Airboat operator needs 2nd vote to run tours from Nags Head

By on May 12, 2015

airboat2A Virginia airboat operator will have to wait another month to find out whether his prospective tour boat business will be a go in Nags Head this summer.

Jamie Moore wants to bring Outer Banks Adventure Tours to Causeway Watersports, where owners once ran a similar airboat business more than a decade ago that was eventually shut down for noise violations.

Commissioners 3 to 2 last week to allow for the limited use of an airboat rental passenger operation in the town’s commercial recreation overlay district on the Roanoke Sound near the Nags Head-Manteo causeway.

But without a supermajority, Moore’s request will have to return to the board for a second vote on June 3.

If it garners at least a 3 to 2 majority a second time around, the site plan for Moore’s business will be considered that same day. If approved, it would operate under a one-year sunset clause.

Moore on said he was frustrated by the delay, but added that he counted the vote as a “victory.”

“I was a little frustrated, but at the same time . . . they didn’t say no,” he said.

While complaints of noise eventually prompted the town to essentially ban airboats in the mid-1990s, Moore says technology has come a long way and he assured commissioners that noise wouldn’t be an issue.

If approved, Moore said, Outer Banks Adventures would be the only commercial airboat operation for hire in North Carolina. With two years running a similar business in Poquoson, Va., Moore told commissioners he has never had a noise complaint.

He hopes to provide everything from tours that explore the ecology and culture of the area, build-your-own adventure excursions and fishing and clamming trips. Swamp tours in Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge may also be on the horizon, he said.

Planning Board Chairman Mark Cornwell told commissioners his board listened to the operation of Moore’s airboat at various idle speeds. “Every member agreed noise wasn’t going to be an issue.” He likened the sound to a souped-up pick-up, an 18-wheeler or a motorcycle, saying there are far more intrusive noises along the causeway.

With an eco-tourism certification from the state of Virginia, Moore said he is a good steward of the environment and would enhance neighboring businesses by providing a unique facet of tourism on the Outer Banks.

But Garry Oliver, owner of Fishing Unlimited on the Nags Head-Manteo Causeway, wasn’t as excited about the proposal. He told commissioners he still remembers the noise airboats made back in the 1990s.

“For two years, we suffered through the worst sounds. When that engine was fired up in the morning, it was awful,” he said.

Oliver also said he was concerned about the environmental impact to the estuaries and creeks and conflicts between kayakers and the airboat.

John Harris, owner of Kitty Hawk Kites who also operates a kayak, jet ski and dolphin tours at a nearby site, called Moore’s operation a welcome asset to Nags Head.

Under the zoning amendment, airboats would be allowed as a conditional use in the recreational overlay district, which stretches along the bypass from Forbes Street near the old Windmill Point site south across the causeway.

If approved, the amendment would require airboats to use an automotive-style factory muffler, underwater exhaust or other device designed to muffle sound. Additionally, they would also be required to idle for a minimum of 900 feet from any shoreline in the town before elevating, or “going on plane.”

Operators must also meet state and federal guidelines for operating the vessels, possess an eco-tourism certification and have a minimum of 200 documented hours of operation time.

No more than two airboats could operate within the district. Moore proposes to use just one. The boats are also prohibited from entering into or passing over marsh grass.

With a sunset clause, Moore said, the burden of proof falls on him. “If my operation doesn’t meet the cut, I won’t be in business,” he said.

Commissioners Marvin Demers and Mayor Bob Edwards cast the dissenting votes.

Edwards said such an operation is against the quiet, family operation that is so cherished in Nags Head. “We are reaching a limit on what we can do on the sound side, and this opens the door to other operations,” he said.

He said he didn’t want to see Nags Head become the “airboat mecca of the East Coast.”

But Commissioner Renee Cahoon said that although she had grave concerns about the noise, she thought the town should see how it unfolds.

“I’m interested to see how technology has changed,” she said. “If we didn’t have the sunset clause, I probably wouldn’t be voting for it.”

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