Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Deep dive: After years without issues, what made Wrightsville Beach go after a jet-ski rental company?

The boat launch ramp is public property owned by the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, but the Town of Wrightsville Beach has continued to try and regulate it, (Port City Daily/Michael Praats)

WRIGHTSVILLE BEACH — The Town of Wrightsville Beach is being sued in federal court for allegedly violating the rights of small-business owners launching jet skis from the state-owned boat ramp in town.

At the most basic level, the Town of Wrightsville Beach issued numerous zoning violations to multiple jet ski rental companies on state property. Then, before the town would even consider hearing an appeal, it demanded a $500, non-refundable appeal fee.

The lawsuit argues the town has no jurisdiction to issue zoning citations on state property, and that it violated the business owner’s constitutional rights to due process by imposing such a fee.

But how did it get to this point?

Read part one of this series: Federal lawsuit filed against Wrightsville Beach for requiring ‘unconstitutional’ $500 appeal fee for $50 ticket

How we got here

Perhaps it is easiest to understand the lawsuit by imagining a different type of business, for example, pizza delivery.

Residents in Wrightsville Beach are able to order pizza from stores located outside of the town limits. Drivers are not expected to hold zoning compliance certificates from the town and they even are able to collect money from their customers in Wrightsville Beach.

But what would happen if suddenly every time a pizza delivery wanted to cross the bridge to delivery a pizza they were fined $50 by the town and then forced to pay $500 — just to be heard on an appeal.

That is similar to the situation in question, but instead of pizzas, the products are jet skis.

According to the lawsuit, which was filed by Greg Buscemi on behalf of Chris Mangum of Wrightsville Beach Jet Ski Rentals (WB-JSR) and Carson Seiter of Carolina Coast Watersports, the plaintiffs would use the public boat ramp in Wrightsville Beach, which is owned by the state, to launch rented jet skis.

But it’s not a new practice or unheard of one, the boat ramp is public property and regardless of where it is located, it is the property of the state.

Over the years, jet ski rental owners had talks with town leaders and reached a common understanding that so long as the business owners did not collect any money in Wrightsville Beach, they were in compliance with state law.

According to the lawsuit, “Mangum has been operating a commercial jet ski rental business for over 17 years, many of those alongside other jet ski rental businesses, all of which utilized the boat ramp at the state-owned public boating access area on Wrightsville Beach as a location to launch rented jet skis into the public waterway.”

He would meet his customers in Wilmington to collect any money for his rentals and then cross the drawbridge into Wrightsville Beach to launch his jet skis from the public boat launch.

But Mangum is far from being the only rental company that uses the public boat launch. The lawsuit goes on to name several other companies that rent equipment or offer charters that utilize the access — but none of them are facing similar enforcement from the town.

“Defendants are aware of most, if not all, of these operations and their use of the public boating access area for purposes of providing a safe location for customers to access and enjoy the recreational equipment and activities. Yet, plaintiffs, and to a lesser degree another jet ski rental operator, are the only businesses that have been subjected to defendants’ UDO enforcement,” according to the lawsuit.

This is not the first time the town has used its zoning ordinances to go after certain businesses, while seemingly ignoring others.

Related: Part II: Wrightsville Beach v. Red Dogs – The latest battle, double standards, and resident concerns

In fact, the town is currently in the middle of another decades-old battle against the bar known as Red Dogs and is using a similar argument that the business is in violation of the town’s zoning ordinance since it does not have a certificate of zoning compliance.

Resident complaints

More than 10 years ago, in 2007, Board of Aldermen meeting minutes show a resident, Colin Eagles, asking town leaders to consider an ordinance to prohibit the rental of jet skis.

Town Manager at the time Robert Simpson explained the town had reached a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ with rental companies who agreed not to collect any money on the Wrightsville Beach side of the bridge.

The town never adopted any sort of ordinance to prohibit the jet skis or their rentals and in 2008, Eagles once again addressed town leaders.

“[Mr. Eagles} said we have a minimum of two jet ski operators at Wrightsville Beach and he was not suggesting that we ban jet skis, but he was suggesting that we ban a lot of businesses. Mr. Eagles expressed concern with allowing businesses to put folks on ‘dangerous speed vehicles’ in the water. He stated that it was [then-Town Attorney] Mr. Wessell’s opinion that if jet ski businesses are licensed in Wilmington that they have the right to operate on public property,” according to the lawsuit.

But still, the town did little to curb jet ski usage.

All was quiet for several years until the summer of 2012 during a board retreat.

“At the Board’s 2012 retreat, the Board indicated an interest in further regulating the operation of personal watercraft in the vicinity of the bridges for safety and because of the deterioration under the bridges created by the ‘rooster tail’ that comes out of some jet skis,” the lawsuit states.

It is worth noting that only Yamaha WaveRunners have a rooster tail that shoots water into the air. The town did adopt changes to the no-wake zone that extended 100-feet out from the bridge after this discussion.

In 2015 the town once again turned its attention to jet ski rentals. The Board of Aldermen were considering an amendment to the unified development ordinance to allow boat rental facilities, but prohibiting jet skis from the C-3 district.

Former Alderwoman Lisa Weeks was one of the opponents to the operation of jet skis in Wrightsville Beach and continued to ask town staff about the prohibition of personal watercraft.

From complaints to citations

Some of the citations written by the Town of Wrightsville Beach (Port City Daily/Michael Praats)

In May of 2015, Town Manager Tim Owens allegedly “… Took it upon himself to interfere with WB-JSR’s marketing efforts by underhandedly contacting a local tourism website to ask that WB-JSR’s business listing be removed,” according to the lawsuit.

That website was The Official Tourism Development Authority for New Hanover County (TDA) — a county board that was founded in 2002.

“On October 3, 2002, through House Bill 1707, the North Carolina General Assembly directed that the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners designate the Cape Fear Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau as a Tourism Development Authority (TDA) to promote travel, tourism, and conventions in New Hanover County, and to administer related tourism expenditures,” according to the county website.

It wasn’t until 2016 when Mangum learned that Owens had reached out to the TDA and asked for his business to be removed from the page.

“…Mangum emailed Karen Warren, Visitor Services Manager of Wilmington and Beach CVB (Convention and Vistors Bureau) … asking how he could get his business information placed back on their site. Karla Thompson, the site’s Technology Systems Administrator responded,” according to the lawsuit.

Thompson acknowledged that the website used to be listed on the page, but in May of 2015, the Town of Wrightsville Beach asked the TDA to remove the company from its listing. She then said if he had more questions he should direct them to Owens.

When asked about his role in having the business removed from the website and if town leadership had instructed him to do so, Owens said, “I cannot comment on pending lawsuits.”

That’s when the citations started.

29 citations over the years

Jet ski rental companies have been issued zoning citations for operating under the bridge even though it is not in town limits. (Port City Daily/Michael Praats)

According to the lawsuit, “Members of the public are not required to obtain a certificate of zoning compliance in order to use and enjoy the N.C. Wildlife Commission Public Boating Access Area, the D.O.T. Drawbridge right-of-way, or the AIWW (American Intracoastal Waterway).”

Yet, Mangum received at least 29 such citations in three years. He was given eight citations in 2015, 14 citations in 2016, and seven in 2017. According to the town’s Unified Development Ordinance, the town requires that the notice of violation, “advise the person responsible for such violation that the UDO Administrator’s decision or order may be appealed to the Board of Adjustment in accordance with subsection”

But none of the citations given to Mangum advised him of this. Instead, the citations were issued on the same paper for citations issued for non-zoning related issues.

The citations read, “you may appeal this citation to the Chief of Police within 14 days of the date of violation.”

Because of this, Mangum filed appeals with the Police Chief in accordance with the notice provided, but they were all ignored or denied, according to the lawsuit. This is significant because an appeal from a notice of violation, according to the UDO, stays enforcement of the action appealed from.

Mangum was eventually told that he would have to go through the Board of Adjustment to appeal the citations, but he was allegedly never informed of the non-refundable $500 appeal fee.

In October of 2015, Owens emailed another town employee, Patty Benjamin, “telling her to void the citations issued against Mangum in 2015 writing, ‘Please waive all of these civil citations. I was looking for compliance and I believe it worked,'” according to the lawsuit.

Debt-Setoff Act threats

In 2017, the town once against escalated in its methods to stop Mangum from operating in the town and sent him notices of the town’s intention to ‘setoff debt.’

Under the North Carolina Debt Setoff Program, local government can garnish state income tax returns and lottery winnings to collect a variety of debts, including red-light camera fees, delinquent property taxes, and outstanding citations. Wrightsville Beach sought to use this program to collect payment on citations and late/non-payment fines from Mangum — but Owens did offer Mangum an ‘out.’

“Owens sent Mangum a letter dated June 06, 2017, in which Owens acknowledges that he had previously, at his own discretion, dismissed a number of citations issued in 2015 against Mangum, and offered not to take any action on other outstanding civil citations in exchange for Mangum signing an agreement to not rent jet skis within the corporate or extraterritorial limits of the town; Owens warns Mangum that noncompliance with the proposed agreement would result in Owens reinstating the civil citations with all fines due immediately, threatening that the town would ‘take all available legal steps to collect the fines,'” according to the lawsuit.

Magnum did not agree, instead, he requested a formal hearing under the Debt-Setoff Act procedures — the town never responded to his request for a hearing.

When asked why his request had gone unanswered, Owens said that the initial Debt-Setoff letters were no longer applicable since the town had sent him a second letter — which was applicable.

Owens, in an email, allegedly told Mangum he had 30 days to appeal if he wanted to, if he didn’t, the debt would be sent to the state for collections.

Mangum claims he filed a written appeal for a hearing on the debt but Owens never set the date for that hearing. Owens also never actually never sent the debt to the state for collections.

Eventually, the town’s finance officer acknowledged his request for a hearing and told Mangum that Owens and Wessell (then the town attorney) would be present at the hearing. Mangum questioned the fairness of the hearing being presided over by the two people who had taken so much action against him in the past.

Because of this, Mangum sent text messages to town representatives including Mayor Bill Blair over what he had heard could have been an ‘improper relationship amongst certain town officials,’ and questioned the fairness of his treatment.

A few days later the town, without warning, dropped their proceedings under the Debt Setoff Act and instead filed a civil action against Mangum in Superior Court.

In an attempt to defend himself in court, Mangum hired an attorney — an attorney who failed to file a response to the town’s complaint and eventually withdrew representation leaving Mangum to defend himself pro se (to defend himself).

“Shortly after Mangum’s former counsel withdrew, defendants presented Mangum with a proposed consent judgment and told him he would need to sign it to avoid an entry of default. The judgment waived the fees charged from the citations but enjoined Mangum and WB-JSR from ‘operating a business involving the rental of jet skis in the Town of Wrightsville Beach or in the town’s Extraterrioritial jurisdiction,'” the lawsuit states.

The other parties

Mangum is not the only jet ski rental business suing the town. (Port City Daily/Michael Praats)

Up until this point, Mangum said the town had only targeted him with the UDO despite the fact other jet ski rental businesses operated from the same area.

One such business, in particular, was Genesis Motorsports. A company that “conducted their business operation in nearly identical fashion,” according to the lawsuit.

It wasn’t until Mangum complained that he was being treated unfairly by being the sole company to receive tickets that Genesis was ticketed as well.

But according to the lawsuit, Genesis never paid the citations either and yet the town never took the actions to collect the fees as they did with WB-JSR.

In May of 2018 Genesis was the sole jet ski rental company operating out of the public boat launch area during which time the town did not issue any citations to the company, according to the lawsuit.

That is when Mangun entered into a commercial leasing agreement with co-plaintiff Carson Seitter, “in order to mitigate business income losses resulting from the restrictions in the consent judgment.”

In June of 2018, Seitter began operating Carolina Coast Watersports, launching jet skis leased from WB-JSR from the public boating access area.

During the first launching of rental jet skis, Mangum was present to ensure the safe launching of his equipment by Seitter. The consent judgment actually allows Mangum access to the ramp provided all he does was launch jet skis into the Intracoastal.

Within minutes of his arrival, on June 16, 2018, “Park Ranger Shannon Slocum arrived and began questioning Mangum. Slocum ultimately issued Seitter a $50.00 citation for operating a business in violation of the UDO,” according to the lawsuit.

Seitter appealed the citations with the town but instead of responding to his appeals, on June 29, the town filed a motion to hold Mangum in civil contempt of court, the lawsuit alleges.

Ultimately, at the end of it all, Mangum claims he feels “stripped of his livelihood and fears that any attempt to visit WB or otherwise use the public lands and public trust waters, even for his own personal enjoyment, will result in further violations or retaliation for defendants,” the lawsuit concludes.

The lawsuit is still pending in court and Port City Daily will continue to follow it as it progresses.

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