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Permit necessary to park on beach in summer

As of May 1, persons may continue to drive on the northern beach as usual, but parking on the beach will necessitate a permit to do so, from Memorial Day through Labor Day.

Some sort of permitting system has been kicked around for a number of years, as traffic, particularly summer traffic, has increased to the point of creating safety concerns.

Beachgoers, especially the young ones, are not necessarily accustomed to looking both ways as they enjoy the beach and water. And drivers are focused on not getting stuck.

It’s been said a lot more than once that the mix of people and traffic is an accident waiting to happen.

So, at their first meeting this month, county commissioners required that persons wanting to park on the beach must have a permit to do so during the season, beginning the Friday of Memorial Day weekend and ending at 11:59 p.m. on Labor Day.

Not everyone has agreed with the idea, and some thought the county is rushing into things by having the requirement in place for the upcoming summer. Folks have expressed their concerns at prior commissioners’ meetings, and the early March meeting was no exception.

Speakers at the meeting didn’t necessarily agree that safety concerns will actually be addressed with a parking permit, nor will a permit reduce the amount of traffic. They suggested the permit fees being discussed were too high. Some of the day-trippers and members of off-road organizations suggested they have been getting a bad rap, pointing out that they do contribute to the county when they purchase food and fuel and some groups hold annual beach clean-up events and fundraisers for the volunteer fire department.

Still, commissioner Bob White, who lives and works on the beach, pointed out that an estimated 70 Jeeps were on the beach on a recent weekend and that none were seen later at any Currituck businesses. He agreed that there are some responsible off-road clubs, but some are not and the county’s number one concern, and the reason for the permit system, is safety, and he pointed out that other areas charge to use the beach.

Instead of a permit, a speaker suggested putting up a gate and charging to get on the beach, but White said that would create a huge traffic jam and that a parking pass is a good starting point but in the future a pass to drive on the beach may be a consideration (something that was discussed in earnest earlier this year).

However, commissioner Mike Hall suggested that the county should wait before requiring a parking permit to first see if the other changes that have been made make a difference – including additional signage and a change in the driving pattern.

Hall cast the only no-vote to implementing the permit.

Commissioner Marion Gilbert also pointed out that erecting signs on the beach itself has become complicated. Some sections are private property, some belong to the state or federal government.

In explaining the county’s authority to regulate traffic on the beach, county attorney Ike McRee pointed out that while some deeds may extend property lines to the high water mark, the beach is designated as a public trust area, which gives the public the right to recreate and cross that property.

While some have questioned the county’s regulatory authority on the public beach, McRee explained that in a broad authority, the state allows counties and municipalities to regulate activity in the public trust area of the beach related to public safety. In addition, and more specifically, the General Assembly gave Currituck County the authority to enact ordinances to restrict or prohibit activity on the beach, including the use of motor vehicles.

McRee also noted that the ordinance is the regulatory framework and does not include the amount of the permit fees, or locations where the permits can be obtained. The fees are included in the county’s overall fee schedule that is typically set at budget time, and the locations determined by the county manager – details that can be changed as needed without going through the process of amending the ordinance itself.

Residents and property owners can get a permit for each vehicle they own at no charge. Residents living on the north beach can get two more permits not assigned to a vehicle, at no charge, and property owners with houses on the north beach that are in a rental program can get two permits for each house at no charge.

At a subsequent meeting, the fees for parking permits for non-residents and non-property owners were set at $150 for the season, and $50 for a ten-day permit.

County manager Dan Scanlon explained that the staff has been discussing details of the permit system since the board’s retreat in January.

The parking permits will be hung from the rear view mirror, and large enough for law enforcement to easily see, and like the ATV permit (the permit system framework that was used to add the parking permit program) the parking permits will be dated and color coded. Permits for vehicles will include the vehicle license number or VIN number, guest permits will include the address of the property owner’s home or the address of the home in the rental program.

Scanlon added that permits may be obtained at the county’s Visitor Center in Moyock, at the Tourist Center in Corolla, electronically through the county’s website, or by fax.

As to those who might try to avoid getting a permit by parking along the streets behind the dunes, McRee explained that counties do not have the authority to regulate streets. However, the owners of those streets (in some cases a property owner’s association, or developer) can request the commissioners establish regulations, which then can be enforced by deputies.

Commissioner Paul Beaumont pointed out that the residents of the northern beach asked the county to address safety concerns and that deputies assigned to the beach will be able to check for the parking passes on their routine patrol and will not add extra work for those officers. He also said that people should let the commissioners know if they see issues with the parking permits, and that the fees are not an attempt for the county to make money but rather will be used to pay for the permit system and used on that beach.

Commissioner Gilbert said that much of what is being added to the ordinance came from suggestions made by a committee appointed in 2011 to look at the beach driving issues.

One speaker asked how “parking” will be defined, and the county attorney noted that parking is not defined in the state’s motor vehicle statutes, and so without a legal definition the common definition such as found in the dictionary would apply. McRee also noted that a deputy would have the discretion of determining if a person had simply stopped to take a picture, or parked for a longer stay.

“Most people know what parking is,” added commissioner White.

Board chairman Bobby Hanig thanked the public for their input, and commended the staff and his fellow commissioners for all the work put into the issue, adding that the result is “a good ordinance to go forward with,” while acknowledging that no ordinance is 100 percent perfect.