County wants corridors to keep seashore open

By on April 5, 2010

Dare County commissioners took some shots at a new environmental study but seemed willing Monday to work toward a compromise on the National Park Service’s preference for managing access at the Cape Hatteras National Seashore.

“There’s not but a handful of things that they need to do to tweak this to make it palatable to us,” said Warren Judge, chairman of the Dare County Board of Commissioners.

video: Warren Judge on the county’s position » | see a chart of the alternatives »

The commissioners held a strategy session Monday to stoke interest in public hearings on a draft environmental impact statement released last month.

Two chief concerns during the session were the size of buffers for nesting shorebirds and whether corridors would be available for off-road vehicles and pedestrians to get around them.

Commissioners expressed concerns that a 1,000-meter buffer proposed in the park service’s preferred alternative would effectively block access to some areas that might be open beyond them. In a power-point presentation, Gary Gross, coordinator for Preserve Beach Access, said that was 1.25 miles or the length of 40 Olympic-size swimming pools.

Judge said that 200-meter buffers, advocated by the Coalition for Beach Access, are the standard set for federal protection of the piping plover.

“I think our board should be steadfast in supporting a system of corridors,” Judge said.

Under the preferred alternative, beach drivers would be required to get a permit but would have to pass a knowledge test first. Commissioners puzzled over what the test would entail and how people could prepare for it. That was not specified in the environmental study.

Judge, said however, that seashore Superintendent Mike Murray would have the authority to require permits whether they are in the plan or not.

“I would say that we don’t fight permits,” said Judge, who was the county’s representative on the negotiated rule-making committee. “They’re coming.”

The environmental study was undertaken after the negotiated rule-making committee, made up of various beach-driving stake holders, failed to reach a consensus after three years of meetings and public hearings.

A beach access management plan was mandated during the Nixon administration but was never formally put in place. An interim plan was replaced by a court-approved consent decree in 2008 that settled a lawsuit filed by environmental groups.

The consent decree has led to closures of some of Hatteras Island’s most popular fishing areas and, according to the county, has hurt local businesses.

Gross’ presentation showed how the park service’s preferred alternative stacked up against what the Coalition for Beach Access would like to see. The coalition is made up of the American Sportfishing Association, Avon Property Owners Association, the Cape Hatteras Anglers Club, the North Carolina Beach Buggy Association and others.

For example, the park service’s preferred alternative would have 16 miles of beach closed, 23 subject to seasonal closure and 29 miles open year-round. The coalition wants those numbers to be 5 miles closed, 17 miles seasonal and 46 miles open year-round.

Commissioners challenged whether any of the beaches would truly be open since they would be subject to the 1,000-meter buffers if nesting activity was observed.

“Probably three quarters of those were closed before July last year,’ said Commissioner Allen Burrus, who represents Hatteras Island.

An undercurrent of the meeting was that the county should be preparing for a lawsuit no matter what the park service ultimately decides. The final environmental impact statement and a decision are due before the end of the year.

Bobby Outten, the county manager and attorney, said that questions during the pubic comment period, which ends in 37 days, should be specific and factually based to preclude or pre-empt any challenges. He said environmental interests would be doing the same thing to protect their interests.

That was Gross’ advice on how the public should comment during the upcoming public hearings.

“It’s not the place for anger and venting,” he said.

The county will be mailing cards urging participation in public hearings and airing information on public access Channel 20.

Here is the schedule of hearings:

  • Ocracoke, Monday, April 26, 9 a.m. to 11 a.m., Ocracoke School
  • Buxton, Monday, April 26, 5 p.m. to 8 p.m., Cape Hatteras Secondary School
  • Kill Devil Hills, Tuesday, April 27, 6 p.m to 8 p.m., Wright Brothers Centennial Pavilion.
  • Raleigh, Wednesday, April 28, 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., McKimmon Conference Center, NC State University
  • Hampton, Thursday, April 29, 6 p.m to 8 p.m., Holiday Inn and Conference Center, Mercury Boulevard

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