Nags Head commissioners conclude discussion on Rogallo Museum

Published 8:15 am Saturday, December 31, 2022

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Despite multiple requests from members of the Rogallo Foundation to the Nags Head commissioners to rescind their October 20 letter to state parks opposing a museum at Jockey’s Ridge State Park, those requests have not been granted, at least as of now.

The Rogallo Foundation is dedicated to highlighting the life and work of Francis Rogallo (1912-2009), who invented the flexible wing, paving the way for inventions including hang gliding, paragliding, stunt kites and kiteboarding.

The foundation was formed in 1992 with a goal of creating a museum. They began discussions with Jockey’s Ridge State Park in 2018 to select a site and create an architectural concept, and had been working with state parks to develop a proposal that would allow for a no cost, long-term lease on park property. Once obtained, the foundation would raise approximately $7 million to build and operate a 12,000 sq. ft. museum beside the current Visitor’s Center just off the parking lot.

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Having already garnered support from Dare County commissioners, members of the Rogallo Foundation made a scheduled presentation to Nags Head commissioners on October 5 to explain the vision and proposal of the museum. At the same meeting, Ann-Cabell Baum and Friends of Jockey’ Ridge Chairman Michael O’Brien spoke in opposition to any development within park property.

O’Brien expressed concerns over the potential impact to the park, and questioned if there was a completed environmental impact assessment to address potential impacts to the environment including wildlife and sand movement. He said the Friends of Jockey’s Ridge received “concerned messages about lack of transparency, lack of public input, and negative environmental impacts” about the proposed museum.

At the following commissioners meeting on October 19, the minutes from the meeting recorded online on the Town of Nags Head Agenda Center are as follows:

“Comr. Renée Cahoon stated that at the last Board meeting on October 5th, comments were received concerning Jockey’s Ridge State Park and a possible museum; she noted a lack of public input on the project. She suggested that Mayor Pro Tem Siers write a letter to State Parks to express the Board’s concerns to include the area of environmental concern and the State’s exemption for an environmental impact statement. She also expressed concern about a gift shop within the proposed museum.”

“Comr. Brinkley supported Comr. Renée Cahoon’s comments and pointed out that a petition opposing the museum within Jockeys Ridge State Park, submitted by Carolista Baum’s daughter, Ann Cabell-Baum, represented signatures from 37 states.”

“MOTION: Comr. Renée Cahoon made a motion authorizing Mayor Pro Tem Siers to send a letter to State Parks expressing the Nags Head Board’s concerns and supporting the Friends of Jockey’s Ridge position including that if the project moves forward, that an environmental impact statement be determined and to include that a resolution with the Board’s formal opposition stated be considered at the Board’s November 2nd meeting. The motion was seconded by Comr. Sanders which passed 4 – 0 (Mayor Cahoon was excused.).”

The resolution states: “WHEREAS the Friends of Jockey’s Ridge adopts this Resolution and REJECTS to support the development of the proposed museum on lands original to the Jockey’s Ridge State Park and,

“THEREFORE, be it resolved that the Friends of Jockey’s Ridge do not support the Rogallo Foundation’s request nor their MOA now before the State of North Carolina for development of an independent museum on state-owned lands located at Jockey’s Ridge State Park, Nags Head, North Carolina.”

The next day, on October 20, Siers, on behalf of the Board of Commissioners, drafted the letter to Parks and Recreation Deputy Director Brian Strong stating that at the October 19 commissioners meeting, the board “voted to support the resolution sent to you by the Friends of Jockey’s Ridge concerning the proposed Rogallo museum at Jockey’s Ridge State Park.”

Siers’s letter also stated: “The town has received numerous comments about the project and expresses the following concerns …” and lists impacts to natural and recreational resources in the park, a lack of information disseminated about the project, an appearance of benefit to the “owners” because of the inclusion of a gift shop and “widespread community opposition to the project” as indicated by a petition distributed by Ann-Cabell Baum which had the signatures of 1471 people from 37 states.

The letter to Strong went out and a response came back swiftly eight days later from North Carolina State Parks Director Dwayne Patterson — the museum project would not be approved by the state at Jockey’s Ridge State Park. The Friends of Jockey’s Ridge received a near-identical letter.

Patterson made the determination not to proceed with plans for the museum with the Rogallo Foundation, citing in part concern with the size and scope of the proposed museum and its effect on the natural landscape and concern about the proposal meeting legal requirements.

Patterson’s letter also stated, “There are also concerns about the appropriateness of leasing public land to a private entity whose mission and objectives may vary from those of the Division, and with recently expressed public opposition to the proposal.”

Feelings were mixed at the following Nags Head commissioner meeting on November 2.

Some celebrated the news and thanked commissioners for their part in keeping a museum off state park property.

O’Brien thanked commissioners for their support.

Baum spoke again in opposition to the museum’s proposed location: “There is no true opposition to the museum itself, it’s only to the physical location being on Jockey’s Ridge,” Baum said. “The Rogallos are amazing people … but Jockey’s Ridge is a natural resource. It is not a location for a private museum to be built. It is not the location for anything to be built … It’s location on Jockey’s Ridge State Park is not appropriate.” Baum also stated that there has been a lack of transparency on the part of the Rogallo Foundation.

Rogallo Foundation board members, however, expressed incredulity that commissioners would move so quickly in taking action. Several members spoke of damage to their personal and professional reputations.

Sandra Allen, volunteer treasurer of the Rogallo Foundation said, “As a CPA and a member of professional associations I am held to a very strict code of professional conduct. I’m very disappointed that I have to be here today after all of these years of doing the right thing to defend my reputation.”

“Rogallo Foundation’s intent to build a museum has absolutely positively been no secret from anyone nor has it been a secret that there are common board members between Kitty Hawk Kites,” Allen continued. “The Foundation followed the rules it needed to follow and does the things it needs to do to keep the entities separate and to mostly make sure there is no benefit to the for-profit business from the non-profit corporation,” Allen continued.

In the letter to Strong, Siers had written, “Inclusion of a museum gift shop appears to be a private endeavor to benefit the owners.”

Allen said to commissioners in response, “The future museum gift shop of the Rogallo Foundation will not benefit any private businesses or individuals. I am asking you to publicly correct your statement as I believe it negatively affects the ability of the Rogallo Foundation to raise funds for a museum and other exempt purposes. It could endanger our exempt status, it certainly damages my personal reputation, my professional reputation, and that of the other board members. So once again I’m asking you to publicly correct the statement made in your letter to the state of North Carolina.”

The Rogallo Foundation also clarified that the organization is a non-profit and does not have owners, nor does anyone in the foundation stand to gain financially from a museum.

“They’ve called this a private museum and the way they say it makes it seem like it’s meant to make money. This is an educational museum. It is meant to educate. It’s about culture. It’s about history,” said Rogallo Foundation board member GW Meadows in an interview with The Coastland Times. “There’s this definite overtone that John Harris is going to make money from this. And I’m here to tell you – that ain’t even close to right. That man has donated the resources of Kitty Hawk Kites to this foundation. I couldn’t even begin to guess how much money and resources he’s donated to it.”

Community member Ralph Buxton said at the November 2 meeting, “Unfortunately the town took a position here prematurely and that affected the state’s position. That was huge. The Rogallo Foundation has been working for years to plan this effort – to raise monies and support, build support – and that was really undercut so quickly by this board and I don’t understand. It is not like Nags Head. You all don’t do things like that normally.”

Meadows said the foundation was surprised how quickly the town acted. “We had done everything the state said to do. We spent a whole lot of money because the state said, ‘here’s what you ought to do next’ and then, boom! It all comes to an end when the Friends of Jockey’s Ridge overreact to something and then the town decides to just jump in without asking any questions.”

Meadows said the foundation had always been clear about their plans for the museum, and even gave a presentation at a Friends of Jockey’s Ridge meeting in the spring of 2019 to inform the group of their plans.

“We went there, showed them the artist renderings, told them where we wanted to put [the museum]. We were met with some people saying no, they don’t think it’s a good idea. We were met with some people saying, hey, this sounds like an OK thing to me. So it wasn’t unanimous against us but anybody who says we didn’t tell them is misinformed,” Meadows said.

Though the foundation was optimistic that a museum at the park would come to fruition, Meadows said that they were still waiting to hear back from the state on the final determination.

“If the state part says, hey, look, we like your museum, but the state park is not the place for it, I’m good with it. The problem was, we didn’t get to get to that point,” he added.

The Coastland Times asked NC Department of Parks and Recreation if they would consider changing their determination if the objections stated in the letter were addressed (for example, a smaller museum, clarification about missions and objectives, support from community leaders, etc.).

Though Patterson and Strong were not available for comment, NC Department of Parks and Recreation public information officer Katie Hall stated that this is “a final decision by the leadership of the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources. The objections listed in the letter to the Rogallo Foundation are not able to be addressed in a way that would allow for a lease of property to the foundation or construction of a museum at Jockey’s Ridge.”

The department declined to comment about how big of a role the “recently expressed public opposition to the proposal” made in their determination.

Meadows said, “We have no doubt that this was the final nail in our coffin as far as the letter that the state wrote that said they weren’t going to move forward. And, you know, after you’ve put so much time and money and effort into it. And the effort and time is what really matters. I would have been disappointed, but just fine if we went through the whole process and the state went, you know, we just decided it’s not compatible. But that’s not what happened.”

Town manager Andy Garman, in a phone interview, said the feeling on the board was that state parks was about to enter into a lease agreement.

“The Rogallo folks weren’t close to reaching an agreement with the state – it was actually a pretty long process. The urgency for the town to write a letter wasn’t as imminent as it appeared,” Garman said.

At the end of the November 2 meeting, after hearing impassioned speeches and letters from both member of the Rogallo Foundation and the Friends of Jockey’s Ridge, commissioners spoke to those who remained in the room.

Siers stated that, after rereading the letter sent to Strong, the board simply “respectfully requested more time based on the comments that we had received which were those comments that everybody took personal. But that was what we received and we provided this letter so that this letter would allow us additional time before any decision was made.”

Siers’s letter did request that more time be given before a determination was made by the state, but it also clearly expressed the town’s alignment with and support of the resolution written by the Friends of Jockey’s Ridge.

The Rogallo Foundation has asked the Town of Nags Head to rescind their letter. The foundation claims that the board’s letter is riddled with the following errors: that the museum would have impacts to the natural and recreation resources in the park; that it is inconsistent with the mission of the park; that there has been a distinct lack of public information about the proposed project; that the inclusion of a museum gift shop appears to be a private endeavor to benefit the owners; and that there is widespread community opposition to the project, citing a petition with signatures from 37 states.

No formal apology has been issued by the board nor any attempt to rescind the letter or correct the alleged errors in it.

Mayor Ben Cahoon read prepared remarks at the December 21 commissioners meeting regarding the issue.

Mayor Cahoon cited Patterson’s October 28 letter which said that North Carolina state parks does not support proceeding with a lease of property to the foundation or construction of a museum at Jockey’s Ridge.

“This reads as definitive to me and there’s no further action for this board to consider. That said, the board did register concerns in a letter dated October 20th which, based on their subsequent comments to this board, some of the Rogallo Foundation members and supporters read as reproaching them. I’ve known many of those folks – John Harris, Sandra Allen, Susie Walters, in particular – for a long time. They are above reproach and I do not believe the board thinks that they have done or intended wrong.”

The mayor then opened the discussion to other board members.

Commissioner Bob Sanders said, “I support the museum fully. I do apologize if the intent of the letter was information seen not factual, but I mean it was what we were hearing and that’s why we sent the letter forward. But, you know, I wish you guys the best of luck.”

Commissioners have, during several recent board meetings, said that they think highly of the members of the Rogallo Foundation and did not intend for the letter or subsequent comments to disparage the integrity of anyone on the board.

Commissioner Kevin Brinkley, speaking for himself, said at the November 2 meeting that “if there’s anything that came from the comments or the letters that that diminished the integrity of the board members of the Rogallo Foundation, I apologize.”

Meadows is concerned that the misinformation in the town’s letter, community comments and some media misrepresentation have hurt the foundation’s reputation and their ability to fundraise in the future.

He added, “What I want more than anything is our reputation. It’s much easier to keep your reputation than to try and get it back.”