Op-Ed: A Main Street for the Outer Banks

Published 3:46 pm Wednesday, July 3, 2024

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By Charles Ries

Many of us on the Outer Banks recognize that we have a housing affordability crisis, one that especially affects the ability of nurses and doctors, firefighters and police officers, teachers and counselors, tradesmen and fishermen, really any young families just starting out to afford a place to live. The future of the Banks depends on our finding ways of helping them to find affordable housing, because we need just such new residents.

Of course, our housing challenges are mirrored across the country, as the media is reporting. Perhaps the solution is to think about it in the context of something bigger, a vision that would benefit every resident and visitor. Could we build an OBX “Main Street” that would combine more entry level housing with an effort to create a better sense of community and better aesthetics, with preservation and environmental protection too?

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So, here’s the idea: let’s reimagine the US158 corridor as an attractive, suburban “main street” for the four key towns Southern Shores, Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills, and Nags Head on the central Outer Banks.

We would start by reimagining the bypass (what a terrible name to use!) itself. We would push to put an attractive green median strip down the 17 miles of US158 from Wright Memorial Bridge to the Causeway. (Such a green median is already in NCDOT plans.) It should use water-efficient drip irrigation and be planted with our signature native species (wax myrtle, loblolly, etc.). Of course, we would need left turn lanes in median strip at all lights, with left turn signals, and we would need to allow u-turns. We would ask NCDOT to time the lights for maximum traffic throughput. Along the “main street” let’s have a uniform speed limit of 45. These changes would likely save lives, but if the lights are smoothly timed, it might not affect throughput of traffic to Hatteras, Manteo, and points north and west.

With a new “main street,” we could look at zoning changes to incentivize infill of small multifamily apartment buildings (20 units or less, within existing height limits) in presently commercially-zoned parcels on US158. The Kitty Hawk Planning Board recently approved just such an idea.

Aesthetics would be important. Such new, small apartment buildings should have to have open/green spaces around them or in atriums, perhaps green roof decks (perhaps with ocean views …). Perhaps at first developers should be encouraged to try to site them within walking distance of public buildings (schools, town buildings, libraries). The Nags Head sound-side parcel also provides room to incorporate such concepts, but this should be a four-town effort. To help young families, we should also find ways to increase childcare opportunities.

It would be helpful to find legal ways to prevent the new units from being offered as short-term (weekly or less) rentals in order to ensure new housing is occupied by our target entry level workforce. Honolulu successfully adopted an ordinance to do so, and we should look into the specifics of their approach and that of other towns across the country.

Such initiatives would help add to the supply of affordable housing. But in the community’s interest, we wrap it in an effort to create an aesthetically pleasing “main street” for all.

And, of course we must preserve all existing zoning on the NC12 “beach road,” but be sure to allow small scale, non-chain restaurants. We wouldn’t want any “Virginia Beach-ification” of our beach!

These are just some ideas for addressing the housing crisis in a broader initiative to make our towns better. We must however engage small businesses, town and county leaders, charitable organizations and indeed our entire community to do this right, as the new committee is doing now.

But to capture our imagination, why not rename the “bypass” with something much more beachy (“Seagull Way” or “Waves Boulevard”)?

Charles Ries, a retired federal employee, is a resident of Southern Shores and an alternate member of the town’s Planning Board.