SURF CITY — Residents of Surf City are petitioning to save a beach access adoption program after the town council decided Friday to relieve the all-volunteer committee heading up the initiative of its duties.
Council members Jeremy Shugarts and Teresa Batts said they felt the beach accesses should be town-maintained and not in the hands of private individuals. Shugarts suggested turning clean up and repair efforts over to the town’s full control — “where it belongs” — guarantees accountability.
Volunteers can still pick up trash on their own accord, but it won’t be a formal program and signs advertising each access’ adopter must come down.
“I’m really disappointed in the council,” resident Andrea Carter told Port City Daily. “It’s almost like a power struggle with some of this. It was never about them or us, more about us together, working together, with the town and trying to help everyone out at the end of the day. Why would you discourage community involvement?”
Carter, along with Susan Griffin, rallied a group of concerned citizens in 2019 to brainstorm a way to keep the beaches free of litter and came up with the adoption program. Over the last three years, local restaurants, nonprofits and individuals have sponsored the town’s 35 public beach access points, similar to adopt-a-highway. Carter used $100 from each sponsor to purchase signs with a name or logo at each access point and provide buckets, shovels and pickers to volunteers.
“It doesn’t cost the city a dime,” Carter said.
The participants maintained cleanliness and reported any damages to town staff. The program supplemented the already paid town staff who work on the grounds.
“Prior to the last three years, we had an enormous amount of trash all over the beaches,” Carter said. “The thought process was instead of complaining to be part of the solution.”
She said the town tried moving trash cans from the beach side to the street front, as the wind kept knocking them over, but it was a “constant battle” to keep trash from winding up on the sand, creating an eyesore.
Knowing the beach accesses are town property, Carter sought the support of the parks and recreation advisory committee before moving forward. The committee approved the program in May 2019, with the caveat the access sponsors would keep an eye on any needed repairs.
Carter said she agreed to submit a monthly report on any minor issues or potential hazards, such as loose nails, split wood or holes on the beaches. Sponsors were responsible for sending reports on their beach accesses, but if they didn’t, Carter and Griffin would do the inspections. All 35 accesses were sponsored.
Council member Teresa Batts — one of the beach access sponsors — made a request to fellow council members at a Friday work session to call off the program and let staff continue to handle the work.
“I’m asking the town to take full accountability for the beach accesses, that the reporting by private citizens be terminated, and the signs removed and returned to the business owners and residents,” councilmember Batts said Friday.
She added since the town implemented its My Surf City app, it’s easier for any resident to report issues.
Batts first expressed her desire to break ties with the group during a March 25 work session, noting the town has a beautification and enhancement committee that could take on the tasks, as well as the paid facilities and grounds department. In conjunction with the beautification and enhancement committee, staff coordinates public beach cleanups, allowing any volunteers to take part.
“It’s not to take away from individuals but to put it in the hands of a committee that already exists within our town,” Batts explained.
She admitted she was one the sponsors who only submitted a report on her access a few times in the last three years. Batts believed relying on the town staff, paid to inspect the accesses, would guarantee any needed maintenance was accurately reported.
Griffin defended the initiative at the March meeting.
“It was never meant to be a city program,” Griffin told council. “It’s a way for us to do our part to keep our beach clean. If it needs to go to you guys, we’ll write a letter to business owners and take down our signs.”
The board was torn on the decision to disband the program in March. Council member Buddy Fowler was in support of retaining the volunteers and told fellow council members the monthly reports he saw were thorough and impressive. Meanwhile the newest council member John Koloski was in favor of cutting out “the middleman” and agreed the town staff should make all reports.
They were also torn on whether the signs should be left up, since they were already paid for, or removed. Batts pushed to have them taken down.
Despite the split opinion a few months ago, council voted unanimously last week to disband the group and return the signs to sponsors.
Carter said she was frustrated the town referred to the arrangement as “free advertising.”
“You’re taking away from them that pride,” Carter said. “That was the whole point of the signs. It was a direct reflection on them and their business if it’s not getting taken care of and up-kept.”
She added she had “an outpouring” of support and feedback of how great the beaches looked when sponsors were taking care of their assigned areas.
Nonprofit Topsail Beach Longboard Association hosts weekly beach cleanups at its sponsored access every Monday, April through October. In the winter months, the group hosts cleanups once a month.
Association officer John Fahey said the volunteers make the weekly cleanups fun by giving away prizes for the most unique items found.
He expressed the organization’s disappointment in dissolving the program and said the Longboard Association has signed the petition pushing to save it. Carter said she’s already spoken to nearly a hundred individuals willing to sign.
“The process seems flawed if they bring it up in a work session, and put it on the consent agenda for a meeting without any citizen input,” Fahey said. “Not smart government, if that is true.”
Carter said a main concern was not getting a heads up the program was going to be disbanded.
“We talk about respect,” she told council, “the respectful thing would have been to contact us and get in touch with us instead of just placing it on the agenda.”
Mayor Doug Medlin has requested continued discussion about the beach access program during the June 7 council meeting.
“Mayor Medlin has stated the council desires to partner with the community on efforts such as this and to look at the possibility of reinstating a program that would encourage more participation from our citizens and businesses with the guidance of town council and under management of town staff,” Surf City spokesperson Misty LaPointe told Port City Daily.
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