By CATHERINE KOZAK
Instead of being dissolved, the Dare County Oregon Inlet and Waterways Commission is being reinvigorated with a more direct approach to Hatteras Inlet’s issues.
At its meeting in Manteo on Tuesday night, the seven-member panel voted unanimously to recommend to the county Board of Commissioners that it continue to function. The panel also agreed to ask the board to seek funds for an economic study of Hatteras Inlet, and in the future, to consider renaming the group with a more inclusive moniker.
It was a remarkable revival for the 32-year-old panel, which had come close to being disbanded and merged into the county’s Oregon Inlet Task Force, an advisory committee created in 2013 to advocate for solutions to that inlet’s severe shoaling.
But Hatteras Inlet users had strong objections to such a merger, fearing that state legislation and funding for their waterway would be lost to Oregon Inlet. Islanders were especially upset that no one from Hatteras was named to the proposed joined group.
“I just don’t think there was any thought put to it, and if it was, it wasn’t thought through.” said Allen Burrus, county commissioner from Hatteras, adding that it left many islanders suspicious that Hatteras would be ignored.
“I don’t know how you reverse it, really,” he said, “because there’s paranoia all around and it’s working on us hard.”
As it turns out, neither panel wanted to combine.
In a meeting earlier on Tuesday, the Task Force had voted unanimously to recommend that Hatteras Inlet secure its own task force, and that the Oregon Inlet Task Force not consolidate with the Waterways Commission.
Bob Woodard, the board chairman, had recently appointed an ad hoc committee of three commissioners to look into details of a possible consolidation of the groups.
Dave May, the commission’s chairman, said that the idea to combine both panels stemmed from a “communication issue,” and there was no intent to take money away from Hatteras. The commission, established by the county in 1983, had become less active over the years, with most of the waterways issues being handled by county staff or the Task Force, communication was haphazard and confusing.
At a meeting last month, the commission members were asked to weigh in on dissolving into the Task Force, with some members being asked to move over. But that left the new panel with no representation from Hatteras.
According to meeting minutes, May said he did not plan to schedule another commission meeting. The assumption was that the county staff would handle the waterways issues other than Oregon Inlet.
But Hatteras Inlet users reacted strongly, saying that their concerns were being dismissed.
“Let me tell you something, if the Oregon Inlet fleet had to go around Roanoke Island to get out,” said Rom Whitaker, a Hatteras charter captain, “ this room would be full.”
Whitaker, who was among numerous Hatteras boat captains in attendance, said that the Waterways Commission has been the place to deal with their navigation issues.
“That’s who we go to to talk about these kind of things. ”
Jim Tobin, the chairman of the Task Force and the vice-chair of the Commission, said he believed that Hatteras Inlet needed its own task force that could meet on Hatteras Island.
“I can honestly say I feel pretty bad I voted to do away with this committee,” Tobin told the Waterways Commission.
It wasn’t until he saw the Commission meeting advertised on the county website, he said, that it was decided to hold another meeting.
Tobin urged Hatteras Inlet advocates to get an economic study done, similar to one that was done for Oregon Inlet, which was partially funded by the Tourism Board. The data in the report would support requests for legislation and funds from the state.
“That’s a really important tool,” Tobin said. “I can’t express more strongly how important a tool that is.”
Several watermen in the audience questioned the role of the commission in representing the interests of Hatteras Island, including getting attention to address severe shoaling in the channels that has hampered safe passage of both ferry and charter vessel traffic.
“Isn’t that what y’all are supposed to be doing for us?” asked Steve Coulter, captain of the Sea Creature.
“Up until February, no one talked to us,” Tobin responded.
But Burrus said the county’s waterways, harbors and emergency ferry channels all get clogged with sand, depending on storms and coastal conditions, and they all have to have attention.
“It’s a smorgasbord of concerns,” he said, “and it’s going to take a full county effort.”
Ernie Foster said that in the 64 years he has been transiting Hatteras Inlet, he has never seen the shoaling problems it has now.
“Working collaboratively somehow seems to make more sense,” Foster said, “rather than us going off into our corners and competing with each other.”
Dewey Hemilright, a Wanchese waterman, agreed.
“There’s not one captain of the ship,” he said. “If you aren’t out there and beating the door down continuously – not just in spurts – you ain’t going to get nothing.”
In fact, shoaling is creating unprecedented navigation problems in Hatteras and Oregon inlets.
“The issues are very different but a lot the same for both inlets,” said Jason Burke, Coast Guard officer in charge of the Aids to Navigation team.
Jed Dixon, deputy director for the Ferry Division and a commission member, told Coulter that the 100-foot wide short channel that had been used until last year had gotten so narrow for ferry traffic it was comparable to Coulter driving his almost 16-foot wide vessel through a 30-foot channel.
“You can’t pass a ferry,” he said. “You can’t even pass charter boats.”
When the Task Force that morning was discussing dissolution of the Waterways Commission, its members had agreed that Dixon would be a good representative for Hatteras on the Task Force, and voted to recommend that Dixon fill the seat vacated by former member John Bayliss. Now that the commission is still active, it is not clear if Dixon will still be asked to join the Task Force.
The consensus of the Task Force was that it was critical not to lose recent momentum in finding a way to address the problems in Oregon Inlet.
A memorandum of agreement, or MOA, is currently being worked out with the Army Corps of Engineers between the county and the state to do year-round dredging in Oregon Inlet, with the state and county splitting the annual estimated $7.3 million cost.
The state and county are also exploring options to pay the dredging tab. Legislation to establish a shallow-draft inlet dredging fund, which passed the state Senate yesterday and moved to the House, would provide $4 million for dredging Oregon Inlet. And the county’s proposed 2015 budget for the 2016 fiscal year includes $3 million for inlet maintenance.
“If we don’t make this happen,” said Task Force Vice-Chairman Harry Schiffman, “we’re pretty much toast on Oregon Inlet. Personally I think it would be a terrible mistake for this group to broaden into other things.”
But the solution to Hatteras Inlet’s considerable problems is also complicated, and many questions remain as to how to address it, and how to fund it. The clash between the two panels highlighted the inherent complexity of what is at stake.
“That’s the problem here,” said Browny Douglas, chairman of the Dare County Republican Party. “There’s so much confusion in every direction. Miscommunication. Misinformation.
“I don’t want to see the anger and the angst continue. It can be worked out. Let’s not bite each other’s heads off.”
But the veteran member of the commission, Manteo waterman Arvin Midgett, expressed encouragement that tensions had abated enough for the commission to get down to business.
“Why can’t we quit all these bygones and really get done what we need to get done?” asked Arvin Midgett. “We are designed to kind of nip at the heels of the commissioners. I’m still ready to quit this barbecue and help Hatteras Inlet.”