Anyone who has followed the National Park Service?s efforts to formulate an off-road vehicle plan for the Cape Hatteras National Seashore knows that far-reaching changes to the traditional use of our beaches are coming.
They are changes that will affect the culture and the economy of Hatteras and Ocracoke islands.
It?s also been apparent for at least the last decade that one of the biggest of those changes will be the requirement that we buy a permit to drive on the beach.
However, these changes have always been out there somewhere on the horizon, down the road, as the rulemaking effort proceeded in stops and starts and stalls along the way.
Now we are about to reach the end of the road, and the changes are just around the corner.
Not too long after the start of the new year, we will have to buy the permit if we want to drive on the beach. All who want to drive on the beach will have to buy one ? whether you have lived here all your life, are visiting for a week, or just passing through for a day.
When local reporters met with seashore superintendent Mike Murray last week, the ORV rule was the first topic up for discussion.
rMurray reiterated that the Park Service will publish the final ORV rule in the Federal Register in January, and that it will become effective by Feb. 15.
We had plenty of questions for Murray, not all of which he could answer. The final rule is still under review in Washington by NPS and the Office of Management and Budget, and the superintendent cannot discuss the details until the final rule is just that ? final.
But he did talk in generalities about what?s about to happen here as the park prepares to implement the new plan.
First, Murray said that procedurally, the rule is usually not effective until 30 days after publication, but, he said, there are ways to get it done in fewer than 30 days if necessary to meet the court-agreed-to Feb. 15 deadline.
He said that there were 21,000 comments submitted on the draft ORV rule and that he would characterize them as ?polarized.?
?People generally thought there was either too much or too little ORV access,? he said.
The published final rule, he said, will have a long preamble in which the Park Service will describe and answer the comments and identify what has been changed from the draft rule because of the comments.
Permits, Murray said, will go on sale when ? or right after ? the rule becomes effective in February.
The park has already placed trailers at Coquina Beach, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse and Visitor Center, and the Ocracoke Visitor Center at which the permits will be sold.
?We are not satisfied with the appearance,? Murray said. And indeed the trailer parked in the shadow of the Hatteras lighthouse is pretty much an eyesore.
He said the park will eventually build new structures for permit sales, but was not prepared to do so at the start. Among other things, he said, officials may decide that those three locations are not the best or most convenient.
We will have to apply for the permits in person at one of these sights. We will watch a seven-minute educational video about beach driving and regulations and sign an agreement that we understand and will abide by the rules.
Then we will receive either a sticker for the windshield or a permit that will hang on the vehicle?s rear view mirror, depending on whether we have purchased an annual or seven-day permit.
Annual or seven-day permits will be the only choices. There will be no daily permits for anyone coming to the seashore just for the day. And visitors whose vacation lasts more than one week will probably choose an annual permit, since it will probably be more cost effective.
Permits will go with the vehicle, ?like a license plate,? Murray said.
If you buy a permit for your vehicle, you can let friends or family drive it, but you are responsible for making sure they know the rules. If you have more than one vehicle that you drive to the beach, you will need a permit for each one.
Murray said that park officials are trying ?to figure out the Saturday-Sunday rush? for permits as new visitors arrive.
There is certainly a good possibility that the weekend rush will be a nightmare scenario.
Also, he said that after the permits go on sale this winter, there will be a grace period since the park understands that not everyone who wants an annual permit can get it immediately. The first few days or weeks of permit sales, even just to locals, could be pretty hectic.
The park has not decided yet if you will have to appear in person and view the video each year to renew your permit.
Many had hoped to see the permits sold online. Certainly, the technology is available to make sure an applicant has watched the educational video before receiving the permit.
However, Murray said that traditionally the Park Service prefers face-to-face interaction for the educational segment of permitting activities.
Online sales, he said, could be considered at some point in the future.
Now what everyone wants to know about the permits is: How much will they cost.
If the park knows what the permits will cost, no one is saying so now, with maybe only two months to go before they are required.
Murray said a decision still had not been made. He referred reporters to the pages in Appendix C of the Final Environmental Impact statement, issued in November, 2010.
In its answers to public comments on permit fees, the Park Service said the cost would be similar to what is charged at Cape Cod or Assateague national seashores and mentions the range of $90 to $150 for an annual permit.
?We?ll probably start out somewhere in the middle of the range,? Murray said.
Weekly permits will cost a third or a half of the annual permits, depending on whether the annual permit fee is on the lower end or higher end of the range.
There is no limit on the number of permits that can be sold, but the Park Service has set carrying capacity for the beaches. When beaches reach the carrying capacity, no more vehicles will be allowed until some leave.
The carrying capacity is described in the park?s preferred alternative for the ORV plan as the linear distance of the open beach route divided by six meters (20 feet) per vehicle. This is the equivalent of 260 vehicles per mile.
In addition, vehicles will be allowed to park only one deep on the beach ? stacking of vehicles behind each other or circling vehicles as a wind block will not be allowed.
Currently night-driving permits, which are available online, are required for driving at night from Sept. 16-Nov. 15. Under the permit system, night driving times and restrictions will be part of the permit, so you won?t need another one to drive at night in the fall.
Also, permits can be revoked if the person who is permitted violates the rules, especially for serious offenses, such as drunk driving or driving in a closed resource area.
One complication with setting the fee is that the permits are a cost recovery program. NPS will determine all of the costs ? staffing, supplies, equipment, and other non-personnel services coast ? that will be necessary to run the program. This number will be divided by the estimated number of permits by type (annual and seven-day) that will be sold to reach the cost of the permit.
Murray notes that the initial cost will be subjective, based on an estimate of the number of permits the park will sell in the first year. That estimate has apparently not yet been determined.
The ORV plan also calls for infrastructure improvements on the seashore to address the new access areas, such as pedestrian-only beaches. Most of the improvements include additional ramps and parking areas.
The Park Service will begin the process of developing an Environmental Assessment (EA) for the improvements in January.
However, all the aspects of the plan, including beaches for pedestrians only, will be implemented when the final plan is effective.
Murray sees no problem with that, since he says most of the improvements are ?redundant? ? such as extra ramps that would help provide access to beaches when a nearby ramp is closed because of nesting birds.
The EA will be subject to public scoping and the Park Service will issue a draft before there is a final plan for the improvements.
Murray says he has discussed the issue of funding the improvements with park officials at the regional and national level.
?They all agree,? he said, ?that if it?s in the plan, we need to have the money to follow through.?
However, he added that there is a good chance that all of the improvements will not be funded in the first year of the plan.
It seems to be a given that the improvements won?t be in place the first year if the park has to do an environmental Assessment and find funding for them.
All in all, it?s fair to say that the rules about to become final, especially the permits, are going to be difficult for some folks to adjust to.
For many, the changes will be a shock.
And there are many ? perhaps more islanders than visitors ? who have not kept up with the rulemaking process and don?t know there are permits in their very near future.
Friends have been asking me just this week about the ?rumor? that we will have to pay to drive on the beach.
Well, trust me, it?s not a rumor.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
To read more about the November, 2010, Final Environmental Impact Statement, click here. The EIS will largely provide the framework for the plan and access to the beaches.
To read more about the draft ORV regulation, published last summer, click here.