A provision in the proposed state Senate budget that would consider options to acquire Oregon Inlet was a surprise to officials at Cape Hatteras National Seashore, the owner of the waterway’s submerged land and much of the adjacent property.
“We have not had conversations with anybody at all about acquiring Oregon Inlet,” said Darrell Echols, deputy superintendent of the National Park Service Outer Banks Group. “This is news to us.”
Released on Monday, the $20.58 billion spending plan was passed tentatively by the state Senate on Wednesday, according to a prepared statement from Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger, R-Rockingham.
“I’m proud of the Senate’s commitment to delivering budgets,” Berger said, “that reasonably and responsibly direct available resources toward real needs.”
The bill provides for the creation of a 13-member Oregon Inlet Land Acquisition Task Force to determine, review, and consider ways to have the inlet and its adjacent real estate transferred from the federal government to the state.
“Acquiring the property . . . will allow the state to preserve Oregon Inlet and to develop long-term management solutions for preserving and enhancing the navigability of Oregon Inlet,” the bill said, “which is both a critical transportation corridor and a critical source of commerce for the state’s Outer Banks.”
The task force would be charged with consulting with the state property office, relevant federal agencies, and the North Carolina congressional delegation “to establish the monetary value” of the inlet and the surrounding property. It would also be responsible for determining whether the federal government would be willing to sell or exchange the inlet for state-owned property.
Finally, the task force would explore any options for the acquisition, including “condemnation of the coastal lands conveyed to the federal government in a deed dated August 7, 1958” that are listed by longitude and latitude at the end of the section.
Echols said that, in general, the Park Service has been involved in land acquisitions and trades, so “obviously, it’s possible.” But he said that no one from the state has talked to seashore managers, or anyone else at the agency, about the possibility of relinquishing Oregon Inlet.
“The only conversation we’ve had in the last few months is with Congressman Jones’ office about Park Service boundaries at Oregon Inlet,” he said.
As a notoriously mercurial waterway prone to dangerous currents, Oregon Inlet has frustrated boaters, fishermen, and even dredge operators with its shifting shoals and unpredictable conditions. For decades, watermen tried to get funding for twin jetties to secure the navigational channel, until the federal government finally shot the proposal down for good 10 years ago.
Since then, the channel has been dredged repeatedly by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and marked by the U.S. Coast Guard, but maintenance funding is an annual battle. A string of recent storms has exacerbated the shoaling, resulting in long periods where the inlet has been virtually impassable.
Dare County favors most anything that will keep the inlet “open, stable and viable,” including state control of the waterway, said Bobby Outten, the county attorney and manager.
“We would certainly support it,” he said. “It’s a good idea.”
Outten said that the county was expecting that some sort of measure would be introduced in the General Assembly that would help to stabilize the inlet.
“It’s something that Dare County and the Oregon Inlet Task Force have been talking about,” he said. But he said the county did not have direct input into the proposed bill.
“We didn’t draw that language up and say, ‘Here, do that.’”
Outten said that the county is willing to entertain any potentially effective solution, whether a dredge stationed at the inlet, a sand bypass system, or a terminal groin, as long as it is environmentally and financially feasible.
Ownership of the inlet was not discussed during a recent visit from Gov. Pat McCrory and Secretary of Transportation Tony Tata, Outten said. The acquisition bill also has not been brought up with Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., or with the Park Service, he said.
If the proposed bill leads to a way to keep the inlet maintained and passable so that marine commerce can be revitalized, Outten said, it would buoy the economy statewide.
“Oregon Inlet has generated a tremendous amount of revenue for Dare County and North Carolina,” he said, “As it closes, we lose that revenue.”
The Senate bill also proposed to fund dredging shallow draft channels like Oregon Inlet with about $2.2 million from the Highway Fund, provided partly from revenue from a motor fuel tax and increases in boat registration fees.
The budget bill is expected to have a final vote in the Senate today. It will then go to the House, where differences in the spending plans must be reconciled before the budget is approved and sent to the governor for his signature.