On Oct. 2, 2014, an estimated crowd of 130 people filled the Kitty Hawk Elementary School gymnasium for a public forum whose purpose had been publicized as “to receive public comments, ideas, and concerns on any possible solutions to increased seasonal vehicular traffic on any public street of the Town of Southern Shores.”
I sometimes wonder if I imagined this meeting, because I seem to be the only one in Southern Shores who ever recalls it in private conversations and public comments.
Whenever I bring it up at Town Council meetings, Mayor Tom Bennett does not react, but I know he was there, as were Town Manager Peter Rascoe and all of the then-Town Council members, except Leo Holland: David Sanders, Jodi Hess, and Larry Lawhon.
So that history either will or will not repeat itself, I detail the facts of the 2014 meeting below. Please consider this an editorial.
As The Beacon reported June 5, 2019, the Town Council unanimously approved at its June 4 meeting a sanctioned seven-member citizens’ advisory committee to study ways in which the cut-through traffic can be curtailed. Homeowner Tommy Karole, who lives on East Dogwood Trail near its intersection with South-North Dogwood trails, is to chair the committee, and Councilman Fred Newberry, a North Dogwood Trail resident, will serve as an adviser. Mr. Newberry championed its formation.
The committee should know what it’s up against. As should the public, especially those who are newcomers.
Within minutes after the October 2014 special meeting opened, it became clear to audience members that the public forum on traffic would not be the welcome airing and unfiltered exchange of views that they had anticipated and hoped for. It would not be a series of public speakers, much less a free-flowing discussion.
No, it would be a carefully orchestrated “facilitation” by a paid professional from Raleigh who had been instructed by Mayor Bennett and the Town Council on how to focus and direct the meeting. I called it a dog-and-pony show then, and I repeat the description today. Frankly, I felt manipulated.
A number of homeowners walked out in disgust after Madeleine Henley of Walking Stick Associates explained the hours-long exercise that would occur that night and started writing the rules of the exercise on a board—items along the lines of be respectful and polite; listen to others, without interrupting or talking over them.
I have participated in a number of facilitated organizational meetings and have even been the mediator/facilitator, but I did not attend this public forum expecting it to be so tightly controlled and scripted. Nor did I expect it to consume the whole night. Like others, I was hugely disappointed, but I hung in.
Back then, I knew nothing about the modus operandi of Mayor Bennett’s administration.
The “forum” lasted more than three hours. Many ideas for either discouraging or restricting summertime weekend cut-through traffic in the residential areas were suggested—the overwhelming majority of which were summarily dismissed later by the Mayor and Town Council, who showed little interest in doing anything.
Before the forum, the only tactic that I can recall having been used to discourage cut-through traffic was the police checkpoint. Police officers would stop vehicles on South Dogwood Trail between the elementary school and the Duck Woods Country Club to check driver’s licenses, car registrations, and car inspections.
I do not believe “decoy” or unmanned police vehicles on the side of the road were tried until later. But we all know how effective they are once drivers figure out, and pass the word, that there’s no one in them.
Among the many ideas that were offered by forum participants were the following:
*lowering speed limits on the affected streets during the high season;
*installing speed humps (either mobile temporary ones or permanent ones) and speed cameras;
*installing more stop signs (one person suggested a temporary stop sign at every side street off of South Dogwood Trail)
*installing a traffic light at the South-North-East Dogwood trails intersection;
*changing certain streets so that they run one-way during certain hours on summertime weekends;
*making the center-turn lane on N.C. Hwy. 12 a flex through-lane on weekends, depending on the time of day;
*increasing police presence and police enforcement of speed limits and stops;
*staggering vacation rental check-ins over Friday, Saturday and Sunday;
*asking MapQuest (the only problem navigator then) not to direct drivers through the Southern Shores woods;
*declaring the cut-through roads to be private and then closing them to non-residents;
*prohibiting through trucks, according to vehicular weight restrictions;
*putting up signage indicated there is no through traffic;
*expanding turn restrictions, in particular, prohibiting the left turn from U.S. Hwy. 158 on to South Dogwood Trail; and
*gating Southern Shores at South Dogwood Trail, Juniper Trail, and Porpoise Run.
The consensus achieved with forum participants through Mr. Henley’s mediation was to prohibit the left turn at U.S. 158 and South Dogwood Trail. But this was only one of numerous proposed strategies. It was not the be-all-and-end-all.
THE OFFICIAL KIBOSH: THE MAYOR SPEAKS
Ms. Henley presented her report on the Oct. 2, 2014 forum to the Town Council at its Nov. 18, 2014 regular meeting—back when the Council still had Thursday morning meetings which, conspicuously, were not videotaped. (See the 11/18/14 minutes here: https://www.southernshores-nc.gov/wp-content/uploads/minutes-agendas-newsletters/Minutes_2014-11-18.pdf.)
The Council took no action on it. A little over two months later, Mayor Bennett put the kibosh on the left-turn prohibition and any other cut-through traffic solutions that had a realistic chance of making a difference.
In a memorable “Word From the Mayor” column in the Jan. 23, 2015 Town newsletter, Mayor Bennett rejected “prohibiting access to any of the Town’s public streets by barricades or outright closures” and failed to address any of the other ideas that came out of the forum.
(The roads in Southern Shores, with the exception of N.C. Hwy. 12 and some privately owned roads, such as a section of Fairway Drive, are owned by the Town, not by the State of North Carolina.)
The Mayor also reminded Southern Shores homeowners that tourists “provide the bulk of the fuel for our economy” and that most of us bought or built our homes in Southern Shores “well aware that the Outer Banks was and continues to be a most popular tourist destination” and able to anticipate the “dynamic growth of our northern beaches and the potential impact on our community.” (See the 1/23/15 newsletter here: http://www.icontact-archive.com/vbh4RGfk5zTd6P1EhGEnwxgUIb2y1Z9h.)
The Mayor chose to support promoting alternative travel routes, such as Interstate 95 south to N.C. 64, then east to the Outer Banks (an out-of-the-way idea that was bound to fail); encouraging “industry-established alternate rental check-in days” (Southern Shores Realty Co. has long had Friday-Saturday-Sunday check-ins); and assisting with traffic control at the big U.S. 158-N.C. 12 intersection (an idea that has only limited effect).
In the years since the 2014 forum, the cut-through traffic has only become worse, as the tools for navigating around the backup on N.C. Hwy. 12 have become more numerous and Southern Shores town officials persist in taking no action to protect residents.
Residents now think about how they can outsmart the popular navigation app, Waze, so that they can run an errand to the Marketplace without spending an hour or more on the road getting home.
That’s the obvious problem with cutting through on South Dogwood Trail: Drivers end up sitting in gridlock on Hillcrest Drive and Sea Oats Trail, instead of on N.C. 12!
The June 23-24, 2018 no-left-turn trial weekend came about only because Town Councilmen Fred Newberry and Gary McDonald, having listened to residents complain for years about the cut-through traffic, lobbied for a public meeting with representatives from the N.C. Dept. of Transportation. When these representatives made it clear at the Town Council’s Sept. 5, 2018 meeting that DOT would support the Town in any actions it wanted to try to curb the cut-through traffic, Councilmen Newberry and McDonald pushed for the directive that enabled the no-left-turn trial to occur.
The Beacon reported extensively on the “peaceful, safe weekend” that we enjoyed last June, noting that not only were there no backups on residential streets, the traffic on Hwy. 158 and N.C. 12 moved faster: N.C. 12 did not get blocked by side traffic turning left on to the thoroughfare from Hickory Trail, Hillcrest Drive, Eleventh Avenue, and Sea Oats Trail. There was no “blocking of the box.” (See The Beacon, 6/25/19.)
Despite the overwhelmingly positive experience that Southern Shores residents had last June during the no-left-turn weekend, a majority of the Town Council—Mayor Bennett and Councilmen Christopher Nason and Jim Conners—has refused to build upon this success and has perpetuated false conclusions and biases whenever they discuss the trial. (See The Beacon, 6/29/18 and 7/6/18.)
They also have not offered any other strategies for reducing traffic.
OPPORTUNITY FOR CHANGE: THE MAYOR SPEAKS AGAIN
The formation of the new cut-through traffic committee that Mr. Karole will chair represents an opportunity for change. Even Councilman Conners, who persists in believing that his own personal anecdotes are evidence of something more than a few anecdotes that may or may not be biased, told Mr. Karole at the Council’s June 4 meeting: “Bring us ideas.”
But Mayor Bennett would not leave it at that.
Saying that he was not “trying” to “put a damper on things,” the Mayor nonetheless issued the following cautionary message, reminiscent of his January 2015 “Word From the Mayor,” after the Council’s vote on the new committee:
“I find it interesting,” he said, “that Dare County through their tourist bureau and their efforts spends millions of dollars every year to bring visitors to the Outer Banks and encouraging people to take their vacations with us. . . . Currituck does the same thing. We benefit directly from those dollars that the tourist industry provides to the county. There’s no question about that. We get back a good part of our budget that we operate with from those tourist dollars.
“I wonder what kind of message Southern Shores is sending if we’re going to start dreaming up ways to keep people off our streets. I think it’s something we have to consider pretty carefully. What are we saying to the tourists when they come to an intersection and they can’t go any further?”
First of all, it has yet to be determined if all cut-through traffic will be prohibited. The committee may have other ideas in mind.
Secondly, most of the tourists traveling through our neighborhood, wearing down our roads, are headed to Currituck County, not Dare, and the tourism dollars they spend in Currituck County do not end up in Southern Shores’ revenues.
But money is not the issue. Nor is tourism.
What we’re saying to the cut-through drivers is what people throughout this country say to cut-through drivers when they block or otherwise hinder their path because they’re posing a safety and welfare threat to residents, and what those same cut-through tourists would say to drivers cutting through on their residential streets: Stick to the main road. Stick to the thoroughfare. Stop endangering, disturbing, inconveniencing, and harassing residents.
And incidentally, if you stick to the main road, you’ll get where you’re going faster because when you enter N.C. 12 from a side street, block the intersection, and slow the traffic flow, you only make things worse.
I wonder if Mayor Bennett would be so concerned about northbound tourists and Dare County tourism dollars if Hickory Trail were blocked so that the cut-through traffic were to turn left on Hillcrest Drive from East Dogwood Trail and drive past his house. Would he be so solicitous of tourists’ welfare?
Every time the Town Council discusses changing the cut-through traffic pattern, Councilman Nason, who lives on Trinitie Trail, which is an extension of Juniper Trail, is quick to insist upon protection for residents on Juniper Trail.
He seemed very concerned at the June 4 Council meeting about the people on Wax Myrtle Trail who allegedly complained about increased traffic on their street, down near Porpoise Run, during the no-left-turn weekend. Why does he worry about them, but not the hundreds of others who are weekly affected by the traffic load?
Councilman Conners, who lives on Duck Woods Drive, does not want to see his street used by drivers for U-turns so that they can return to South Dogwood Trail and turn right, rather than left.
Aren’t we all in on this together?
We need our elected officials to take care of all of us and the tourists who vacation in Southern Shores. Duck and Currituck County seem to have no trouble looking after their own interests.
As soon as Mr. Karole announces his plans for the cut-through study committee, The Beacon will publish a report.
Ann G. Sjoerdsma, 6/13/19