NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Keeping that small, coastal town feel was the common theme among the Pleasure Island candidates in a forum hosted by Port City Daily, WECT and WHQR earlier this month.
Contenders for council seats and mayor positions in Carolina Beach and Kure Beach gathered Oct. 17 to share their views on issues affecting the New Hanover County coastal communities. Port City Daily reached out to the four Wrightsville Beach candidates running for board of aldermen and mayor to also participate; all candidates declined.
From Carolina Beach, current Mayor Lynn Barbee squared off against his challengers, Michelle Alberta and Tyler McDowell. Chad Kirk, another candidate in the running, declined to participate in the forum. As for the two open council seats, incumbents Jay Healy and Deb LeCompte were present, while their challenger Danny McLaughlin was not.
In Kure Beach, incumbent commissioners David Heglar and Dennis Panicali showed off against their challengers, Connie Mearkle and Tracy Mitchell. Allen Oliver, who is running for mayor unopposed, was not a participant.
The forum began with Carolina Beach and almost every candidate weighed in on one of the most hot-button beach town issues: parking. The challengers expressed qualms with the way parking decisions had been made by council members.
Alberta claimed switching parking companies to Pivot Parking in October 2021 was an example of the town making big decisions with limited info. She said there wasn’t an opportunity to ask questions during town workshops on the matter, and when she did get to make inquiries, those in charge didn’t have the answers.
Fixing the town’s parking system is one of Tyler McDowell’s top priorities. He criticized the lack of free parking options for employees at their workplace, placing a strain on local businesses, and the current town prices of $5 an hour.
“Over time, I’m going to evaluate that, figure out some loopholes to figure out how we could match the income from the parking to lowering a little bit to make it more affordable for some families to come to Carolina Beach,” McDowell said.
Mayor Barbee reminded the forum audience the town doesn’t own around half of the available parking in the town; those were controlled by private entities. He said he didn’t think the town should compete with those lots, which can charge up to $45 per day compared to the $20 cap in town lots.
Barbee was also asked if the town should alter parking fees in Freeman Park to allow free off-season parking during the months of November and December in the town. The town moved to year-round charging when it hired Pivot.
The mayor said that action would just be transferring the cost from one resident or visitor to another.
“I would not generally be in favor of that,” Barbee said. “I think the user fee, as best you can, should be targeted to the user of that service.”
LeCompte was also wary of charging more for Freeman Park visitors, stating the numbers weren’t there to support free winter parking, but she was open to looking for other revenue sources. In response to a separate question, Alberta suggested the town use its land to provide services like parking or pickleball courts to add to its revenue.
Healy was asked if he would support a parking garage on the island. The councilmember acknowledged the need for more spaces, but said decks were too expensive for the town and most residents don’t want the eyesore.
Alberta used some of her time on an unrelated topic to speak to the parking garage, suggesting the town get ahead of the problem.
“I largely agree with what Jay said, but I think one of the things that we could be better at is looking at public private cooperation, especially when my concerns is that somebody else might build a parking garage first,” Alberta said.
The candidates also addressed the town’s approach to improving its aging infrastructure and other town projects.
LeCompte pointed out she was well on track to accomplishing her infrastructure goals she set out when appointed to the vacant council seat available when Carolina Beach Mayor Lynn Barbee was elected to his role in 2021.
She noted several streets had been repaved, including Spartanburg Avenue and Fourth Street, while the town was working on a water storage, included in CB 2045, the town’s $70 million plan to address infrastructure needs approved in March.
In response to an audience question on the safety of Lake Park Boulevard, LeCompte said the road needs a sidewalk. The town is working on that project, currently unfunded, with the North Carolina Department of Transportation.
When asked about how to deal with flooding on Canal Drive, Healy said data shows the bulkheads on private residences have back up their success, but noted getting homeowners, some of which do not live in the town year-round, on board was the hurdle.
“They don’t want to invest $40 to $60,000 a bulkhead, so it is a challenge,” Healy said.
An audience question directed to McDowell addressed wetlands preservation to combat flooding; McDowell said the town should do everything it can to ensure none are disturbed.
Alberta noted the town’s $70-million hole dedicated to infrastructure needs and said she would use her expertise as a wealth manager to analyze the town’s finances and implement cost-saving measures. However, Alberta said she didn’t think raising property taxes was an option.
Kure Beach Candidates
Kure Beach’s forum followed its Pleasure Island neighbor and all candidates agreed their mission was to prevent overdevelopment and preserve the town’s Mayberry-esque nature.
“I’m all for personal property; owners, they can develop what they’d like. I’m all for personal responsibility, and that sort of thing,” Mitchell said. “I do think the council needs to keep their pulse on the growth and development.”
Specifically, Mitchell said, the council should match growth with sewer and water capabilities. Answering a similar question, Mearkle claimed the expansion of Fort Fisher would strain the town’s infrastructure and called for a long-term plan.
When asked if she would support high-rises and large hotels in the town, Mitchell responded no; however, she was in favor of townhome and condo developments “within reason.”
Each candidate was posed a question reagarding increased building height limits of 35 feet in Kure Beach. Currently, state law bars this, so many of the candidates acknowledged the difficulty of the task, and pointed out most residents do not want the rule to change.
Commissioner Heglar was tasked with addressing short-term rentals, which he said the town expected to rise due to Kure Beach’s location and their current lack of regulation. He said the town has stepped up enforcement of trash regulations and changed its water rates for high-consumption to make rentals “pay their fair share.”
Candidates also addressed two controversial projects in the town: the bike/pedestrian greenway path and oceanfront boardwalk repair.
A proposed route for the greenway would traverse behind dozens of houses along the west side of Settlers Lane; those homeowners have been vocal about their opposition, citing privacy and safety concerns.
Mearkle said she supports green spaces, but would need to see the finalized feasibility study for the project to make a final decision.
“Maybe the compromise position is, it goes in front of their houses,” Mearkle said. “I don’t know, but I would like to see the cost first to do this because I’m not going to fund something that we can’t get grants for.”
Commissioner Pennicali also addressed the greenway.
“I think the vast majority of residents, based on our land use survey last year, are in favor of additional safe bike and walking paths, additional green space,” Pennicali said. “So I don’t think that there’s a question in town of whether or not we want the greenway and I would support the majority of people in the town want.”
Pennicali was also asked about repair of the boardwalk, which has been a location of several films and is a beloved landmark for Kure Beach residents. The commissioner acknowledged people’s fears that the repair would remake the walkway into a more obtrusive and less environmentally friendly boardwalk, but Pennicali insinuated that was not the direction he would steer in.
“We as a town council, and I think as a town, have now realized that it is more likely to be a simple, eight foot wide path and the actual structure to be designed is still undergoing evaluation,” he said.
Early voting for the 2023 municipal elections end Saturday, Nov. 4. Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 7. Readers can access candidate questionnaires for municipal elections in the tri-county region from Port City Daily here. The forum can be viewed here.
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