By CATHERINE KOZAK
The proposed consolidation of the Dare County Oregon Inlet and Waterways Commission and the Oregon Inlet Task Force has been met with strong pushback from users of Hatteras Inlet, who fear their needs will be swamped by Oregon Inlet’s continual woes.
At a contentious meeting on Thursday of the ad-hoc committee appointed by the Dare County Board of Commissioners to discuss details of a merger, Commissioner Allen Burrus, a committee member, insisted that Hatteras Inlet be specifically included in whatever committee, legislation and funding is employed to address inlet dredging.
Commissioners Warren Judge and Beverly Boswell, the chairwoman, are the other two members.
What doesn’t need to happen, Burrus said, is a return to when there was Dare County, and then there was Hatteras Island as an afterthought.
“My point is, we don’t need to separate things out,” Burrus said. “We need to work together to get things done. I’m not interested in going back to the 1980s.”
Choked by massive migrating shoals, Oregon Inlet had been barely navigable until last month. And Hatteras Inlet has a severely shoaled navigational channel, forcing ferry and charter vessel traffic to use a longer channel.
Burrus said that some people seem to resent that Hatteras expects attention. But, he said, Hatteras Island contributes about 25 percent of the county’s occupancy tax revenue – most of it related to tourism and fishing . So the island is not looking for a handout by seeking its share of tax revenue to maintain a waterway used by tourists and fishing activities.
But others said they were worried that there is too much going on in Raleigh and Washington, and that ongoing efforts could be diluted.
Mikey Daniels, who has been on the Waterways Commission since it first was formed, said he agrees that Hatteras Inlet needs attention. But he does not want to take the focus off Oregon Inlet.
“Sometimes if you hone in on one thing,” he said, “you can do better.”
Daniels questioned why the board objected to state legislation that would tap the county’s beach nourishment fund, which is funded by a 2-cent occupancy tax, for dredging.
“It was a perfect thing for y’all to use,” he said.
Boswell agreed: “We had it in our hot little hands,” she said, adding that she had assured the board that the bill included both inlets.
Responding, Judge said that the occupancy tax proposal was not an agenda item, and the surprised board had no time to consider it. Nonetheless, after much discussion, he said, the board did vote to use the county share of the revenue.
Britton Shackelford, a Wanchese waterman, was sympathetic to Hatteras’ concerns. But Oregon Inlet, he said, has bigger boats, national parks on both sides, the Bonner Bridge and different dynamics.
“I don’t understand Hatteras Inlet,” he said. “I do understand it’s a mess. I do know it’s a vital resource in Dare County. It needs its own group.”
Shackelford urged that future meetings be held at night so that more people could attend.
Michah Daniels, Mikey’s daughter, suggested that the Task Force could be a model for a similar panel focused on Hatteras Inlet.
According to a draft of an April 21 letter signed by Waterways Commission chairman Dave May, a vote had been taken by the commission to “comply with the wishes of the Dare County Board of Commissioners to disband.”
But Board Chairman Bob Woodard said Thursday that there was no directive from the board to disband. He said it was more of a conclusion the two boards had reached after discussing for months the possibility of combining. Fewer people were participating in the Waterways Commission, and much of its original role has been taken over by the county staff and the Task Force.
“It was discussed among both sides of possibly merging that board, and possibly disbanding,” Woodard said. “I said, ‘If that’s the case, then y’all need to vote on it and send us a letter.’ We couldn’t accept this verbally.”
The commission was created in 1983 to advise the county on Oregon Inlet and act as liaison between federal agencies. The Task Force was established in 2013 to focus on solutions to navigation issues in Oregon Inlet.
During the waterways commission April meeting , it was agreed that May and commission member Jed Dixon would move over to the Task Force. But no membership from Hatteras Island was named. Commission member Ernie Foster from Hatteras objected to the proposal.
“Ernie again and quite upset stated that he felt that Hatteras Inlet is being left out,” the meeting’s draft minutes said.
Woodard said that the Board of Commissioners would have to vote to approve dissolution of the commission, as well as creation of a merged committee.
The ad-hoc group was given 30 days to come up with a name and membership for the merged committee, Woodard said. But until it comes back to the board, it won’t be clear how the increasingly urgent and messy issues will be resolved.
“We may do something else,” Woodard said.
Beth Midgett said that her family’s businesses include Midgett Realty as well as Hatteras Landing and Teach’s Lair marinas, so she has interests in both tourism and fishing. The increased shoaling, she said, has affected not only ferry traffic to and from Ocracoke Island from Hatteras – the busiest ferry route in the state – it is also having a detrimental impact on the fishing industry.
For instance, Midgett said, only 28 private and charter fishing vessels are participating in the 21st annual Hatteras Village Offshore Open Tournament that began this week. At its height in 2007, there were 70 vessels. She said bigger boats avoid Hatteras Inlet because of the shoaling.
“We want those big boats,” she said. “It’s a huge difference in the vibe of the village.”
Midgett said that she was concerned that the proposed merged committee did not include a representative from Hatteras.
“All we are asking for is what we had,” she said. “I think bringing everybody to the table –somehow, someway – that has to be done.”
As Oregon Inlet conditions improve, attention turns to long-term solutions