5/15/22: TOWN COUNCIL’S DISCUSSION ABOUT SUMMER CUT-THROUGH TRAFFIC DISAPPOINTS: THE DETAILS.

Today we continue our critique of the Town Council’s discussion of the Town Manager’s proposed summer traffic mitigation plan at its May 3 meeting. Members of the board showed during their limited exchange a lack of preparation, knowledge, and/or awareness of the extent of the problem. We also heard factual inaccuracies.

After Town Manager Cliff Ogburn detailed the mitigation “options” for the Council to consider implementing this summer, Mayor Elizabeth Morey asked who among her four colleagues wanted to start the discussion. No one said anything until Mr. Holland laughingly said, “Nobody.”

This is unacceptable. Cut-through traffic-plagued residents, who have been lobbying the Town Council for years for relief and who invested time and trust in a citizens’ committee, authorized by the Council itself, to address the problem, deserve far better from Town decision-makers than avoidance and hesitancy.   

The Town Council has authorized Mr. Ogburn to manage traffic “mitigation,” but it is still setting policy and calling the shots.

Minutes after the slow “Nobody” start at the May meeting, a Town Council member asked, “What happens if we do nothing?,” and other members seriously considered that prospect. Someone has to hold the decision-makers publicly accountable.

(For a detailed description of the mitigation options proposed and recommended by Mr. Ogburn, see The Beacon, 4/27/22 and 4/29/22.)

(For our article about discontinuing the no-left-turn at U.S. Hwy. 158 and South Dogwood Trail, see The Beacon, 5/13/22.)

TRAFFIC HOMEWORK

Property taxes and summertime traffic are the most important issues for Southern Shores residents. A Southern Shores Town Council member has to be well-versed about both in order to represent his or her constituency responsibly. Town Council members have to do their homework and make decisions in context, not off-the-cuff.

When Councilman Leo Holland spoke vaguely at the May 3 meeting about the Council trying “various mandates” over the years to address the cut-through traffic, he revised history, and those on the Town Council who know better allowed him to do so.

We’ve been here 30 years, most of them living smack dab in the middle of the cut-through route. We believe the traffic first became oppressive about 10 to 12 years ago and has steadily worsened each year. Before the experimental no-left-turn weekend in June 2018, the only means by which the Town sought to discourage cut-through traffic was by the occasional use of police checkpoints on South Dogwood Trail. The police stopped every vehicle and asked drivers for their licenses and registration. The checkpoints slowed the traffic and annoyed drivers.

We will gladly stand corrected if Mr. Holland can produce “mandates.” But all that he said at the meeting was that the town had tried “blocking here, doing this, doing that,” without being specific about any tactics. This level of discourse is unacceptable.

DOING NOTHING

In response to appointed Town Council member and Chicahauk homeowner Mark Batenic’s alarming and appalling question of “What happens if we do nothing?”—which someone else on the Council should have immediately said was NOT an option—Mr. Holland said, “That’s been proposed once before some time ago.”

No, the truth is doing nothing had been the Town Council’s modus operandi until the June 23-24 experimental no-left turn weekend, which former Council members Fred Newberry and Gary McDonald spearheaded and former Mayor Tom Bennett opposed.

As we wrote in the May 13 Beacon, Mayor Bennett, who served from 2013 to 2021, opposed every no-left-turn ever put into place until last Memorial Day when cut-through traffic was so jammed—northbound traffic backed up on South Dogwood Trail to U.S. Hwy. 158 to the Wright Memorial Bridge—that he finally supported it.

When Mr. Holland said that “we had a mayor”—Mr. Bennett—who got so “tired of fighting” the cut-through traffic that he said, “Let’s do nothing,” he also was, to be kind, “revising history.”

Mayor Bennett never wanted to do anything. He supported the cut-through vacationers because, to paraphrase him, tourism is the hand that feeds us, and we shouldn’t bite it. Videotapes of Council meetings and his own writings, which we have on file, bear this out.

Last year, the Town Council gave Mr. Ogburn authority to try the road barriers, in response to homeowners’ complaints and public-safety concerns, and Mayor Bennett grudgingly went along. We can thank now-Mayor Morey and Councilman Matt Neal for this progressive action. But on May 3 they appeared decidedly reluctant about doing more than this.  

The answer for Mr. Batenic, who, according to his application for the Council appointment, has lived year-round in Chicahauk for about two years, is: If you do nothing, you roll back the clock at least five years, and you infuriate a lot of people who have been seeking help from the Town Council during that time. You ignore the needs of your constituency. You “let them eat cake.”

But you would not be the only one. The comments of newly elected Councilwoman Paula Sherlock had a decided Marie Antoinette spin to them.

“AESTHETICS” 

For example, Ms. Sherlock, who ran last November promising to work on traffic relief, said that she has “some real concerns about the aesthetics of all [the mitigation] and how this is going to look with barriers.”

At the time she said this, the Town Council was still, at least theoretically, considering closing Sea Oats Trail, Eleventh Avenue, Hillcrest Drive, and Hickory Trail at their intersections with Duck Road—although none of them realistically evaluated the impact of what they called “cul-de-sacing.” They just dismissed it. That is unfortunate.   

Mr. Batenic, whose biography is yet to be posted on the Town website, said he’s “uncomfortable blocking the streets,” an opinion that he accurately valued at “2 cents.”

A Council member’s comfort level is irrelevant to devising a solution to a problem as vexsome to so many as this one is. The issue is whether Mr. Ogburn’s proposed road closures, partial or complete, or other road closures that the Council itself might propose would have the deterrent effect on cut-through traffic that the Town presumably seeks.

(You would be forgiven if you watched the videotape of the May 3 meeting and concluded that the Town Council doesn’t seriously seek prevention. You may view the 27-minute discussion, starting at the 45-minute mark, at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Tyu9o67ikU.)

As for aesthetics, we wonder what aesthetic value can be derived from having vehicles parked bumper-to-bumper in the roadways in front of Southern Shores residents’ homes all weekend long, or from seeing vacationers, stuck in those vehicles, emerge to urinate on lawns.

Or how about the aesthetics of having a speeding car pass within a foot or less of a resident as he or she walks a dog on Hickory Trail or bikes on Sea Oats Trail? Hickory Trail can open up temporarily and be a speedway until the brakes have to be applied on Hillcrest Drive. Ditto with Sea Oats before the 300 block.

The northbound-lane “local-traffic-only” barriers—which the police cannot enforce, according to Mr. Ogburn—were placed at the same locations last summer as they will be this summer. Many residents thought they had a deterrent effect. Homeowners objected to cut-through motorists driving around them, but no one complained about their appearance.

We suspect Councilwoman Sherlock hasn’t been in the dunes on a cut-through summer Saturday for some time, if ever. She should take a stroll there with Mr. Batenic. 

HICKORY TRAIL

Councilwoman Sherlock concluded that she wants to do “as minimal as we can to try to mitigate this.” Just whom is she representing when she talks about minimizing mitigation?

Is her goal to get cut-through traffic off of residential roads or not?

We also wonder whom she represented when she objected to closing Hickory Trail at East Dogwood Trail from late afternoon Friday through Monday morning—as Mr. Ogburn had recommended–and suggested closing it only on Saturdays.

This change, which the other Council members immediately endorsed without a word, costs the Town money: Mr. Ogburn cannot ask Public Works employees to work on weekends. He has to hire someone else.

All Ms. Sherlock said to explain her objection was, “That seems like a long time.” We would rather have heard what she thinks about the effectiveness of such a road closure and whether the constituents with whom she has surely spoken support it.  

If the Councilwoman’s concern is the effect of the road’s closure on response time of emergency personnel, then we need to know if she understands that response time is already impaired by the traffic!

(All Police Chief David Kole contributed (off-microphone, so he is not clearly audible on the videotape) to this conversation is that any time a road is closed, response time is affected.)

We also question Councilman Neal’s insistence that there be “citizen buy-in” from Hickory Trail residents for a Saturday closure at East Dogwood. He wants “unanimous support” from Hickory residents, but that’s hardly necessary. Just make an executive decision, Matt. Step up, don’t slide back. It’s a no-brainer. Any inconvenience to Hickory Trail residents, who previously requested closure of their street at Hillcrest Drive, is minimal, and anyone who objects is out of step.

Why burden Mr. Ogburn with more telephone calls?

If they could, Hickory Trail residents, with whom we speak regularly, would close the road at East Dogwood Trail year-round, so weary are they of every-day cut-through traffic that runs the stop signs at the Hickory-East Dogwood intersection and races up their road.   

Ms. Sherlock’s further conclusion that “not to do anything makes us look very unresponsive to the community” was hardly a resounding show of support for residents. Residents don’t care about optics; they want action. They want you to fight for them.

ROADS AT “OVER-CAPACITY”

We believe that every Town Council member has a public duty to read the professional traffic engineers’ report on cut-through traffic, which the Town commissioned for $7500 and received in February 2021. The Council has never discussed the report at a public meeting.

During summer weekends, N.C. Hwy. 12 operates “over-capacity,” consultant J.M. Teague Engineering and Planning told us in a December 2020 Zoom session previewing the report.

According to J.M. Teague, the traffic is moving at “forced saturated flow,” so that traffic “cascades” on to alternating routes, such as the South Dogwood Trail-East Dogwood Trail-into-the-dunes cut-through route. In other words, the thoroughfare is maxed out.

And why is the thoroughfare maxed out? Because Duck, with its 25-mile-per-hour speed limit and 13 pedestrian crosswalks, causes a bottleneck that, Teague Engineering Technician Forrest Lundgren told us, “is the common denominator of all congestion that is formed in Southern Shores.”

Mayor Morey has announced the launch of a public-information campaign this summer that is designed to encourage northbound summertime vacationers to stay on U.S. Hwy. 158 and N.C. Hwy. 12 and off of Southern Shores’ residential cut-through roads.

As part of this effort, the Mayor said that the green lights at each traffic-controlled intersection on N.C. Hwy. 12 will last longer and the masses of northbound vacationers will see road signage and receive videos sent by rental property managers informing them that they’ll move faster if they stay on the thoroughfare.

The Mayor can try her wishful-thinking strategy, but the truth is northbound vacationers are stuck until Duck takes action to alleviate the bottleneck.

“… [W]e need to emphasize the messaging about the traffic lights on Duck Road,” the Mayor said at the May 3 meeting. “I really think that people need to know if they cut through, they’re going to get stuck, and that’s not what they want to do.”

We repeat: The thoroughfare is “over-capacity.”

Vacationers heading north are stuck on Duck Road or they’re stuck on the cut-through route. No matter where they are, stuck is stuck.

Trying to convince people to remain stuck in congestion on the thoroughfares when they can see a little light on South Dogwood Trail, or Juniper Trail, or Porpoise Run, is an exercise in futility. It is counter-intuitive. It’s also a denial of the depth and gravity of the problem.

We are reminded of the mayor of Amity Island from “Jaws” who told vacationers to go in the water because there were no sharks.   

Mr. Holland suggested “marketing” a tag line for the Mayor’s campaign, which Ms. Morey attributed to Ms. Sherlock, to wit: “Southern Shores is a community, not a cut-through.”

The problem with this tag line—besides the fact that people will ignore it—is that it informs those few people who haven’t caught on to the cut-through route yet that there is one!

CLOSING ROADS

If the Town’s goal is to prevent vacationers traveling to the northern beaches from cutting through on Southern Shores’ residential streets, then it has to block vehicles from accessing the roads through closure or diversion. Or it has to eliminate the bottleneck that causes the congestion. Plain and simple.

No one on the Town Council said a word about how the latter could be accomplished, or even if there have been talks between Southern Shores and Duck, but Duck is clearly impeding a state thoroughfare, and the N.C. Dept. of Transportation has allowed it to do so.

J.M. Teague gave some suggestions in its report about blocking vehicles, including installing permanent physical barriers on certain roads in Southern Shores and a northbound gate on South Dogwood Trail that would open for residents and others having local business in Southern Shores, but not for non-local travelers.

The Southern Shores Citizens’ Advisory Committee on Cut-Through Traffic also submitted a recommendation that would close South Dogwood Trail to non-local traffic.

The Town Council so far has refused to tackle actual prevention of cut-through traffic by closing roads, which the Town is authorized by North Carolina law to do.

Mr. Ogburn cites “legal advice” as the reason why the South Dogwood Trail gate idea is not explored thoroughly, but, as any good attorney will tell you, there is no clear-cut legal answer, just interpretations of the case law that exists, and public safety is a strong rationale for the Town to act.

(As we see it, the issue is whether the public has a fundamental right of intra-city travel that is 1) constitutionally protected; and 2) superior to the Town’s public-safety interest. There is no U.S. Supreme Court decision that is directly on-point.)  

The extreme cut-through traffic is more than a nuisance, it’s a very real public-safety hazard. We would hate to see a tragedy force the Town Council finally to take the tough action that it is incapable of even talking about now.  

Ann G. Sjoerdsma

©2022, Ann G. Sjoerdsma

3 thoughts on “5/15/22: TOWN COUNCIL’S DISCUSSION ABOUT SUMMER CUT-THROUGH TRAFFIC DISAPPOINTS: THE DETAILS.

  1. Apparently this Council is like all the others during my 23 years residency here on Hickory Trail. When they’re running for office, they “listen” to the voters and express their intentions to do something rather than study or talk it to death without ever taking action. However, once in office, they exhibit behavior that shows the same disregard for the residents and their concerns as all the others. Our Town Manager has tried to come up with viable solutions to a very real problem. Their responses were disgraceful and disgusting, but, unfortunately, not surprising. After all, none of them live on the affected streets, so why should they care?

    Like

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