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Monday, May 27, 2024

Topsail commissioners revisit ‘embarrassing’ public nudity ordinance, will vote next month

Topsail Beach is once again considering an ordinance that would make it unlawful to be naked in public places. (Port City Daily/Amy Passaretti)

TOPSAIL BEACH — Eight months after a Pender County beach town ditched discussion on public nudity, commissioners revisited the rules Wednesday.

A proposed draft ordinance change would make it illegal in Topsail Beach to flaunt uncovered private parts in public, namely genitals, breasts and derrières. The regulation would require beachgoers to be covered in “opaque clothing.”

READ MORE: It’s a bust: Topsail ditches talks on topless ordinance, looks at other town’s regulations

Last summer, commissioner Tim Zizack requested the ordinance be considered. Following advice from town attorney Steve Coggins, who at the time cited risk of litigation and free speech, the board tabled the matter.

The ordinance is now being reconsidered following a nudity ordinance in Ocean City, MD, which was upheld in federal court. In August, a three-judge panel of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the Maryland beach town’s ban on women going topless is constitutional, despite a group of residents saying it was discriminatory against females.

“If and when we saw the courts uphold a particular ordinance, we said we would take another look at it,” Mayor Steven Smith said at the board’s Wednesday meeting. “In the past, the courts did not uphold ordinances passed by other communities.”

When the agenda item rolled around, an audience member jokingly asked: “For those of us not able to read it, which one of you is going to read it out loud?”

Neither the commissioners nor Smith volunteered due to the explicit language used in the draft.

Coggins prepared the potential ordinance.

“This is going to be difficult,” commissioner Frank Braxton said. “The terminology is so specific and descriptive, it’s embarrassing.”

He added it could create more of a problem to enforce.

The ordinance change to Article III of Chapter 24 would read:

“Nude, or a state of nudity means the showing of the human male or female genitals, pubic area, vulva, anus, or anal cleft with less than a full opaque covering, the showing of the female breast with less than a fully opaque covering of any part of the nipple, or the showing of the covered male genitals in a discernibly turgid state.”

Town resident Greg Hannah asked earlier in the meeting, during public comment, how the ordinance would impact transgender individuals and noted it’s something the board should consider.

“I don’t know how we would know if they are, and we have no intention of asking,” Smith responded.

Commissioner Morton Blanchard stood by the idea: “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.” The town had not received many complaints, he added. Had the opposite been true, it might be warranted.

Police Chief Sam Gervase confirmed the town only received a couple of complaints a year. Still, he was in favor of it. 

“Typically, up until last year we’d get two or three calls about nudity on the beach,” he said. “Last year, we had a new situation, I’m sure everybody remembers. If you don’t, we had a couple who really pushed everyone to their limits as far as lack of an ordinance is concerned.”

According to assistant town manager Christina Burke, Gervase was referring to a couple that “walked around freely topless up and down crowded areas of the beach strand.”

Gervase feared Topsail would become a “destination” for nudity, if rules were not put in place.

“My personal feelings are: We are a family town, and we bill ourselves as such, if Mr. Coggins says this ordinance is defendable in court, I’m all for it,” he said. “It’s very difficult for us to explain to a family with small children we can’t do anything about someone parading past them all day long with their privates out.”

“Our residents and visitors were less than thrilled to see that as they were enjoying family time on the beach,” she said.

Resident Betsy Johnson said from the audience, in gest, she was going to read two words: “anal cleft.”

“I see it everyday out there,” she said. “People getting in and out of their cars. You cannot enforce that.”

If approved, the ordinance would come with a $1,000 citation and a misdemeanor charge for anyone who is nude on the “beach, public parks, parking lots, streets, avenues, alleys or other public places within the town’s municipal limits.”

Smith said the ordinance could be tweaked to assist the police department with enforcing inappropriate situations but also avoid instances that could open a bigger can of worms, such as people identifying with a different gender, or no gender.

Wednesday’s meeting was for discussion only and the commissioners will take a vote at its next meeting, May 10 at 6 p.m.

“We can kill it or say yes,” Smith said to commissioners. “It’s up to you guys.”

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