Monday, June 24, 2024

Bald Head Island ferry survey offers glimpse of public opinion, gets called out by mayor for misleading info

Bald Head Island, located 2 miles off the coast of Southport, is only accessible by boat or ferry, offering a "relaxed" environment for residents and tourists alike. (Port City Daily photo/CORY MANNION)
NCUC already regulates the ferry and tram, two components of the transportation system, owned by George Mitchell, who founded Bald Head Limited and died in 2013. (PCD /CORY MANNION).

BALD HEAD ISLAND —  Residents in one of Brunswick County’s most remote municipalities seem to be in favor of state rate regulation of all components of its ferry system, according to a recent survey.

The Bald Head Association, representing nearly 2,000 homeowners on Bald Head Island, sent out a poll to 1,500 people on its mailing list on Aug. 17 (not every homeowner subscribes to the list). The survey asked for comments and posited the question: “Do you want the North Carolina Utilities Commission (NCUC) to regulate the fares for the parking lot and the barge?” 

READ MORE: Bald Head Island ferry selling to private company after public deal stalls

Out of the 533 respondents, 71% voted yes to regulation, 15% said no. Around 10% responded they do not have enough information to make a decision and 2% said they do not have an opinion.

On the same day the survey went out, Bald Head Island Mayor Peter Quinn issued a message pointing out inaccuracies in the poll and its accompanying letter from the homeowner’s association. He said the BHA distorted the facts on the upcoming hearing — described as a lawsuit in the letter accompanying the survey— where the NCUC will decide if it should regulate the ferry system’s parking and barge operations. 

“I am VERY concerned that critical information regarding the Village’s petition to the NCUC is being misrepresented and used to feed a distorted narrative,” the mayor wrote in his message.

NCUC already regulates the ferry and tram, two components of the transportation system, owned by George Mitchell, who founded Bald Head Limited and died in 2013. The ferry is the only public transportation method used to access the island.

In February, the village formally asked NCUC to regulate the barge and parking operations in anticipation the system would be sold to a private company. A month later, Limited filed a petition asking the NCUC to dismiss the village’s claims, but the NCUC denied the request. 

In June, Limited announced it was selling the ferry system, along with other assets from the Mitchell family estate, to private company SharpVue. 

Limited’s original intention was to sell the ferry to a public entity; Bald Head Island Transportation Authority was created in 2017 to acquire the system. In 2020, it agreed to purchase the ferry at a $47 million price tag, but the Local Government Commission needed to approve the transaction. 

However, State Auditor Beth Wood and the Village of Bald Head Island lodged complaints against the financing of the deal. At one point, the village made its own bid for the transportation system, though Limited still intended to sell to BHITA. Their proposal ultimately never made it on the LGC agenda, and Limited decided it was time to move on. 

The NCUC has to sign off on the transfer of the ferry and tram. The Village of Bald Head Island, along with many members of the public, wants the commission to regulate the parking and barge services. The village sees all four services as crucial to transportation to and from the island. In the hands of one entity, the village argues its a monopoly deserving of total regulation so the service operates in the interests of the public. 

Without regulation, SharpVue could theoretically raise the rates of parking and barge transport indiscriminately, though its CEO told PCD in June it didn’t have plans to do so. For the ferry and tram, the commission has capped the owner’s rate of return at 8.3%.

NCUC will hear the issue on Oct. 10. The village filed its testimony on Aug. 9, which prompted the BHA survey. Limited will file its statements on Sept. 8, with both parties given the opportunity to file rebuttals by Sept. 28.

In his letter, Mayor Quinn clarified some details about the village’s petition, including what precise legal action the village has taken. 

“This isn’t a ‘lawsuit’ brought in Superior Court; it is an effort to obtain a ruling from the proper agency on whether the parking and barge services should be treated as regulated entities,” Quinn wrote. 

Despite the BHA specifically asking homeowners about rate regulation, the village’s petition pertains to whether NCUC should assert jurisdiction over the parking and barge.

“If it decides to do so, there are a range of potential regulatory outcomes – particularly for the parking – each of which would benefit the Island,” the mayor wrote.

He said NCUC could control rates, along with determining how much revenue should be put into the improvements and how the property’s land could be used. The commission would also be responsible for addressing the public’s complaints. Quinn noted regulation for the parking and barge would assure any future owners would be required to maintain the public transportation, not just SharpVue.

The mayor’s full letter can be found here. 

Although the BHA’s survey contained inaccurate information, the comment section shows many people think NCUC regulation for the four ferry components is the best option going forward.

One comment read: 

“Since the transportation system (ferry, tram, barge and parking) are so integral to the access of the island, and therefore the island economy, the island owners, visitors and workers should accept a fair cost of traveling to and from the island. I believe the best way to ensure the costs remain fair is to be regulated by an independent body.”

Many people in opposition, or on the fence, seemed to believe a person’s opinion comes down to who you trust. 

“I am not persuaded by Mayor Quinn’s explanation of his and Council’s opinion on this matter,” one comment read. “I found Limited’s and SharpVue’s representatives much more forthcoming and comprehensive than Mayor Quinn’s. Mayor Quinn seemed unwilling or unable to answer even the simplest question about ‘the Village’s’ position. Because of this I feel none of their efforts are trustworthy.” 


Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at brenna@localdailymedia.com.

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