Friday, September 22, 2023

Topsail tables more paid parking, overnight vehicles could be prohibited

Topsail Beach’s south end lot could soon ban overnight parking after pleas from residents due to safety concerns. (Port City Daily/Amy Passaretti Willis)

TOPSAIL BEACH — After months of discussion, planning for different scenarios and public feedback, the Topsail Beach Board of Commissioners decided to table any changes to its paid parking system until further notice. 

Instead, they’re considering a ban on overnight parking, at least at the south end lot, due to safety concerns raised by nearby neighbors.

READ MORE: Topsail Beach assesses 400-plus parking spaces to monetize in bolstered plan

Topsail is the one of the last coastal areas in the tri-county region that does not charge people to park townwide; visitors only have to pay to park in its south end lot. Currently, 27 parking spaces are paid, adjacent to Serenity Point, which brought the town $83,306 in 2022 revenue.

The commissioners tasked staff to reconsider a paid parking program at the beginning of the year. It spent the last four months assessing beach accesses, sound side accesses, and other town lots that could be outfitted with spaces. 

Staff spoke with representatives from parking management company Otto Connect, held five public meetings, including one hearing, about expanding parking into more than 400 spaces.

At the commissioners’ Wednesday meeting, residents submitted a petition against the program with 177 signatures — about one-third of the town’s 461 population opposing the notion.

The petition stated neighbors didn’t think parking was an issue at this time and to move forward would impact the aesthetics of the town, especially since the town would have to install 639 signs to indicate the new paid parking spots.

“As well, the revenue from paid parking is not likely to make an impact on the budget, and paid parking would put a financial burden on residents as they would have to purchase a parking pass,” the petition, submitted by Nancy Thomason and Penny Burrell, indicated.

“I appreciate the effort of getting this petition together,” commissioner John Gunter said. “And bringing this to our attention, forcefully.”

Gunter was in support of paid parking, at least at the public beach accesses; however, after input from the public in March and April, he said he reconsidered.

“I don’t think it’s right to go ahead,” Gunter said. “I’m disappointed, though, because this plan — after a few false starts — was carefully prepared by staff thoroughly but not well understood.”

He explained most people thought the plan was to implement paid parking townwide in one motion, but commissioners and staff were going to phase in spaces over time.

In mid-March, commissioners voted to implement parking at town-owned properties on Ocean Boulevard and S. Anderson Boulevard. A public hearing proved many residents did not have an appetite for it, though some agreed the added boost in revenue is needed.

In April, town manager Doug Shipley proposed 438 paid parking spaces located in almost 30 beachside and soundside parking areas, two lots and some rights-of-way.

Main concerns arose over how to regulate the rights-of-way. The fact that most people would park there, as opposed to paying, could make the paid system a moot point, Shipley said.

The cost to get the two town-owned lots graded and cleared would cost about $100,000, plus $63,000 for signage. Shipley explained certain ordinances would need to be changed to address overnight parking, fines, and more.

“We learned a few things in terms of our ordinance,” Mayor Steven Smith said this week. “No action will be taken until further action is given by this board.”  

On the topic of parking, other residents urged commissioners to consider banning overnight parking in some areas due to safety concerns.

Resident Michele Rivest, who lives four houses down from the south end lot, said she no longer walks on the beach at night.

“We would support a parking curfew from dusk to dawn,” she said. “There’s partying, people camping.”

Anne Pizzi lives near the south end and has concerns about people sleeping in their vehicles parked on site.

“We don’t want to wait for something bad to happen,” Pizzi said. “We don’t want to limit people’s beach use but limit the risk to all of us we’re inviting.”

Commissioner Frank Braxton said, since it’s not a well-lit area, it could also pose hazards for Topsail police officers to approach cars with tinted windows at night.

Police Chief Sam Gervase was not opposed to prohibiting overnight parking at all the beach accesses, though he confirmed, the station gets very few calls and crime is extremely low in Topsail Beach. Last year there were 17 disturbance calls in the entire town and two larcenies for the year.

“One was a fishing pole, the other was a bike,” Gervase said.

In the last five years, assaults, larcenies, and property damage decreased significantly from a decade ago, Gervase reported. But violations, arrests and traffic stops are up.

“It shows the police are doing their jobs,” Shipley said.

He added, if more incidents are happening than what’s reported, the town needs to be made aware.

Gervase also requested the town implement a time limit associated with allowable parking, as opposed to “sunrise and sunset.”

“They need to be very clearly marked that the access is closed,” Gervase said. “One thing it does is, it would give us probable cause to approach a vehicle at that point because there’s a violation.”

As it is now, officers do voluntarily check loitering vehicles if there’s “reasonable suspicion.”

“But we’re on much shakier legal ground than if it were prohibited at night,” Gervase offered.

Town staff will bring forth two separate ordinances for consideration at the next commissioners’ meeting: one that would prohibit overnight parking just for the south end lot and the other prohibiting overnight parking at beach access areas.

“We need to look at the timing issue,” Mayor Steven Smith said. “We need signage for people to be notified, and if this is going into effect, how it’s communicated so we don’t have a rash of people complaining they didn’t know something had changed in their area.”

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