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Wednesday, May 29, 2024

‘Killed by parking’: CB residents, business owners implore town to change parking program

The Town of Carolina Beach hosted a parking forum to gather resident feedback on Dec. 13, 2023. (Port City Daily/Alexandria Sands Williams)

CAROLINA BEACH — It was hot inside Carolina Beach Town Hall Wednesday night as upward of 100 people packed into council chambers, their frustrations rising over the town’s paid parking program. Carolina Beach is the only beach municipality in the tri-county region to charge during the off-season.

READ MORE: Carolina Beach town council seeks to refine its sidewalk café regulations

Dozens in the beach community took part in a parking forum hosted by town staff. Council members were asked not to attend so residents could provide productive feedback to staff; town manager Bruce Oakley and deputy town manager Ed Parvin transcribed the crowd’s criticisms to relay to the council.

Speakers homed in on the detriments of charging for parking in the winter months. Residents and business owners blamed that choice, along with confusing rules and steep violation fines, for the downturn in commercial activity on the island this year.

“The parking fight is not over,” Danny Tangredi, owner of Wake n Bake Donuts, said on Wednesday.

Since switching vendors to Pivot Parking mid-2021, the town has been evaluating its parking program and making changes. In November 2021, the town adopted year-round parking, despite public pushback forecasting current issues. 

In March 2022, a fresh-faced council voted to bag on-street meters from December to February, indicating no payment needed, but allowed lots to continue charging through winter. Last year, the town netted $2.2 million, 10% of the town’s revenue or $0.07 of property tax.

This season more changes were enacted; the town voted to allow free parking in January and February and reduce the November and December rates from $5 to $2, which applies to all parking spaces. It also announced at the end of last month that parking would be free in designated on-street spots Monday through Wednesday in December.

Still, residents argue the effects of year-round parking and the town’s continued use of its meters in the winter months contribute to a loss of business revenue in Carolina Beach. 

Jerry Hebert, owner of Pleasure Island Tavern and Buzz’s Roost at the Beach, said the latter was down by $500,000 this year compared to no losses in other years. He also said he has laid off about 40 people. Due to the lack of customers, he’s considering closing for the off-season, a move he’s never taken.

“We’re just getting killed by parking,” Hebert said at the meeting. “You really don’t know the extreme that it is, which drives the need for us all to work together to make this work.”

Other local business owners reported similar losses, including Lake Park Steakhouse and Hang Ten Grill, down anywhere from 10% to 35% this year compared to previous years where customers were only charged to park in the summer. 

Speakers said businesses already experience slumps when the tourists leave as the warm weather cools. They added locals, including all New Hanover County residents, keep the restaurants, bars and retail afloat with their winter patronage. 

However, residents said people living in Wilmington would not choose to eat in Carolina Beach over Wrightsville Beach — which offers free parking during the winter — or closer options in the city or county.

Nauti Dog’s owner Rebekah Theadore also said she was operating at a deficit. Contributing to it, she added, was the elimination of over-the-bridge parking passes for New Hanover County residents. She said many of her customers came from Monkey Junction before the town stopped OTB passes in 2021. 

“Just the past 17 days as an example, I have seen almost no one on the boardwalk,” Theadore said. “I can go back even farther than that and tell you this is the worst off-season. It’s crisis mode.”

Many people at Wednesday’s meeting claimed the revenue the town nets during the off-season, around $26,000 last year, was not enough to justify charging to park. They said the revenue could be made up in different ways, like additional spaces or the sale of OTB passes.

OTB passes have been a controversial topic amid Carolina Beach parking discussions. When they were offered, many residents complained outsiders were preventing them from finding a parking space. The parking committee, convened in June 2022 to offer improvement suggestions, voted against recommending OTB to council. 

Yet Councilmember Mike Hoffer kept the door open, claiming OTBs would also solve another town problem with illegal overflow parking in residential rights-of-way. Councilmember Joe Benson claimed at a September 2022 meeting the town had the capacity to support OTB visitors.  

Councilmember Healy countered by stating the numbers are currently 10 passes per one parking space; with OTB passes, the ratio would increase 14:1. Mayor Lynn Barbee also disagreed — the two members are also proponents of year-round parking — with offering OTB passes. 

Both Barbee and Healy, as well as council member Deb LeCompte, voted in as mayor pro tem earlier in the week, reiterated as much in their 2023 election questionnaires for Port City Daily. Each did not support non-residential parking passes when posed the question.

“I think you’re just delaying the inevitable, this won’t be sustainable,” Barbee said at the September 2022 meeting. “We need to drive where we want to be in the future, [going back and forth] keeps it stirred up, this political drama.” 

On Tuesday, the OTB tune seemed to have shifted, with residents asking for council to bring back the passes, and thus, their friends, family and customers from neighboring municipalities. 

Several people from over the bridge also attended to advocate for the return of OTB passes. They talked about parking prices deterring their visits to the island, but also the “predatory” ticketing behavior from Pivot employees that soured their experiences.

Several speakers described scenarios of witnessing enforcement officers waiting for a meter to expire or owners to walk away, knowing they were in violation, so they could write a ticket. Not only did speakers condemn the aggressive nature of ticketing but the fine costs as well. 

Violations are $100, though this year the town is reducing the price by 50% if paid within 48 hours. 

“I don’t know anywhere else in the country, not even New York City, that gives you a $100 citation,” Micelle Alberta, who ran for mayor this year, said at the meeting. “If it was my first day of my vacation, I would be furious. I might leave.”

Residents also pointed out the efforts Carolina Beach has taken to invite residents to the island. Business owner David Cole called out the $1.5 million boardwalk revitalization in 2013. 

“Back then, people hated Wrightsville Beach; well, now it’s the opposite,” Cole said. “They hate Carolina Beach and they’re going to Wrightsville because it’s free. We want people away from our island. We run people away from our island.”

Cole, along with a few others, pointed out the town gives $1 million to its marketing committee to encourage people to come to Carolina Beach, but said the ticketing practices of the town counteract those funds. 

Alberta, like many other residents, offered some suggestions for improving Carolina Beach’s parking program. The most common was to move to an “on-off” program — universal rate and conditions when parking is enforced, then free parking at other times. People also overwhelmingly supported enforcing parking only from March through October. 

Other suggestions included exploring opportunities to add to the parking supply through partnerships with churches or offices, allowing businesses to offer parking validation to customers, and reducing parking fine amounts to begin at $25 for minor infractions, like slight meter overages or parking outside the lines.

Many agreed that whatever the town chooses to change, it should simplify the current system and provide clear signage throughout the island. They also suggested changes be organized into a proposal and presented to residents for feedback before approval. After years of tweaks, residents want a more concerted focus on improving the town’s image and economy after years of confusion and frustration.

“I’d rather see the meter maids get laid off than our small business workers,” resident Mark Miller said. 

Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at 

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