3/17/21: MSD HEARING: OCEANFRONT PROPERTY OWNERS OBJECT TO PAYING MORE THAN THEIR ‘FAIR SHARE’ OF BEACH NOURISHMENT TAXES, SAY THAT ‘MORE EQUITY’ IN COST DIVISION IS NECESSARY; Town Council Will Cast First Vote on MSDs on April 13.

Eighteen Southern Shores property owners spoke last night either in person or via Zoom at the Town Council’s public hearing on the proposed establishment of two municipal service districts to fund the Town’s 2022 beach nourishment project. About 35 others submitted written comments that will be posted on the Town website, according to Town Manager Cliff Ogburn.* (See comment at end.)

The message delivered by the 15 of the 18 property owners who supported the project—and two of the three who squarely did not—was consistent: The cost of the townwide 3.7-mile-long beach nourishment project should be “equitably shared” and “more equitably distributed,” so as to “impose a more equitable burden on taxpayers,” especially those who own oceanfront property.

The Town Council took no action after the hearing. It will cast its first vote on approval of the municipal service districts at the Council’s April 13 meeting. N.C. law requires a municipal government body to vote twice to approve MSDs before they can be established.

The Town has proposed creating one district (MSD-1) that would include all properties that “abut the ocean” and all “oceanside” properties east of Ocean Boulevard that do not abut the ocean.

A second proposed district (MSD-2) would encompass all properties in MSD-1, all properties east of N.C. Hwy. 12 (both the Ocean Boulevard and Duck Road segments), and all properties west of and abutting Ocean Boulevard, from the southern town limit to 137 Ocean Blvd., and all properties west of and abutting Duck Road beginning at 139 Duck Road and extending north to 149 Duck Road.

No properties in Chicahauk or west of Duck Road in Southern Shores are included in either proposed MSD.

According to Mr. Ogburn, Dare County recently “fixed” the cost of the Southern Shores project, for purposes of determining how much it will contribute from the county Beach Nourishment Fund, at $14,538,000. The actual project cost estimated in January 2020 by the Town’s coastal engineering consultant was $14,755,600.

Dare County will contribute $7,774,375 of the total cost, Mr. Ogburn said; the Town will pay $6,123,873, or roughly 40 percent; and a grant from the N.C. Dept. of Environmental Quality will cover $1,408,247. The total of these amounts adds up to more than the project costs because of debt service over a five-year period.

“If the [construction] bid comes in over $14,538,000, then we either have to cut back somewhere or find the money,” Mr. Ogburn told The Beacon today in response to an email. “I don’t foresee going above the $14,538,000 though.”

(Mayor Pro Tem Elizabeth Morey brought up at the Town Council’s budget workshop yesterday the possibility of the Town contributing monies from its unassigned fund balance, which has “excess” millions in it, to the beach nourishment project, in order to “reduce the amount of tax on MSD taxpayers,” she said, as well as to reduce the amount of money that the Town would have to borrow. Town Councilman Jim Conners objected vigorously to this idea, saying that funding for beach nourishment, should be “self-sustaining,” while both Mr. Ogburn and Councilman Matt Neal pointed out that a significant amount of money—at least $1 million—would have to be invested before it would have an impact.

(Other Dare County towns, such as Duck, have appropriated monies from their general funds to pay for some of the cost of a beach nourishment project.)     

Of the Town’s $6,123,873, as Mr. Ogburn explained last night in pre-hearing remarks, the Town Council has tentatively decided that property owners in MSD-1 will pay 35 percent; those in MSD-2 will pay 30 percent; and property owners in the remainder of the town will pay 35 percent.

“Every town property will be taxed and should be taxed,” he said.

All Town tax rates will be set by the Town Council in an upcoming budget meeting. Mr. Ogburn nonetheless projected yesterday that the following tax-rate increases would be necessary in order for the Town to pay $6,123,873 or $1,224,775 per year for five years:

Townwide: 2.75 cents

MSD-2: 6.25 cents (plus the townwide rate of 2.75 cents, for a total of 9 cents)

MSD-1: 14.5 cents (plus the townwide rate of 2.75 cents and the MSD2 rate of 6.25 cents, for a total of 23.5 cents)

The annual tax assessments for beach nourishment would be indefinite—in effect as long as the Town is engaged in beach nourishment and maintenance—although the Town Council could decide to reduce the tax rates.

Several property owners suggested last night that equity in cost distribution means that:

  • “all residents should be taxed the same” for beach nourishment, as Misty DeZutter of Pelican Watch said;
  • all property owners “should pay a uniform amount,” according to Michael Iwashchenko, an oceanfront property owner and geologist who said he “adamantly” opposes beach nourishment; and
  • the costs should be “applied across the board,” according to Tim Panoff, whose family has owned his oceanfront home since 1968.

“I marvel at the stability of the beach,” said Mr. Panoff, who appeared via Zoom and described a 66-year history with Southern Shores.

If all Southern Shores property owners paid equally for the beach nourishment project, Mr. Ogburn has estimated that each would pay 8 cents more per $100 of property value per year.

Jane Smallwood, a longtime permanent owner-resident of an oceanfront property on Mockingbird Lane, whose home has been in her family for multiple generations, suggested last night that oceanfront property owners who reside in their houses should pay less in tax than property owners in the proposed MSD-1 district who do not.

This would not be legal, nor would it be legal for the Town to tax property owners in the two proposed MSDs who rent their homes more than those who do not rent them, or otherwise to discriminate among property owners based on their residency status and/or the use of their properties.

The N.C. law (NCGS 160A-537(a)) that the Town Council is tasked with applying requires it to define a MSD only upon a finding that the “proposed district is in need of [beach-erosion control and hurricane/flood protection] to a demonstrably greater extent than the remainder of” Southern Shores.

We have made the argument that, except for the southern area of the coastline, at and near Pelican Watch, the Southern Shores project is proactive and not designed to address current damage to the beaches. The standard of “need to a demonstrably greater extent” cannot be met north of the southern area, and, therefore, if the Town Council chooses to proceed on a proactive basis, it should reject MSDs and tax all property owners equally.

A number of speakers last night spoke about paying their “fair share” of tax, but not more.

Echoing others, Ocean Boulevard property owner Paula Sherlock pointed out that she already pays higher real estate taxes for her home because it abuts the ocean, as well as higher insurance rates, and she said she has invested in sand fencing to protect the public-trust beach at her property.

Some property owners who rent their houses pointed out that they already indirectly contribute to the occupancy taxes collected by Dare County, one-third of which are set aside in the county’s Beach Nourishment Fund.

Mr. Ogburn said that Dare County is already collecting the maximum occupancy tax allowed by N.C. law. (This bears looking into, but not today. We are aware that Mecklenburg County levies an 8 percent occupancy tax, 2 percent of which is earmarked to fund a particular capital project.)

The N.C. sales tax levied in Dare County can definitely be increased, if the N.C. General Assembly gives the county permission to increase it.

In comments that likely tickled old-timers, Kenneth Rogers appeared by Zoom from his Texas home to say that his late father-in-law, Kern Pitts, who was mayor of Southern Shores from 1979 to 1997—before mayors were directly elected—and for whom the Pitts Center is named, would be delighted to see how much progress the Town has made in conducting business. Meetings of the Town Council were quite informal and not well-attended during Mr. Pitts’s era.

Mr. Rogers, who owns an oceanfront home on Ocean Boulevard, agreed with other speakers that the burden of additional taxes for beach nourishment should be allocated “as fairly as possible.”

*The Beacon disagrees with the decision not to read the written comments at the hearing. The public was informed that it had three ways in which to participate in the hearing, one of which was by written email. In fact, it only had two. Absent a reading of the comments at the hearing, there is no guarantee that each member of the Town Council read them. Certainly, neither the public nor the media got to learn their contents.

While the Town may have feared that the public hearing would “last well into the night,” that is what public hearings do. They are a crucial part of the democratic process and should last as long as they need to. Last night’s hearing only lasted 70 minutes.

(3/18/21 UPDATE: Having read some of the voluminous comments submitted by property owners, which are now accessible on the Town website by clicking on the “Beach Nourishment” link on the home page and then on the “2022 Beach Nourishment Project” link, we are even more disappointed with the Town’s decision not to read them aloud. Property owners in proposed MSD-1 and MSD-2 are overwhelmingly against establishing the municipal service districts and in favor of a townwide tax. Many of the property owners also attest to the stability of the dunes in Southern Shores and the accretion of sand on the beaches, indicating that there is no need to undertake a townwide sand fill.)

Ann G. Sjoerdsma, 3/17/21

3/17/21: FY 2021-22 BUDGET: TOWN COUNCIL SEEMS TO AUTHORIZE $50,000 FOR CUT-THRU TRAFFIC CONTROL; SUPPORTS 8 NO-LEFT-TURN WEEKENDS, WILL CONSIDER LATER USE OF ‘LOCAL TRAFFIC ONLY’ SIGNS AND BARRICADES. Plus The Council Reaches No Consensus on Raising Taxes.

Arriving vacationers turn left on to South Dogwood Trail on a Saturday afternoon last summer.

The Town Council appeared at its budget workshop yesterday to authorize a line item in the fiscal year 2021-22 Town budget of about $50,000 to cover the costs of mitigating summertime cut-thru traffic, while also supporting eight no-left-turn weekends.

We say “appeared” because the Town Council did not vote on funding for traffic-control measures in FY 2021-22. It did, however, unanimously approve an expenditure of $14,600 in the current fiscal year to purchase five new roadside traffic counters/monitors, which would be placed on Wax Myrtle, Sea Oats, Hillcrest, and Hickory trails.

There would be two monitors on Wax Myrtle Trail, one on either side of its intersection with East Dogwood Trail, according to Town Manager Cliff Ogburn.

(Installation of monitors on these four streets was among the nine suggestions made to the Town Council last June by the citizens’ Exploratory Committee to Address Cut-Thru Traffic about implementing the no-left-turn prohibitions. The committee also thought a counter at Ocean Boulevard after the Duck Road split was advisable.)

Like the monitors currently in place around Southern Shores, the new ones would register the speed of passing vehicles, as well as record the number of vehicles. In discussing their purchase, Mayor Pro Tem Elizabeth Morey extolled the value of the monitors as a deterrent to speeding, which is a common complaint of residents in the dunes.

After the meeting, The Beacon spoke further with Mr. Ogburn and learned that a proposal to install “Local Traffic Only” signs and barricades in the northbound lanes of Wax Myrtle, Sea Oats, Hillcrest, and Hickory trails at their intersection with East Dogwood Trail is in the works.

The physical barricades would be installed on each street just north of East Dogwood Trail. Northbound local traffic would be able to pass in the southbound lane, Mr. Ogburn explained.

The Town Council is expected to take up this proposal, prepared by Mr. Ogburn with assistance from Police Chief David Kole, at another budget meeting. The Town Manager confirmed that the Town Council is aware of it.

Yesterday’s workshop was principally for the purpose of giving Mr. Ogburn guidance in prioritizing Town expenditures as he seeks to balance the FY 2021-22 budget, which he preliminarily has calculated as falling short by more than $800,000. (See The Beacon, 3/14/21, for background.) The figure of $50,000 for traffic-mitigation expenses was proffered by Councilman Matt Neal.  

During a discussion about the seasonal cut-thru traffic led by Mr. Neal, the Town Council showed support for prohibiting the left turn on to South Dogwood Trail from U.S. Hwy. 158 over eight weekends, starting in June. Any expenses incurred in June would come out of the Town’s FY 2020-21 budget, not next year’s budget.

According to Finance Officer Bonnie Swain, the Town spent between $21,000 and $24,000 last summer on no-left-turn weekend prohibitions, which were monitored by Southern Shores police officers.

Mr. Ogburn said that the per-weekend cost for the left-turn prohibition if the intersection were not staffed by police would be $3700.

Mr. Neal indicated in his remarks that Mr. Ogburn is “trying to figure out how to do it less expensively with other government agency help,” but neither the Councilman nor the Town Manager elaborated on the form of this potential help.

Although both the traffic-engineering consultant’s report and the report of the Exploratory Committee to Address Cut-Thru Traffic recommended the installation of a gate on South Dogwood Trail to prevent cut-thru traffic from entering the residential areas, the Town Council did not discuss this option. A gate is not part of Mr. Ogburn’s proposal.

The citizens’ committee, however, did recommend the use of “Local Traffic Only” signs, or other prohibitive signage, at the entry to residential streets used by motorists who jump off of the Hwy. 158 and N.C. Hwy. 12 thoroughfares   

Yesterday Mr. Neal described the installation of any “temporary barrier” to traffic or other “hardened structure” to cut off traffic in town other than at South Dogwood Trail-Hwy. 158 as “the big outlier” in the Council’s decision-making, and “we don’t need to sketch that out now.”

Mayor Tom Bennett said he would like to see how well the eight no-left-turn weekends work, and if they don’t, “try something else.”

(See The Beacon, 3/11/21, for background.)

Town Councilman Jim Conners notably expressed hostility toward the citizens’ exploratory committee, making a motion to “disband it.” Mr. Conners’s motion did not receive a second, however, and was viewed by his colleagues as inappropriate for a budget workshop.

He also complained about the committee’s report being sent to the Town Manager at 11:30 p.m. Monday, calling the timing “beyond the pale.”

“I’m pretty much over the cut-thru traffic committee,” Mr. Conners said.

Mr. Neal, who is one of the co-advisers/sponsors of the cut-thru traffic committee, took responsibility for not briefing the Councilman on the committee’s report, which was submitted verbally at a meeting last Thursday. Both he and the committee’s other co-sponsor, Ms. Morey, told chairperson Tommy Karole at that meeting that he could file the written report after yesterday’s workshop.

Curiously, when the Town Council later discussed the possibility of raising the ad valorem tax rate for FY 2021-22, Mr. Conners suggested, “We could cut out any cut-thru traffic mitigation” to save on expense. But a savings of $50,000 clearly would not affect the need for a tax increase.

The Council did not reach a consensus on raising taxes to fund the Town’s general operations, exclusive of beach nourishment. This discussion will be continued at another budget workshop.

Both Mr. Neal and Councilman Leo Holland expressed a preference for not raising the tax rate, which is currently 19.58 cents on $100 of property value.

The current tax rate is a “revenue-neutral” rate that went into effect in FY 2020-21 after Dare County conducted its property reevaluation. The revenue-neutral rate is designed to keep property owners’ taxes at the same level, even though the assessed value of their properties has increased. It is viewed as a temporary stopgap.

In discussing a possible tax-rate increase, Mr. Neal said, “I don’t like monumental change. I like incremental change.” He stated his “first goal” was “to do without a tax increase” in FY 2021-22.

Mr. Holland said he was mindful of financial adversity experienced by people during the COVID-19 pandemic and did not think the tax rate should be raised now.

Mayor Bennett, Ms. Morey, and Mr. Conners all showed interest in raising the tax rate by one or two cents.

“I would not be averse to a 2-cent increase this year,” the Mayor said.

Ann G. Sjoerdsma, 3/17/21

3/16/21: ALL DARE COUNTY RESIDENTS AGE 16 OR OLDER NOW ELIGIBLE TO REGISTER FOR COVID-19 VACCINE.

Dare County has moved into Group 5 of the COVID-19 rollout and is now accepting registrations from anyone who is at least 16 years old and would like to be vaccinated, according to a bulletin posted today by the Dare County Dept. of Health and Human Services. Applicants may complete a registration form at www.darenc.com/covidvaccine.

According to today’s bulletin, the DCDHHS will be receiving a “special allotment” of the Pfizer vaccine, which is the only one of the three COVID-19 vaccines that has been approved for administration to 16- and 17-year-olds. Anyone under the age of 18 who would like to be vaccinated will need a parent or guardian to accompany him or her to the vaccine clinic.

The DCDHHS advises that it may take one to two weeks before a staff member calls new registrants to schedule vaccine appointments.

Dare County is ahead of Governor Roy Cooper’s statewide vaccine rollout, which does not officially enter Phase or Group 4 until tomorrow. Last week the Governor announced that eligibility for some Group 4 recipients, including people ages 16 to 64 with high-risk medical conditions, would begin tomorrow.

The Governor is scheduled to hold a COVID-19 update briefing tomorrow at 2 p.m., at which time he is likely to announce an acceleration of the rollout for vaccine providers like DCDHHS that are prepared to move into Group 5.

As of Sunday, the DCDHHS had fully vaccinated 8,340 people. Another 1,788 people have received their first doses and are awaiting their second.  

The Beacon, 3/16/21 

3/16/21: ZOOM OR IN PERSON? HOW YOU CAN PARTICIPATE IN MSD PUBLIC HEARING AT 5:30 p.m. TODAY.

A REMINDER . . .

The Town Council will meet at 5:30 p.m. today in the Pitts Center for a public hearing about its possible establishment of municipal service districts (MSDs) for the purpose of levying a higher tax on owners of property in close proximity to the oceanfront for a proposed townwide beach nourishment project in summer 2022.

The Town has proposed two MSDs. You may read the Town’s report describing those districts here: https://www.southernshores-nc.gov/wp-content/uploads/.

You may participate in today’s MSD public hearing in one of several ways:

  1. You may attend in person and address the Council from the lectern.
  2. You may submit written comments to the Town Council by emailing info@southernshores-nc.gov. Please put “public comment” in the subject line.
  3. You may watch live and comment via Zoom. To do so, you must register in advance at https://zoom.us/meeting/register/tJcoduGqqTksG9FO-toke6-JRDWakH7fMpnu. After registering, you will receive a confirmation email with information about how you can join the meeting.

For the agenda of the special meeting/public hearing, see https://www.southernshores-nc.gov/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/Special-Meeting-March-16-2020.pdf.

The Beacon, 3/16/21

3/14/21: OGBURN SEEKS EARLY INPUT FROM COUNCIL ON BALANCING PROPOSED FY 2021-22 BUDGET WITH NEARLY $1 MILLION REVENUE GAP. PLUS How You Can Participate in Tuesday’s Public Hearing on Municipal Service Districts.

Expenses exceed revenues by $822,365 in a preliminary fiscal year 2021-22 Town budget prepared by Town Manager Cliff Ogburn, which he based on requests he has received from the heads of the Town’s governmental departments. Mr. Ogburn will ask for the Town Council’s direction in prioritizing expenditures that are driving Southern Shores’ largest-ever proposed operating budget at its 9 a.m. workshop Tuesday. 

The Town Council will meet Tuesday in the Pitts Center. The workshop will be open to the public, with COVID-19 safety protocols in effect, and will be live-streamed on the Town’s You Tube website at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCL821bGo6ti5DxmyixPZh4w.

There will be one public-comment period before the Council takes up its business agenda, which consists solely of considering two bids received from construction contractors ($449,000 and $452,000) for the Sea Oats Trail improvement project and evaluating Mr. Ogburn’s proposed 2021-22 budget.

We strongly encourage you to read the materials prepared by the Town Manager for the meeting: https://www.southernshores-nc.gov/wp-content/uploads/minutes-agendas-newsletters/Meeting-Packet_2021-03-16.pdf.

If the Town Council decides at a later budget meeting to raise the ad valorem tax rate, which is currently 19.58 cents per $100 of property value, for a reason other than beach nourishment, you should know why.

As you will recall, the 19.58 tax rate was adopted pursuant to Dare County’s revaluation of properties. Between FY 2014-15 and FY 2019-20, the rate was consistently 22 cents.

In the workshop meeting packet, Mr. Ogburn reports an impressive property-tax collection rate in Southern Shores of 99.65 percent. 

THE PRELIMINARY BUDGET NUMBERS

Mr. Ogburn’s preliminary FY 2021-22 budget projects $6,271.359 in revenues, of which $3,226,644 comes from ad valorem (real estate) taxes and $2,240,000 represents occupancy, sales, and land-transfer taxes.

Annual revenues in the five fiscal years from 2015-16 through 2019-20 roughly averaged $6.5 million, according to our research. In FY 2019-20, they totaled $6,858,286.

According to Mr. Ogburn’s report, revenues to date in FY 2020-21—a decidedly unpredictable year because of the pandemic—amount to $5,376,726. His calculated estimates show that the Town’s occupancy, sales, and land-transfer taxes will all increase in FY 2020-21 over recent years, dating back to FY 2017-18, but he suggests that this growth will be “short-lived.”

Vacation home rentals and land and house sales have been booming during the past year.

As for expenses, Mr. Ogburn’s FY 2021-22 budget shows $7,093,724 in department requests, as follows:

Administration: $1,048,589 (15 percent of the budget)

Planning and Code Enforcement: $317,600 (4 percent)

Police Department: $1,891,194 (27 percent)

Streets, Bridges, and Canals: $1,245,416 (17 percent)

Public Works: $593,349 (8 percent)

Sanitation Services: $822,198 (12 percent)

Fire Contracted Service: $989,378 (14 percent)

Ocean Rescue Contracted Service: $186,000 (3 percent)

Mr. Ogburn’s budget does not present an itemization of estimated expenses for each department, but he does reveal how much each department proposes to spend on personnel. The estimated totals in FY 2021-22 for salaries and benefits are:

Administration: $514,389 (49 percent of the department’s budget)

Police Department: $1,379,935 (73 percent of the police budget)

Planning and Code Enforcement: $298,350 (94 percent)

Public Works: $405,849 (68 percent)

Overall, the Town’s personnel costs total an estimated $2,598,523, which is 37 percent of the proposed budget. The lion’s share of those costs—53 percent—goes to the police department.

Among the capital projects that Mr. Ogburn will be asking the Town Council to consider and “to provide input and direction to town staff regarding its priorities,” as he writes in the meeting agenda item summary, are:

  • The implementation of an employee pay and classification study that the Council “put on pause” in February 2020;
  • Street improvements, the selection of which is likely to be based on a pavement condition study whose “results are not expected until sometime in June”;
  • Mitigation of seasonal cut-thru traffic (“Some measures may require the purchase of new equipment that might come from the current year’s budget as well as next year’s budget,” Mr. Ogburn writes);
  • Other capital improvements, in addition to Town streets, such as upgrades to municipal buildings.

The last page of the Tuesday meeting packet is a draft of a Capital Improvement Plan for the Town. It shows Southern Shores being obligated for each of the next five fiscal years to pay $1,224,775 in debt service for the proposed 2022 beach nourishment project and $314,020 in debt service for the new fire station, and it proposes increasing the Town’s Capital Reserve Fund in order to invest $1 million per fiscal year in street improvements.

When you consider that the Sea Oats Trail construction project, which will improve a section of that street from Eleventh Avenue to Duck Road, will cost $450,000, $1 million per year is not a very big price tag for infrastructure repair and maintenance.

The new fire station on South Dogwood Trail cost the Town $5,419,223, a debt payable over 25 years, at 3.71 percent interest.

USE OF TOWN’S UNASSIGNED FUND BALANCE

Mr. Ogburn also will be asking the Town Council how it wishes to use the Town’s large unassigned fund balance, which auditor Dowdy & Osborne valued at $5,995,546 at the end of the 2019-20 fiscal year.

The Town Council subsequently approved a policy of maintaining $3 million in the fund, subject to the exception that the Council may withdraw funds below that balance if they are needed for disaster relief.

In past fiscal years, the fund balance has been used to balance budgets that had a revenue-expenditure shortfall. The ad valorem tax rate has not been increased.

In a page of his meeting packet ominously titled “Potential Causes [for] Future Tax Increases,” Mr. Ogburn observes that “the use of [the] fund balance to offset [a] tax increase is unsustainable.” 

He cites as other “causes” for raising taxes the “need to start to invest in capital improvements,” especially street improvements; payment of the fire department debt service; and an expected increase in contracted services, such as those for the Town Attorney, the Town Engineer, ocean rescue, trash and recycling, and ATX’s tree services.

Mr. Ogburn writes that “Town staff is continuing to work on presenting a balanced budget” and that revisions to departments’ funding requests and revenue projects are “ongoing.” With his preliminary budget, he intends only to “give the Council an approximation of the Town’s financial position at this time.”

The Town Manager recommends the following FY 2021-22 budget adoption timeline:

May 4, at Town Council’s regular 5:30 meeting: presentation of the Town Manager’s recommended budget and recommended Capital Improvement Plan.

May 5 to June 14: budget workshops held by the Town Council.

June 1, at Town Council’s regular 5:30 p.m. meeting: a public hearing on the recommended budget and any tax-rate increase, with possible adoption of the budget by the Town Council.

June 15, at Town Council’s 9 a.m. workshop meeting: possible adoption of FY 2021-22 budget if it has not already been adopted.

The budget must be adopted by the end of June, in order to conform to State law.

***

OTHER MEETINGS THIS WEEK/PUBLIC HEARING ON MSDs

The next two days will be busy for the people who serve the Town of Southern Shores government, and for those of us who cover what the Town does or who simply wish to be informed about Town business.

Besides the budget workshop on Tuesday morning, the Town Planning Board will meet tomorrow at 4 p.m. to continue its discussion about CodeWright Planners’ Town Code rewrite, which has been short-circuited by the Town Council; and the Town Council will hold a public hearing Tuesday at 5:30 p.m. about establishing two municipal service districts for the purpose of taxing certain Southern Shores property owners more for the Town’s proposed 2022 beach nourishment project.

For the agenda of the special meeting/public hearing, see https://www.southernshores-nc.gov/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/Special-Meeting-March-16-2020.pdf.

Both the Planning Board meeting and the special meeting for the MSD public hearing will be held in the Pitts Center and will be live-streamed on the Town’s You Tube website. Please note: You cannot comment during the public hearing via the live-stream platform.

You may participate in the MSD public hearing in one of the following ways:

  1. You may attend in person and address the Town Council from the lectern.
  2. You may submit written comments to the Town Council by emailing info@southernshores-nc.gov. Please put “public comment” in the subject line.
  3. You may watch live and comment via Zoom. To do so, you must register in advance at https://zoom.us/meeting/register/tJcoduGqqTksG9FO-toke6-JRDWakH7fMpnu. After registering, you will receive a confirmation email with information about how you can join the meeting.

We will do our best to report on all three public meetings, but we make no promises about when we will be able to do so.

If important breaking news occurs, we will definitely report it—giving you the “headline,” if you will—and follow up later with more details.

Ann G. Sjoerdsma, 3/14/21

3/12/21: GOVERNOR MOVES UP COVID-19 VACCINES FOR PEOPLE AGES 16-64 WITH HIGH-RISK MEDICAL CONDITIONS TO MARCH 17.

People ages 16 to 64 with medical conditions that put them at high risk for serious illness if they are exposed to COVID-19, as well as others in the North Carolina’s vaccine priority Group 4, will be able to get vaccinated starting March 17, Governor Roy Cooper announced at a briefing yesterday.

All Group 4 members previously had been eligible for vaccination as of March 23.

The Governor announced that the State has divided up Group 4, so that people with high-risk medical conditions and people who are homeless or incarcerated and have not yet been vaccinated, will be eligible for vaccination March 17, while all others in Group 4 will be eligible April 7.

Included in the latter group are essential workers who did not meet the Group 3 criteria for “frontline” workers and other people living in group settings who have not yet been vaccinated, such as students in dormitories and fraternity/sorority houses.

The State’s list of Group 4 essential workers is extensive and includes those who work in chemical plants, public works, real estate and housing, communications, and information technology.

For more information about Group 4 and the new divisions, see:

https://covid19.ncdhhs.gov/vaccines/find-your-spot-take-your-shot/deeper-dive-group-4#essential-workers-not-yet-vaccinated.

Governor Cooper was able to expedite Group 4’s eligibility because many of the State’s vaccine providers—including the Dare County Dept. of Health and Human Services—are ready to administer vaccinations to this group.

The Governor was previously able to move up the eligibility date for Group 3 because of provider efficiency.

The DCDHHS announced Tuesday that it had started accepting vaccine registrations from Group 4, but it warned that registrants may not hear from the county health department about an appointment for at least two weeks. That should change for registrants in the first division with the Governor’s accelerated scheduling.

See The Beacon, 3/10/21, for background.

You may register on the DCDHHS website at https://www.darenc.com/departments/health-human-services/coronavirus/covid-19-vaccine.

Some of the medical conditions identified by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as high-risk include asthma, cancer, chronic kidney disease, diabetes type 1 or 2, a heart condition, hypertension, neurologic conditions such as dementia and schizophrenia, obesity, and pregnancy.

People who are current smokers or former smokers who have smoked at least 100 cigarettes in their lifetime are also considered to have a high-risk medical condition.

For a list of conditions, see https://covid19.ncdhhs.gov/vaccines/find-your-spot-take-your-shot/deeper-dive-group-4#age-16-64-w-higher-risk-medical-conditions-and-additional-congregate-settings.

Besides provider efficiency, an increase in vaccine supply is driving the eligibility change.

State health officials expect North Carolina to receive as many as 400,000 first doses of vaccine per week by the beginning of April. This is an increase of 175,000 doses per week. It was made possible in large part by the production of the Johnson & Johnson one-shot vaccine.

Only one vaccine priority group remains after Group 4.

Group 5 consists of “everyone who wants a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccination,” according to the N.C. Dept. of Health and Human Services—no conditions attached.

Ann G. Sjoerdsma, 3/12/21

3/11/21: CITIZENS’ COMMITTEE OFFERS AMBITIOUS PROPOSAL FOR GATING, BLOCKING ROADS TO PREVENT CUT-THRU TRAFFIC. TOWN COUNCIL WILL TAKE UP TRAFFIC MITIGATION AT BUDGET WORKSHOP NEXT TUESDAY.

Summertime cut-thru traffic backed up on Hillcrest Drive on the curve before the SSCA tennis courts.

The Exploratory Committee to Address Cut-Thru Traffic outlined this morning an ambitious proposal to eliminate all seasonal cut-thru traffic in Southern Shores by gating two main residential roads year-round and blocking entry at other access points on summertime weekends.

In presenting the plan, chairperson Tommy Karole, who lives near the intersection of South and East Dogwood trails, stressed that his committee was not criticizing the recommendations made by consultant J.M. Teague Engineering and Planning in the study/report it submitted to the Town on Feb. 12.

Rather, Mr. Karole said, J.M Teague’s report, which suggests erecting physical barriers to cut-thru traffic, including installing a temporary gate on northbound South Dogwood Trail, serves as a springboard to the cut-thru traffic committee’s plan, which, Mr. Karole said, sets a better “mouse trap” than the one set by the consultant.

“We have the advantage of being down in the trenches,” Mr. Karole said about himself and his committee members, whom he said “have studied at length” how to alleviate the seasonal congestion.

(J.M. Teague’s report, “Town of Southern Shores Congestion and Cut-Through Traffic Analysis,” is available on the Town website through the News tab on the home page, at https://www.southernshores-nc.gov.

(For background on the report, see The Beacon, 2/18/21.)

The cut-thru traffic committee’s final written report will be submitted to the Town Council next week, Mr. Karole said in response to a query by Mayor Pro Tem Elizabeth Morey, who, with Town Councilman Matt Neal, is a Council adviser/sponsor of the committee, which was authorized by the full Council in June 2019.

Ms. Morey, Mr. Neal, and Town Councilman Leo Holland attended this morning’s nearly two-hour-long meeting, as did Town Manager Cliff Ogburn. Town Councilman Jim Conners attended the first part of the meeting. Mayor Tom Bennett was not present.

Whereas J.M. Teague recommends placing a gate near Widgeon Court on South Dogwood Trail that would prohibit northbound traffic on summertime Saturdays, Mr. Karole and his committee suggest installing gates on South Dogwood Trail and Juniper Trail that would block non-local traffic in both directions year-round.

As Mr. Karole explained, bar codes placed on the windshields of residents’ vehicles—perhaps incorporated into Town parking permits—would open the unmanned gates, thus enabling local traffic to pass.

“The gates would be controlled by technology,” he said, specifically radio frequency technology. “There would be a transponder at the gate” receiving the radio signals from the bar codes, which Mr. Karole described as measuring one inch-by-two inches and costing less than a dollar each.

The two gates would operate year-round in order to be perceived by WAZE and other navigation apps that direct motorists to the cut-through route when traffic backs up on U.S. Hwy. 158 and N.C. Hwy. 12 as permanent roadblocks, and, thus, dead-ends.

“We must own the phone,” said committee member David Watson, in order for mitigation to be effective.

Each gate also would be “supported by signage” on U.S. Hwy. 158, Mr. Karole said, informing motorists where they are, so they would avoid them.

To prevent summertime weekend traffic from “jumping off” of Hwy. 12 on to, first, Ocean Boulevard, at the cell tower; then, going north, Porpoise Run, Dolphin Run, East Dogwood Trail, Hickory Trail, Hillcrest Drive, and Eleventh Avenue—in a futile attempt to evade the Duck Road backup—the committee recommends either barring entry to these roads or making their entry available to “local traffic only.” 

Only entry on to these roads would be prevented, as Mr. Karole explained the committee’s idea. The roads themselves would not become one-way.

(After considerable discussion of what committee members referred to as “seasonal no-entry points,” The Beacon still does not see how westbound East Dogwood Trail could be blocked. We believe the westbound roads at the two traffic-light-controlled intersections—East Dogwood Trail and Hillcrest Drive—are problematic.)

Mr. Karole, Mr. Watson, committee member Vicki Green, Ms. Morey, Mr. Neal, and members of the audience held a wide-ranging exchange at this morning’s meeting, much of it concerning how and precisely where the two gates would operate; whether sufficient turn-around space would be available for the gates; what inconveniences the gates would present; how residents would be able to come and go if entry streets are blocked; and the “education” and “outreach” that would need to be done to notify both locals in Southern Shores and elsewhere on the Outer Banks, as well as out-of-town visitors, about the changes.

“We think this is a strong idea,” Mr. Watson said, but it is one that “needs to grow.”

Professional engineers, he emphasized, would have to tell the Town what can feasibly be done and how much it would cost.

Mr. Karole said he believes the committee’s plan “inconveniences the least number of people in Southern Shores. . . . It also takes the Chief [of Police] and his staff out of the loop.”

The Southern Shores police have monitored the U.S. Hwy. 158-South Dogwood Trail intersection during no-left-turn summer weekends.      

Both Ms. Morey and Mr. Neal—speaking for themselves, not for the Town Council—expressed an interest in taking some action to curtail cut-through traffic this summer, as well as in “exploring,” as Mr. Neal said, the mitigation suggestions made by the cut-thru traffic committee and J.M. Teague.

Mr. Neal said he would like to “tiptoe into the solution,” to “start experimenting and see where we’re going.”

Ms. Morey also spoke about using a “phased-in” approach.

Mr. Neal left little doubt that he is “committed to doing something this season,” while he also identified some of the issues—the Town’s potential liability, access for emergency services, for example—that would need exploring if features of the committee’s proposal were tried.

“I have plans for this summer,” he said. “. . . I will be campaigning hard for [cut-through traffic] mitigation. . . . I would like to try something.”

The Councilman pointed out that the committee’s plan represents “total mitigation,” and it may be that “less mitigation”—in whatever form it takes—is where the Town ends up.

Residents will get an idea of what the Town Council has in mind for this summer and in the near future when members meet next Tuesday at 9 a.m. in the Pitts Center for a fiscal 2021-22 budget workshop.

Mr. Ogburn told The Beacon this morning that he will be presenting a preliminary budget that shows a gap between expenditures and revenues, with the former exceeding the latter. Cut-through traffic mitigation is on the list of projects and plans that the Council will be prioritizing as it considers how to allocate revenues and balance the budget.

The agenda for the Tuesday morning workshop, as well as the agenda for the 5:30 p.m. Tuesday public hearing concerning the creation of municipal service districts to fund beach nourishment, were posted to the Town website while we were writing this article. You may access:

The workshop agenda here: https://www.southernshores-nc.gov/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/WORKSHOP-2021.03.16.pdf

The meeting packet for the workshop here: https://www.southernshores-nc.gov/wp-content/uploads/minutes-agendas-newsletters/Meeting-Packet_2021-03-16.pdf

The public hearing agenda here: https://www.southernshores-nc.gov/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/Special-Meeting-March-16-2020.pdf

We will post a preview about the workshop and the public hearing as soon as we can.

Ann G. Sjoerdsma, 3/11/21

3/10/21: DARE COUNTY NOW ACCEPTING COVID-19 VACCINE REQUESTS FROM ANYONE 18 OR OLDER WHO HAS A ‘HIGH-RISK’ MEDICAL CONDITION, AND OTHERS IN PRIORITY GROUP 4.

The Dare County Dept. of Health and Human Services is now accepting COVID-19 vaccine registrations from anyone 18 or older who has one or more high-risk medical conditions and other individuals in the State of North Carolina’s vaccine priority Group 4, according to an online announcement yesterday by the DCDHHS.

North Carolina will not move statewide into Group 4 until March 23, so DCDHHS is advising registrants to expect to wait “a couple of weeks” before they receive a call from one of its staff members about making a vaccine appointment.

You may register at www.darenc.com/covidvaccine by filling out a request form.

According to the N.C. Dept. of Health and Human Services, Group 4 includes individuals over age 16 who have a medical condition that puts them at high risk of exposure to COVID-19 and/or severe illness if they are exposed; people experiencing homelessness and incarcerated people who have not yet been vaccinated; and essential workers who did not meet the Group 3 criteria for frontline essential workers.

The DCDHHS is not able to vaccinate 16- and 17-year-olds yet because it has been receiving only the Moderna vaccine in its state allocations, and that vaccine—unlike the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine—has not been approved for use in the younger age group.

[UPDATE 3/10/21: A reader reports he was given the choice of getting the Moderna or the Johnson & Johnson vaccine when he registered with DCDHHS last week. The J&J vaccine has not been cleared for 16- and 17-year-olds, either.]

More information about who qualifies for Group 4 is available at the NCDHHS website at “Deeper Drive, Group 4”: https://covid19.ncdhhs.gov/vaccines/find-your-sport-take-your-shot/deeper-dive-group-4#essential-workers-not-yet-vaccinated.

The “Deeper Dive” page has a link to a list of high-risk medical conditions that the U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Protection has identified for priority vaccine status.

IN OTHER COVID-19 NEWS . . .

On Monday, the CDC announced updated recommendations for how fully vaccinated individuals may interact with other people and go about their business. The CDC’s list of recommendations can be found at https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/fully-vaccinated-guidance.html.

The CDC advises fully vaccinated people to continue to wear masks and practice physical distancing when they are in public settings, but says they may go without masks and distancing when they are indoors in the company of other fully vaccinated people.

Governor Roy Cooper and NCDHHS Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen reported yesterday during a short press briefing that North Carolina has received its anticipated 80,000 doses of the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine, but they gave no indication about how NCDHHS has allocated those doses to vaccine providers across the state.

Dr. Cohen, who is considered a frontline essential worker, said she has received a Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which, like the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, is fully effective two weeks after its administration.

Ann G. Sjoerdsma, 3/10/21    

3/9/21: CUT-THRU TRAFFIC COMMITTEE TO MEET THURSDAY TO DISCUSS CONSULTANT’S REPORT, ITS OWN REMEDIES FOR CONGESTION.

The citizens’ Exploratory Committee to Address Cut-Thru Traffic will meet Thursday at 10 a.m. to discuss the report submitted last month by traffic engineering consultant, J.M. Teague Engineering and Planning, as well as its own potential remedies for summertime congestion in Southern Shores.

The meeting will take place in the Pitts Center and will be open to the public. All attendees must wear face coverings and observe six-foot physical distancing. The meeting will not be live-streamed.

J.M. Teague’s report, “Town of Southern Shores Congestion and Cut-Through Traffic Analysis,” is available on the Town website through the News tab on the home page, which is https://www.southernshores-nc.gov.

For background on the report, see The Beacon, 2/18/21.

The Beacon, 3/9/21

3/3/21: TOWN COUNCIL FINALLY GIVES UP ON CODEWRIGHT DRAFT, VOTES TO KEEP EXISTING TOWN CODE AND POSSIBLY INTEGRATE ‘ELEMENTS’ FROM PROPOSED CODE ‘UPDATE.’

The division of a developed 100-foot-wide parcel into these two buildable 50-foot-wide lots on Ocean Boulevard led to the Town Planning Board examining and then recommending in 2018 a rewrite of the Town Code ordinance on non-conforming lots.

My father always said that when you dig yourself a hole, you have to stop digging and figure out how to crawl out.

Last night the Southern Shores Town Council stopped digging in the hole known as the CodeWright Town Code of Ordinances “update” project, but it may not have figured out yet the best way to crawl out.

That is OK. As Dad knew, the most important thing to do, once you find yourself in a hole, is to stop digging. Your way out may not be immediately apparent without some trial and error.

For those of you who are new to town or otherwise unfamiliar with “CodeWright,” it is a reference to CodeWright Planners, a Durham-based company with which the Town of Southern Shores contracted in September 2015 to prepare an “updated” Town Code of Ordinances.

The Town Code codifies all of the Town’s legal regulations (ordinances) and also contains the Town Charter. It is a vitally important document that governs, among other things, how land is to be used and development is to occur and how we coexist amicably and safely in Southern Shores.

According to the 2015 contract, CodeWright principal Chad Meadows anticipated delivery of the Town Code “update” in 14 months.

See the CodeWright contract at https://www.southernshores-nc.gov/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/9-8-15-Signed-Town-Code-Update-Contract.pdf.

Last night, after nearly 5 ½ years, the Town Council unanimously voted at its regular monthly meeting (essentially) not to accept delivery of CodeWright’s product, because, frankly, folks, it is a big, bloated, confusing, user-unfriendly, distracting mess.

Of course, Councilman Matt Neal, who made the awkwardly worded motion to abandon CodeWright’s latest version of its Code rewrite, known as the Adoption Draft, did not actually say that. He is too diplomatic, polite, and friendly to be so blunt, but that is what he meant.

Instead, Mr. Neal said he likes the Town Code of Ordinances the way it is now, not the way Mr. Meadows has reinvented it, and he is concerned about what may have been left out of, or included in, the new Code that should or should not be there.

How did Mr. Neal propose in his unanimously approved motion that the Town “crawl out” of the CodeWright hole?

He instructed Town staff to “pull” from the Adoption Draft any “valuable elements” that they believe should be included in the current Town Code.

It will be up to Town Manager Cliff Ogburn and Town Planning Director/Deputy Town Manager Wes Haskett to decide what “to take out of the Adoption Draft and include in the existing code,” as Mr. Haskett stated—to the relief of anyone watching the livestream of the meeting, who may have been confused about Mr. Neal’s meaning.

We were not sure ourselves at first, and we have been in the trenches on the CodeWright fiasco from the beginning.

Considering how much Mr. Haskett and Mr. Ogburn have to do, this may not be the best use of their time. But it is one way to crawl out.

***

Former Town Manager Peter Rascoe defined and spearheaded the Code “update” project, starting with its introduction at the April, 21, 2015, fiscal year 2015-16 budget meeting, at which we first spoke out.

Mr. Rascoe, who resigned in August 2019, had the full support of Mayor Tom Bennett and Mr. Haskett, who identified CodeWright Planners as the contractor for the project.   

We opposed the project when it was introduced because of concern that it shifted legislative authority away from the Town Council and the Town Planning Board to an outside planner and the Town Manager. We also thought it was a waste of money: A Town staff member or a local college student could do the Code “cleanup” that Mr. Rascoe was proposing. The “update” seemed an unnecessary and politically motivated undertaking.

In all of his public statements, including in Town newsletters, Mr. Rascoe described the purpose of the CodeWright project as the elimination of “confusion,” “ambiguity,” and “obsolescence” in the Code’s language and the update of ordinances so that they conformed with the latest federal and state law changes. He always spoke of clarification and consistency, not new substantive changes.

But a few other homeowners, including future Council member Fred Newberry, and I feared that ordinances—in particular, those related to zoning—would be rewritten, and that the existing Town Council majority would rubberstamp them. (Mr. Newberry served on the Town Council from December 2015 to December 2019.)

The 23 questions on CodeWright’s “Town of Southern Shores Code Update Project Citizen Survey,” conducted in December 2015-January 2016, convinced us that we were on the right track. At the same time, SAGA Realty & Construction was banging at the Town gates, wanting to build a 16-bedroom wedding-destination venue on the Southern Shores oceanfront.

Whether house size in town should be limited was one of the many zoning questions on the survey. See https://www.southernshores-nc.gov/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/TOSS-Citizen-Survey-Report-2-18-16.pdf. (The Town Council passed the current 6,000-square foot maximum house size ordinance in January 2016 by a 3-2 majority. Mayor Bennett and former Town Councilman Chris Nason opposed it.)  

In his May 5, 2015 summary for the proposed fiscal year 2015-16 operating budget—which few members of the public read—Mr. Rascoe unequivocally wrote: “The projected budget recommends an expenditure this year for the updating and rewriting of the entire Town Code, including it’s [sic] zoning provisions. The current Code has retained ambiguous and duplicating provisions that have become irrelevant and difficult to administer and enforce as modern circumstances and conditions have evolved since the Town’s incorporation in 1979. This effort will be conducted by an outside firm, with input from the Town Planner, the Town Attorney, and the public.”

Please read the thorough account we wrote 7/30/20 about the CodeWright project history, so we do not have to repeat ourselves any further here: https://southernshoresbeacon.com/2020/07/30/7-30-20-the-making- of-a-fiasco-codewrights-update-of-the-southern-shores-code-of-ordinances-a-tainted-project-from-its-conception/.

We weighed in on CodeWright’s work (“big, bloated”) in a 1/30/19 critique of its December 2018 Town Code final draft and in a 7/29/20 analysis titled “The Making of a Fiasco: Codewright’s ‘Update’ of the Southern Shores Code of Ordinances: A Tainted Project From its Conception.”

Mr. Meadows’s new Code reformats, reorganizes, pictorializes, and footnotes the current Code without making it easier to use or understand.

Last year we called for the Town Council to cut its losses before Town Attorney Ben Gallop, who “sat” on his legal review of the December 2018 final draft for nearly two years, took it up. Ironically, Mr. Gallop’s delay may have proved beneficial.

During the past five-plus years, the Planning Board, whose recommendations have been enacted into law by the Town Council, has protected property owners on a number of zoning matters (building height and fill requirements, maximum vacation home occupancy, regulation of nonconforming lots, permissible lot coverage, etc.) that might have been settled differently by CodeWright.

Last night Mr. Meadows, who appeared by Zoom to give the Town Council a superficial “overview” of the changes in his Adoption Draft, said he had received 16 zoning text amendments (ZTAs) to integrate into his draft. The number seems excessive to us, but, regardless, with many newly enacted changes already in the current Code, it makes sense to reverse the direction of integration, as the Town Council did, so that the current Code is the primary document and the Adoption Draft augments it.

Mr. Neal (as a private citizen), Mayor Pro Tem Elizabeth Morey (as a Planning Board member and chairperson), and Planning Board Chairman Andy Ward (as a private citizen and Planning Board member) all contributed to the good government-public exchange that led to some of these ZTAs, and all referred to this progress last night.

A meeting last Friday among these three and Mr. Haskett led, according to Mr. Neal, to their consensus about how to stop digging the CodeWright hole and crawl out. 

“We think our [current] Code is pretty good,” said Ms. Morey.

During her tenure on the Planning Board, Ms. Morey participated in the review of CodeWright’s December 2018 “final” draft, which she told The Beacon in a June 2018 interview was an “unacceptable work product.”

Then chaired by Sam Williams, the Planning Board spent more than a year reviewing the revised Code chapters that were under its legal purview.

This delay, like Mr. Gallop’s, was immensely helpful to legislative processes that resulted in both the enactment of beneficial zoning changes and in the defeat of detrimental changes, such as a new method for calculating the 30-percent lot coverage building restriction that former Councilman Nason, an architect, twice sought to pass.  

Mr. Ward, who complimented the Town Council last night after its vote for making “a wise decision,” has been struggling with his Board’s review of most of the same Code chapters in the Adoption Draft that the previous Board addressed in its review.

At the Planning Board’s February meeting, during which it critiqued the new definitions section, Mr. Ward understatedly said that the Adoption Draft “is not an easy read.”

He also said, “We don’t want to go looking for trouble if we don’t have to,” clearly recognizing that as the Board got into the Code zoning and subdivision chapters, it could encounter more than a few editing and rewrite woes. 

The Planning Board had been scheduled to take up the all-important zoning chapter, Chapter 22, at its March 15 meeting. Now Mr. Ward and the Planning Board are mercifully off the hook.

So is The Beacon.

We look forward to crawling out.

You may access the redline version of CodeWright’s Adoption Draft here: https://www.southernshores-nc.gov/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/TOSS-Town-Code-Adoption-Draft-11-24-20-REDLINE.pdf

Ann G. Sjoerdsma, 3/3/21