Friday, April 12, 2024

Topsail in favor of additional paid parking spaces, will vote next month

Topsail Beach commissioners, as well as some residents, were in favor of implementing paid parking at the 22 beach accesses on the island, prior to the summer season. (Courtesy photo)

TOPSAIL BEACH — Topsail Beach implemented paid parking in one area of town last year but the remainder of the island remains free. Now, elected officials are contemplating increasing enforcement to beachside public access points.

During a workshop Wednesday morning, commissioners discussed options to add more paid parking spaces prior to the upcoming tourist season. They previously brought it up Jan. 13, at commissioner Tim Zizack’s request, to test the collective interest.

READ MORE: Topsail Beach considers adding paid parking on tight timeline

On the south end of the island, adjacent to Serenity Point, the town enforces paid parking at 27 spots. Another 172 could be added at Topsail’s 22 ocean front lots prior to peak season, if approved next month. If Topsail had paid parking townwide, there would be 466 spaces, including handicapped-accessible spots.

Assistant town manager Christina Burke laid out options: Do nothing and keep it as is, with only paid parking on the south end; implement paying for spots at beach accesses only; or enforce full paid parking, including streets.

“I’ll be the first to admit, we have access parking and it’s a fairly easy thing to move to paid parking there,” Mayor Steven Smith said.

The mayor also noted the pitfalls of charging for the spots closest to the beach.

“If you go to paid parking at the beach accesses, you’re going to push people to park in the rights-of-way first,” he said.

Commissioner John Gunter agreed, but added: “We were surprised at the results of having paid parking at the sound end. People are willing to pay to park.”

The town took in $83,306 in 2022 for spots at the south end.

Zizack suggested banning parking in the rights-of-way altogether, which could present its own set of challenges for the town. Most are owned by the North Carolina Department of Transportation and therefore would require state approval.

Business owners downtown expressed concerns about regulating parking for their customers, something the mayor touched on.

“How are we going to control the parking around their businesses; what options do we have?” Smith said. “They all put up signs saying parking is for their business only, but they’re in the state right-of-way so, actually, anybody can park there at any time. The signs do not give owners any authority to tow cars, and the town has to follow state law.”

As long as the vehicle is parked off the pavement, it’s legal to park in the rights-of-way.

Town manager Doug Shipley said many residences have driveways they utilize in the rights-of-way and town staff, landscapers and contractors park on the streets as well.

Some residents, who spoke during the meeting, seemed in favor of more paid parking, especially those who live near the beach accesses and deal with visitors parking in the right-of-way.

While for increased revenue coming into the town, Debra Budwit implored commissioners to not include public parking along residential easements. She said the back of her undeveloped property used to attract visitors to park there.

“It wasn’t just a noise and nuisance and invasion of privacy, but whatever trash folks who parked there left on my property — I am forever picking up beer cans, cups, doggie doo doo bags,” she said.

Betsy Johnson agreed.

“Let’s take advantage of the spots we already have but that’s enough,” she said. “But we need to do it this year. … We need the money; this would be a huge help to do some of the things you want to do — infrastructure, etc. It’s time.”

READ MORE: Topsail has a $141M wish list but how will it pay for it?

While North Carolina restricts the use of parking funds from on-street parking, the town can petition the state legislature to allow the use of revenue in its general fund. Wrightsville Beach and neighboring Surf City have been granted exemptions.

Mario Pizzi suggested extending options even farther into the city limits since the paid south side lot “is packed,” he said.

“I would go to charging at beach accesses and start researching everything else we’re talking about,” Pizzi added. “Until you have them pay, you can see what happens. Police can give good input after that, so should the department of public works on what they think should be changed and you can change it at your will.”

Opposed to banning parking in the streets entirely, Police Chief Sam Gervase called it a potential “nightmare” for his department. He pointed to the overrun of cars at rental properties and how island residents flock to the rights-of-way already.

“How do we allow that but not visitor parking on rights-of-way?” Gervase asked. “I’m not sure how to do that legally and how practical that is.”

Burke noted sound side accesses are a little trickier to enforce but not out of the question.

“We are looking at parking there, staff is not opposed to that, we’re just making sure we can,” she said. “Our ocean side lots are lots and parcels we own; the sound side, we don’t own that property.”

Gervase expressed concerns with enforcement. Otto Connect, the town’s current parking vendor for the south side lot, only ensures the spot has been paid for.

“There are several other violations that happen we’ll still be involved in,” Gervase said.

Also under Otto’s contract, there is “no mechanism” to recoup unpaid tickets without involving the police. Last summer, there were 106 tickets outstanding, which Gervase had to handle. Adding more spaces would likely increase that count moving forward and therefore the workload unless Otto implements “some sort of mechanism on their end,” he said.

Zizack mentioned North Topsail Beach — also contracting Otto for parking management — uses a third-party collection agency to handle unpaid tickets.

“And Otto is looking into adding that feature within their own program,” he said.

Public Works supervisor Kurt Polzer said his only concern with executing more paid parking was the need for additional signage. And he asked to make the decision quickly as the season begins in April.

“If we’re going to move on it, we need to know,” Polzer told commissioners.

Otto would need to order all the signage, one per space, and the town would cover the costs. Drivers pay for the spot, each associated with a specific number, through an app. Paying for spots would be enforced March 1 to Oct. 31.

Commissioner Joe Bell wanted to hold a public hearing before a formal vote, but other commissioners said Wednesday’s workshop was publicized and held as the opportunity for public feedback.

Staff will bring forth a proposal for a vote at the board of commissioners’ March 8 meeting.

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