Saturday, November 10, 2012

And here is the rest of the story...

The following post reflects only my own personal thoughts and opinions and is not written on behalf of the Wings Over Water Wildlife Festival partner organizations – Coastal Wildlife Refuge Society, Outer Banks Sentinel, Carolina Bird Club and the US Fish and Wildlife Service - or any of the participating businesses that work with us each year.

The public has been grossly misled by the Dare County Board of Commissioners about the events surrounding the Pea Island Wings Over Water trips. Hatteras Island residents deserve better than being fed misinformation aimed at angering and misleading them. This is deflecting focus away from the real issue of why the islanders don’t have reliable access to their homes and businesses.

Audubon is not a partner of Wings Over Water nor are there any discussions – now or in the past ‑ between the Wings Over Water steering committee and Audubon. And just to get down to the facts, Audubon is not one of the plaintiffs in the legal proceedings over the bridge. The board of commissioners has spent a ton of money lobbying on these issues so they do know that.

Immediately following the DOT announcement that visitors would be allowed on the ferries, all participants in Hatteras Island Wings Over Water programs were told that if they wanted to get to their programs, they would have to go over the night before via ferry and, depending on what time of day their program was, may have to come back the day following their program(s). The Chamber of Commerce also was notified and asked to send out a message to motels and cottage rental companies on Hatteras Island asking that they contact the WOW coordinator so that he would know where to steer participants who needed help in booking rooms. There was never any discussion about Hatteras Island program participants accessing the island via Pea Island. Check it out with the Chamber or its members on Hatteras Island or DOT.

The issue with not allowing access across Pea Island wasn't about the bridge; it was because the road wasn't repaired beyond Pea Island Visitors Center. Heavy equipment, tractor-trailers and other needed repair vehicles have been using Bonner Bridge since divers determined it was safe a couple of days after the storm. Ask DOT.

Fish and Wildlife can not make any decisions regarding who and when folks can use the road or the bridge because only DOT has that jurisdiction. As far as driving on the beach, if you've seen pictures, then you know that in several places there is no beach. And the road on both sides of the temporary bridge had (has) problems. But even if there was a beach and a safe temporary bridge at the time, any decision about whether to allow driving on the beach could not have been made locally - that would have to have come from way up the bureaucratic food chain which, in government, is always a time consuming action. And any decisions about using the road and bridges are from DOT.

And none of this had anything to do with permits needed by DOT to fix the road. Fish and Wildlife has signed off on every request, including allowing a temporary gravel road to be placed on the refuge to allow driving around a problem area. Check it out with DOT.

And WOW is not and has never been made up solely of member organizations that are conservation groups. In the past, the Paddlers Club, Chamber of Commerce, Roanoke Island Festival Park have been members and there are probably going to be a couple more this next year. The Outer Banks Sentinel has been and still is a partner for the past decade. Although retired from the newspaper, I’m still its representative on the steering committee for WOW.

The mission of WOW is to promote appreciation for our environment, history and natural history while helping boost the economy during the shoulder season by bringing visitors to the area. For more than half its existence, WOW was one of the few programs that focused on bringing visitors to the area during the shoulder season. Some locals participate but most are from other parts of the state and usually about a dozen or so other states.

My husband is an angler, commercial fisherman, seafood wholesaler, duck hunter and a birder! In fact, he led two WOW birding programs on the Alligator River Wildlife Refuge this week. He refuses to be a member of Audubon because of all its rhetoric and misinformation. Birders come in many shapes and sizes and political backgrounds. To try to demonize an entire group of people who have an interest in any hobby should be beneath the Dare County Board of Commissioners. 

It may be shocking to some, but there are Audubon members who are taking part in the angling tournament this week. There also are CCA members - the CCA is the group that has been trying to shut down commercial fishing in North Carolina for two decades. But there aren’t outcries about that, nor should there be. Perhaps if we all fished together more often we could get away from the rhetoric inspired by the board of commissioners and the Southern Environmental Law Center. Neither one limits its discussion to facts.

During its meeting on Monday, the commissioners approved a proclamation related to community foundation week. Skipper Hines, the chairman of the Outer Banks Community Foundation presented the information and requested the board issue such a proclamation. The county’s recreation department and the Sheriff’s Office also were on the meeting’s agenda; both are seeking funds from the Community Foundation for very worthwhile projects. Not said, but known to at least two commissioners, is the fact that the new executive director is coming to the position from her former job as communications director with the Audubon Alaska. I know that they knew because I shared in the information with them weeks ago because I knew there would be pushback on it.

But are we or should we be running background checks on everyone who enters Dare County? No, that is ridiculous and to single out one event and ignore the others sort of tells the tale on this one. And the fact that the outcry was prompted the weekend before the commission meeting by Warren Judge who sent out an email letter to Hatteras Island residents to tell people to “make noise” by contacting legislators, etc. is a disgrace as is its misinformation and tone. I’ve always considered Warren a friend and it confuses and hurts me greatly that he would resort to this sort of thing leading up to an election.

And then there is the personal letter that a Coastal Wildlife Refuge Society member, Stanley Oliver, wrote and was attached to the complaint to try to stop the issuance of the CAMA permit needed to replace the bridge in its current location. I know, like and respect the man and he has every right to voice his opinion and the letter was a personal one, not on behalf of the society – a fact that the society has acknowledged to all who have asked about it. The complaint itself makes it sound as though CWRS is a party in the legal action: it isn’t.  The complaint advocates ferry transportation which is ridiculous.

Stanley’s reasoning is that given the fact that DOT has refused to address the problems with the road, it will be a bridge to nowhere. He is right. Even today, if a brand new bridge was standing, Hatteras Island residents would not have access to their homes and businesses. The commissioners decided 10 years ago that they wouldn’t agree to a long bridge because it would take away vehicle access to Pea Island. DOT has stated that it will no longer maintain the road if ever there is alternate transportation route. The Fish and Wildlife is not funded to maintain roads so although the refuge would remain open, it can not guarantee that there would be vehicle routes.

At the time the board made the decision to fight for keeping the current route in place, I agreed with them because I love going to Pea Island to walk and enjoy the beach. And I knew if there is no access, then the Pea Island Visitor Center would be closed. The facility is the primary source of income for the Coastal Wildlife Refuge Society so would be a huge financial hit for them. The money earned there is used to pay for three employees who work with the volunteer and intern programs; do the administrative work for WOW; and run the gift shops. The profits also have been used on many other projects including building boardwalks through some areas of the refuges and providing paddling ramps – both of which are extensively used by the public.

And I was concerned about possible environmental issues related to disturbing the bottom of the sound and run off from the bridge if it was located above water.

But the increased frequency of new inlets and breeches over the past few years has convinced me that it is a fighting-windmills type dream. The only way to reliable access to Hatteras Island is to bridge the entire Pea Island roadway which might be why DOT refuses to announce a plan. If that is done, it obviously is going to remove most if not all vehicular access to Hatteras Island because it can only be built if the entire road is closed down for at least a couple of years while the construction is ongoing. And at the same time, the island is quickly eroding so if it is bridged above where the road is now, eventually it will be over the ocean. For those who might not know or remember, NC 12 used to be on the east side of where the now-gone Pea Island headquarters buildings were. It had to be moved to the west of the headquarters because of erosion threatening to claim it. The original road is now somewhere out in the ocean.

My opinion is that Stanley has been used by both sides. We all had the opportunity this week to go to the polls and voice our opinions. The same Constitution which ensures us that right, ensures his right to voice his opinion just as it does for all of us. There is a request that the society remove its name from the lawsuit but I think it would take hiring an expensive attorney to do that and that is not possible given the society’s current budget. And the board has gone on the record as stating that it didn’t know its name was used. But regardless of what steps they take, it won’t change the legal landscape. The suit will still exist.

There’s another issue that needs to be addressed related to Bonner Bridge and is thwarting any attempts to find a reasonable solution to access to Hatteras Island.

Years ago, when Gov. Martin managed to get the groin on the south side of the inlet, it was done with the understanding that if there is no longer a bridge across the inlet, then the groin must be removed. If that happens, there is little doubt that the inlet will close and that would severely impact both commercial, charter and recreational fishermen who would be forced to go to Hatteras Inlet. The negative economic impact to Dare County would be tremendous. Instead of fighting windmills, the groin issue needs to be somehow removed from the fight over the bridge. That would allow better decisions to be made about the placement of both the bridge and the road. And concentrating some efforts solely on the groin might net some solutions that will ensure the inlet stays open and in place.

Hatteras islanders need to let the board know what is more important to them – having reliable access to their homes and businesses or having guaranteed vehicular roads in Pea Island – when the island is accessible. This is getting more iffy every year as more inlets cut through or attempt to cut through the island. I said this to one of my Hatteras Island friends this week and her response was that having the bridge without addressing the road issues is a compromise. But I don’t understand this - a compromise between what? Between having a safe bridge and still unreliable access or having unreliable access with an unsafe bridge? Neither is a winning situation for my friends on Hatteras Island. They deserve a reliable, safe transportation corridor – just like everyone else in the state.

But while everyone fires shots at each other, I’m going to continue to work on projects that I think benefit the residents of the county. The money we raise each year through WOW is used to support nature programs in Dare County Schools. Many of the grants have gone to Cape Hatteras schools for transportation costs for field trips, supplies and even classroom equipment. As long as we are benefitting the children of Dare County, I will continue to work with and support the Wings Over Water program. And as long as any project ultimately benefits my friends and neighbors in Dare County, I will try to contribute to it.


  1. Keep them on their toes, Sandy.

    The issues have become less about actually helping people and more about tossing around a political football and trying to impress voters.

  2. Thank you Sandy, maybe some of the muck rakers will read your article but really most of them don't want to be educated. I am a long time Hatteras resident. The kind of misinformation that was spread about Wings is typical of HI makes you wonder just about everything else we have been told.