About 140 people jammed into the Pitts Center Monday night for a Town Council candidate forum that played out as an affable, low-key affair among the four contenders—who elected not to accentuate their differences or to share many ideas.
The two-hour question-and-answer session, mediated by its sponsor, the League of Women Voters of Dare County, produced no break-out sound bites or rallying moments, although intermittent applause occurred.
The questions, chosen by the League from audience submissions, covered beach nourishment, the cut-through traffic, the Town’s land-use plan and its effectiveness, stormwater problems, the hiring of a new town manager, the candidates’ visions for Southern Shores’ future, the South Dogwood Trail sidewalk, Internet service in town, and more.
(You may view the forum videotape here: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCN61Jac3lSen1L6m_560w7w.)
A question about the “deer problem” allowed the candidates either to profess their affection or respect for the wildlife, or to tell them to “scram,” as former Town Councilman Leo Holland did in recommending a product called Deer Scram.
Both Mr. Holland, a Chicahauk homeowner, and Matt Neal, a Southern Shores native and local builder (Neal Contracting Co.), warned of coyotes overtaking the town’s deer population. Mr. Neal also offered his 3-year-old daughter as an alternative to “Scram.”
Current Town Planning Board chairperson, Elizabeth Morey, took a gentler approach: “We live in nature. We live in their back yard,” she said. The deer are here to stay.
“I kinda like them,” incumbent Town Councilman Fred Newberry noted.
OVERVIEW OF CANDIDATE MESSAGES
The Beacon perceived no dominant personality among the candidates, although Mr. Neal impressed with his broad knowledge of the Town’s zoning code, the Southern Shores shoreline, options for stormwater management, and even information technology. We think he dropped the ball on cut-through traffic, however.
The 36-year-old Mr. Neal, who is currently serving as the president of the Outer Banks Home Builders Assn. (OBHBA), described himself as a research “nut” who does not form hasty opinions. Although he represented himself as a cooperative, open-minded problem solver, he didn’t take that approach in dealing with the traffic question, which is of concern to numerous residents. Mr. Neal lives on Wax Myrtle Trail
Questioned by a homeowner about possible conflicts of interest that he would have serving as both a Town Council member and the OBHBA president, Mr. Neal replied that he thought the roles would be more complementary than conflicting. He cited OBHBA’s critical input in the drafting of the Town’s new occupancy ordinance, which limits vacation cottages to 14 overnight occupants. Nonetheless, he said he would resign his OBHBA presidency, if he were elected.
Town Councilman Newberry, 71, said he would like to be “progressive and guide the town into the future while maintaining [its] ambiance.” He stressed careful planning and budgeting and “input” from the public about the issues the Council has to decide—so that “tax dollars are spent wisely.” He came out in his opening statement as being against “mini-hotels.”
Throughout his tenure, Mr. Newberry, who lives on North Dogwood Trail, has emphasized public involvement and public opinion in Town government decisions. He and Town Councilman Gary McDonald are responsible for there being two public-comment periods during Council meetings and for meeting packets being available to the public online.
Councilman Newberry also opposed the elimination of the Town’s standing committees on planning, finance, and public safety—a move proposed by Mayor Tom Bennett and supported by then-Councilman Holland and Councilman Christopher Nason. (The Mayor did not have to sit on every committee.)
Elizabeth Morey, 60, an eight-year Town Planning Board member who has been chairperson since January, stressed “collegiality and a sense of common purpose.” She said she would “seek to build consensus” and not have a “predetermined” agenda.
“I’m good at listening,” Ms. Morey said, characterizing herself as an “independent thinker.”
The Ginguite Trail homeowner also called herself “passionate about protecting and enhancing this unique place that we live in.”
Mr. Holland, 78, who has been active in the Southern Shores Civic Assn. and served on the Council from 2013-17, spoke of seeking a return to office because citizens “deserve good government,” as well as a Council whose “members seek to work together for the common good of the Town.”
But he offered no examples of when the current Town Council members, who definitely don’t agree with each other, often voting 3-2 on issues, didn’t put the “common good” first. (The Beacon will take up a question about civility on the Town Council in Part Two of our forum analysis.)
Mr. Holland cited “civility, common sense, and practicality” as hallmarks of his governing philosophy. He lives on Spindrift Trail.
PROFFERED IDEAS: DEALING WITH TRAFFIC, SUING THE STATE
The Beacon thought style largely trumped substance Monday night, as specific proposals were hard to come by. One exception was Councilman Newberry’s commitment to tackling seasonal cut-through traffic.
Saying it is “inexcusable” that the Council has not “addressed [the problem] properly,” Mr. Newberry declined to try to explain why the Mayor Bennett-led majority has failed to act during his four-year term (December 2015-November 2019).
“I don’t know,” he said simply.
The traffic problem arose in a question posed by Eleventh Avenue homeowner Greg Pensabene, who directed it to Mr. Holland and Mr. Newberry as “incumbents.” Mr. Holland’s “re-elect” signs that have been posted throughout town have led some people, especially newcomers, to believe that he is a Council incumbent.
Mr. Holland actually was on the Town Council that ignored the results of the paid-facilitator-led October 2014 public workshop on cut-through traffic, attended by upward of 150 people. After considering numerous options, including temporary speed humps and increased stop signs, workshop attendees reached a consensus in support of preventing a left turn on to South Dogwood Trail from U.S. Hwy. 158 on summertime weekends.
First to respond to Mr. Pensabene’s question, Mr. Holland stumbled, confusingly stating, “We tried the left-turn program. That is in the Kitty Hawk municipality, and you got the NC DOT [N.C. Dept. of Transportation] you have to live with and work with. We can do certain things within the town, but we also get some Pell grants that have an impact on that as well.”
N.C. DOT exercised its jurisdiction over U.S. Hwy. 158 to enable last year’s no-left-turn weekend trial, which Mr. Newberry and Councilman Gary McDonald spearheaded, and the Town didn’t have to ask twice. DOT, which sent two representatives to a Town Council meeting months ahead of the weekend trial, at which time it was discussed, was very accommodating. The Kitty Hawk police were not involved.
The Town receives an annual roads grant—known as the Powell grant, not Pell, which is a federal education grant—from the State, but, as Mr. Newberry observed, its amount is “not that significant.” In recent years, it has been $119,000.
“I wish I had an answer” to the cut-through traffic, Mr. Holland concluded, suggesting that maybe the Town should “look into employing a traffic engineer.”
Noting that last year’s no-left-turn weekend trial was “very successful”—despite “numbers” from the police department about traffic volume—Mr. Newberry said, “People have been complaining and speaking up for many years. This is nothing new. There are options. There are things that we can do”
Rather than mention any options, however—which was disappointing to The Beacon—Mr. Newberry cited his sponsorship of a Town Council-sanctioned citizens’ traffic committee, which he said Monday is expected to provide recommendations to the new Council in December.
Given an opportunity to comment, as well, Mr. Neal took a naysaying approach to cut-through traffic reduction, much to The Beacon’s surprise. Prefacing his remarks by saying he “spoke at length with the Police Chief about this last week,” he first dismissed the idea of having “[no] through-traffic signs,” which would be “difficult to enforce,” and then said that the “next step mechanically would be to gate the town, and we would have pass codes and key cards.”
There has never been a groundswell of public support for no through-traffic signs.
We believe Mr. Neal took a giant leap from installing roadside signs to gating the Town 24/7, 365 days a year—another idea that no one has seriously endorsed—and he needs to talk to people other than the Police Chief and those who have similar views in doing his research. He sounded very close-minded when he quoted exorbitant cost figures for year-round gating, which he presumably obtained from Chief Kole and which we remember as being prepared by former Town Manager Peter Rascoe. (Mr. Neal said he would supply The Beacon with documentation.)
Mayor Bennett is on the record as being opposed to impeding the flow of northbound tourist traffic on the cut-through route. He first stated his opposition in a Jan. 23, 2015 “Word from the Mayor” in the Town newsletter. See www.icontact-archive.com/vbh4RGfk5zTd6P1EhGEnwxgUIb2y1Z9h.
The only gating that has ever realistically been discussed by the public—for example, at the October 2014 workshop—has been gating during the heavy summertime weekends. If year-round gating is the direction in which Mr. Newberry’s committee is headed, it will encounter resistance.
Mr. Neal also suggested taking a “nuanced” approach to the traffic, but he didn’t elaborate on what that might be.
Ms. Morey’s comments on cut-through traffic struck The Beacon as those of someone who is sympathetic to Town residents, but coming late to the issue. For example, she suggested staggering rental check-in days to alleviate congestion. Rental companies on the Outer Banks already stagger check-ins on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday and have for many years. Check-ins on other days—Ms. Morey mentioned Thursday—strike The Beacon as a tough sell.
The Beacon applauds Ms. Morey, however, on raising what we thought was the biggest idea of the forum: that of suing the State of North Carolina, in particular, its legislature, for usurping municipal power. Her idea came up in the context of a question about the Town’s land-use plan.
“The folks in Raleigh seem to think that they know better what’s good for us than what we know,” she said, and have diminished the ability of municipalities to “play the role that they should play,” which she described as chiefly to “manage density” and to “protect public health and safety.” She mentioned, in particular, the legislature’s decision to deprive the Town of its ability to restrict the number of bedrooms in a house.
“I say we take it [the legislature] to court. We’ll win, in my opinion,” Ms. Morey said, stating her belief that the Town would be on “solid ground.”
“I would welcome a lawsuit,” she confidently concluded.
While The Beacon would have liked Ms. Morey to elaborate on the specifics of her reasoning—Has she spoken with an attorney? Why does she think the Town has a case and that it would win?—we nonetheless applaud her bold outside-of-the-box stance.
We were less taken with her casual response to a question about the South Dogwood Trail sidewalk, which was simply: “I look forward to walking on the trail as soon as it’s completed . . . with my dog.”
Contractor bids on the sidewalk construction were opened Oct. 4—both Mr. Neal and Mr. Holland misstated the amount of the low bid, which was $623,839.35—and the lame-duck Town Council is expected to choose at its Nov. 6 meeting from among the three bidders. (See The Beacon, 10/5/19)
More important than the cost, we believe, is the considerable design work that the Town Engineer has left for the contractor to figure out—with oversight delegated by the Council to the “Town Manager.” Interim Town Manager Wes Haskett was not the town manager when the Council granted this authority.
With no mention made by the candidates of remaining sidewalk design issues, The Beacon is left wondering who, besides Mr. Newberry, has reviewed the engineer’s plans. We wish the candidates had told us if they have.
PRIORITIES AND BEACH NOURISHMENT
The first question posed by a Southern Shores homeowner at the forum asked the candidates to list what they believe are the top three “priorities” of Southern Shores residents? Residents, not candidates. Only Mr. Neal directly answered the question.
The other three office-seekers provided their own top-three issues—which the League had asked them about in its questionnaire—which are not necessarily, and indeed, are not in some cases, residents’ priorities. The candidates’ questionnaires are available through www.vote411.org. Mr. Neal’s responses are not yet online.
First to answer, Mr. Newberry elaborated upon his campaign’s issues: 1) better money management and planning; 2) the cut-through traffic; and 3) public input in governmental decision-making. (Mr. Newberry was later asked by a homeowner if he would continue to advocate for a five-year Town plan, with budgeting, as he has the past four years, and he said he would.)
Ms. Morey replied: 1) “protection and enhancement of the place we live in”; 2) “better communications between Town Council members”; and 3) “improved communications between the Council and the people who live here.” (Ms. Morey distinguished between a resident priority, which No. 1 represents, and her own priorities, in Nos. 2 and 3. In her forum remarks, she emphasized communication, but she never explained why she thought communication now was lacking.)
Mr. Holland said: 1) the traffic; 2) beach nourishment; and 3) hiring of the town manager. (He cited all three as “Town” priorities.)
Mr. Neal replied: 1) development, in particular, large houses, small lots, and stormwater runoff; 2) traffic; and 3) road improvements and beach management, which have raised cost concerns among residents.
These are the priorities, he said, “that most of you all are telling me when I knock on your door.”
(If you were to list your top three priorities, what would they be, and how closely do they match up with those expressed by the candidates?)
Non-answers also occurred to the second question, which Geri Sullivan, a candidate for Town Council in 2017, asked. Her inquiry was:
“Our town is considering approving a $14 million beach nourishment project, even though several experts from Duck [Research] Pier have questioned the data on which it was proposed. Where do you stand on beach nourishment and how do you think the Town should proceed?”
In their responses, only Mr. Neal and Mr. Newberry took serious note of Ms. Sullivan’s reference to the Field Research Facility oceanographers who questioned the “limited data” of the coastal engineering consultant’s (APTIM’s) most recent beach surveys at the Council’s Sept. 17 planning session.
Calling beach nourishment a “tough issue for me personally,” because he likes the coarse sand, the steep slope, and the natural contour of the Southern Shores beaches, Mr. Neal stated that there are “legitimate questions” about the methodology that APTIM used. He said he would like outside expertise in deciding how “best to interpret the knowledge that comes from APTIM.”
He said the Duck oceanographers, whom he knows personally, view beach nourishment as a “proactive choice” for the Town, but they question the methodology that led to APTIM’s conclusions. (In an interview that The Beacon had with two of them after the Town’s planning session, they scoffed at APTIM’s erosion rate, which is driving its recommendations.)
After the Ash Wednesday storm, which pounded the Outer Banks from March 6-8, 1962, and “knocked out the first flat tops,” Mr. Neal explained, then-unincorporated Southern Shores “created” a new artificial beach.
“We decided to hold our shoreline in 1963 when we built the dune,” Mr. Neal said. “We created that beach. . . . We’ve already impacted [the beach]”
Commenting that he has watched the beach “retreat and come back” at 176 Ocean Blvd., which is the site of a vintage flat top that happens to be next to my family’s 1970s-era cottage, Mr. Neal said, “We have already held our beach with our dune system.”
Despite giving a history lesson illustrating the smarts of the Town’s yesteryear elders, Mr. Neal concluded his wide-ranging remarks by observing that his primary issue with beach nourishment is its cost, not its need.
Mr. Newberry agreed with Mr. Neal’s comments and expressed a desire for “more data and more information,” including from the Duck Research Pier scientists, as well as more public input. “We can’t let emotion override clear reasoning,” he said.
Mr. Newberry said he prefers to view the beach on a “case-by-case basis,” inasmuch as the 3.7-mile-long shoreline differs from one “profile” point to another. The beach in front of Pelican Watch, next to the Kitty Hawk Pier, for example, has eroded much more than other areas. (It was destroyed in 1962.) In 2017, the Pelican Watch beach was renourished for more than $1 million, according to Mr. Newberry.
The Council, he said, informally calculated that the Town would have to pay $1.3 million annually just in interest on a five-year debt to finance a $14-million-plus project.
“We are the people who have to pay for it,” the Councilman said, asking “how are we going to finance it?” and “where is the money coming from?”
Although he mentioned tax increases, Mr. Newberry did not address municipal service districts (MSDs), nor did any of the other candidates. (See The Beacon, 10/2/19, for information about special-obligation bonds and MSDs.)
Calling himself a “proponent” of beach nourishment, Mr. Holland made no mention of the consultant’s data, saying only that we need to ask ourselves two questions: 1) “Is the beach an asset or a liability?” and 2) “Why do tourists come here?”
The Beacon does not consider these rhetorical questions dispositive of a decision on what Mr. Newberry stated will likely be a $16 million-plus project, which anyone who reads APTIM reports can recognize as being based on engineering, not science.
“We need to figure out how we can fund it,” Mr. Holland simply concluded, expressing no opinion on the financing models that have been discussed.
Although she characterized beach nourishment as a “complicated” issue, and made cogent observations about the westward migration of the Outer Banks, the rise in sea level, and the worsening nature of storms, Ms. Morey said she doesn’t view the beach nourishment question in terms of science. Rather, she asks: “What would happen if we don’t do beach nourishment?” and “Does it make sense to not do it at all?”
She cited the Town’s “window of opportunity” to do the project in 2022 with money from Dare County and with the cooperation of the other beach towns that are doing their five-year maintenance then. The next project, she observed, would not be until 2027.
Inasmuch as one obvious answer to Ms. Morey’s first question is “nothing” and another obvious answer is “we may be in an improved situation,” The Beacon was disappointed with her analysis.
“Does it make sense to not do it at all?” Yes, it just might. Before approving beach nourishment, Town Council members should find out.
We would have preferred that Ms. Morey analyze the data that we have now to analyze, including data available through the Duck Research Pier, talk to experts to obtain other opinions, and either challenge or substantiate her own view of inevitability. Once the Town buys into beach nourishment, it’s in a maintenance plan forever.
The Beacon will return on Sunday or Monday with Part Two of our forum analysis, which we promise will be much shorter. Early voting starts next Wednesday.
Ann G. Sjoerdsma, 10/11/19