Wrightsville Beach regulates holiday parking in church lots

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The parking lot at Wrightsville Beach Baptist Church. Photo by Hannah Leyva.
The parking lot at Wrightsville Beach Baptist Church. Photo by Hannah Leyva.

Wrightsville Beach has set regulations for churches in town that allow beachgoers to use their parking lots on the tourist season’s biggest holidays: Memorial Day Weekend, July 4th and Labor Day Weekend.

Four churches – Wrightsville Beach Baptist Church, Wrightsville United Methodist Church, Little Chapel on the Boardwalk and St. Therese Catholic Church – have been allowing the practice for years in exchange for donations from visitors. The town’s Board of Aldermen have now made it official by allowing them to do so under a permitted use in the town’s ordinances.

“We’ve discussed this for about the past five to eight years,” said the town’s Planning and Parks Director Tony Wilson. “We’ve talked about permitted use [vs.] conditional use. Staff and planning board’s recommendation is for permitted use.”

The reason for that, according to Wilson, is that a conditional use permit would be more complicated and take more time, time they don’t have as the first summer holiday is less than two weeks away.

“If we do it as a conditional use, that means the churches now would have to all come back again. They would have to hire attorneys. It would take some time,” Wilson said. “They would have to amend their [existing conditional use permits], if they have them, so they would have to go through that process … If we do it with permitted uses and try it for a while and we see it, you know, we can maybe do something with that.”

The regulations set for the churches include: lots must always have an adult supervising on those days, they must take care of and clear all trash and debris from the site, they can have no more than three signs totaling 18 square feet in size and they cannot require payment, it must remain donations only.

Representatives from all the churches except the Catholic church spoke before council and said they agreed with all the terms.

“I think it would be a benefit to the town in that we’re going to get a bunch of cars off the street a lot faster,” said Jim Smith, who represented Little Chapel on the Boardwalk.

He, along with the other two church representatives, asked if the town would adjust the time churches could start operating their lots to 10 a.m. from 11 a.m. due to the amount of traffic that arrives early.

“They circle like vultures out there at 9:30, 10 o’clock [in the morning],” Smith said.  “The sooner we can get cars off the road, the better we are.”

Smith also pointed out that all the donations from parking were not put into the general funds of the churches.

“They have committed that all this money goes to charities. It’s not to pay the lights, it’s not to put a new roof on the building; it’s charities,” said Smith. “It’s a win-win. I think we need some win-wins in town right now.”

Mike Edmonds, director of missions at Wrightsville Baptist Church and the vice chair of their Board of Deacons, emphasized that.

“We do not take any of these funds and use them to pay light bills or pest control fees or pastors’ salaries or anything like that,” Edmonds said. “We take these 100 percent to … our mission field.”

Edmonds said some of the money made from parking donations would be used by members on a mission trip this summer to the eastern European countries of Romania and Moldova.

“We want to be at peace with the town and we want to help the town grow and prosper and be successful, as we wish the town to help us prosper and be successful as well,” Edmonds said.

One citizen, Leanne Joyner, who lives directly next to St. Therese, said she opposed the ordinance because she fears the kinds of activities that currently go on in the unregulated lot next to her house will only get worse.

“There’s no control in that lot now, and there won’t be any control then, unless we have a police presence there,” Joyner said, calling the lot a “nightmare.” “The stuff that goes on in that lot is not suitable for discussion at this meeting.”

Joyner said she realized the ordinance only pertains to the Saturday, Sunday and Monday of Memorial and Labor Day weekends as well as the 4th of July and either the Saturday and Sunday before it (if it falls on a Monday or Tuesday) or after (if it’s on Wednesday, Thursday or Friday). Still, she said the problems with “the noise, the drinking, the tailgating” in the parking lot that occur now could be exacerbated.

“We need a police car, we need somebody to drive through there even in the middle of the day,” said Joyner, who said she’s talked to both the church and Wrightsville Beach Police Chief Daniel House about the problems. “I know that we’re stretched thin, but with the location of that lot, it’s the most popular parking lot.”

The ordinance specifically prohibits tailgating and violations of the town’s noise ordinance in those lots on holidays, and the town is looking for ways to minimize those activities on other days.

The Board of Aldermen unanimously approved the permitted use of church parking lots as commercial lots by donation on those summer holidays. Hours will begin at 10 a.m., and each church will be allowed to determine when they close their lots. Town officials will revisit the program after the summer season ends to evaluate it and see if any changes need to be made.