroll on them and watch the fishermen. They are places nostalgically remembered by many, many families whose summer vacation included a trip to the beach.
All the Summer Place homeowners are seeing is an eyesore that would ruin the view from their expensive homes.
I go back to the blog I wrote in December, entitled “Why we need the Hatteras Island Ocean Center:
“I think the best thing about the Hatteras Island Ocean Center is that it would be an economic engine, but would also offer islanders and visitors a place to fish, swim, surf, and dine with ocean views – and teach us all about our barrier island environment I wrote then.
“The Ocean Center board members are invested in seeing this project through without ruining the scenery and the environment, but enhancing it.
“It will give the community a hub, a gathering place. And it will bring in tourists.”
The Summer Place Homeowners have some valid concerns, and they should work with the Ocean Center board to address such issues as damage to the pier and lighting.
But they need to get over this issue of having their view ruined. There are three other fishing piers on Hatteras, and they don’t seem to have ruined property values in the neighborhood, even the falling-down Frisco Pier, which has not been open for three seasons.
The ocean center has come a long way in less than a year, and it still has a long way to go. But it has the potential to be one of the best things that ever happened to Hatteras village.
And I really don’t understand why the owners of those very expensive properties would rather have a 51-unit condominium complex as a neighbor than an attractive fishing pier to provide recreation and education.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
To read two previous stories in Island Free Press about the plans for the Hatteras Island Ocean Center, go to http://islandfreepress.org/2011Archives/11.14.2011-HatterasIslandOceanCenterIsANewProjectThatWouldBeAFishingPierAndMuchMore and
To check on updates on the ocean center and see site plans and an architect’s rendering of the pier and pier house, go to the website, www.hioceancenter.org.