Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Oak Island is one step closer to canning free parking by spring

Oak Island is gearing up to implement a paid parking system for the first time. (Port City Daily/File photo)
Oak Island is gearing up to implement a paid parking system for the first time. (Port City Daily/File photo).

OAK ISLAND — “There’s too many things yet to be settled,” Oak Island councilman Bill Craft said to fellow members at Tuesday’s meeting. “I need to know some particulars.”

The council has met five times to discuss issues with its potential paid parking program. Among them: right-of-way parking, the number of spaces, and a pass program. Craft’s biggest objection remained with a tiered pass option in the program’s draft proposal. 

READ MORE: ‘It’s time to revisit paid parking’ in Oak Island, golf carts also in trouble

Council agreed — though no formal vote was taken — to include what they’re dubbing a “flex-plan.” Town staff will draft a request for proposal, based on council’s suggestions during three-month discussions that have been underway in regards to the program. Potential parking vendors will be able to apply in the next couple months.

If all shakes out in navigating the controversial issue, a rule change on paid parking could come down early next year. 

Oak Island currently offers residents $10 decals that allow them to park in designated spaces across town. Council has debated on whether to keep that practice in place or shift to a different approach, such as an annual pass.

Tuesday, council members Mark Martin and Sheila Bell shared an idea to create a “flex-plan” where all options discussed could be included.

“I think it would be beneficial to open up a range of options for residents to choose their own destiny,” Martin said during the meeting.

He proposed keeping reserved spaces for passholders and adding an annual pass option to allow residents to park wherever they want. Neither pass would be required, leaving the hourly rate option to those who choose it. The program would most likely be enforced via license plates, eliminating the need for town decals. 

Council also discussed potentially expanding the reserved spaces it offers, currently less than 200 for Oak Island’s population of more than 8,000 people.

At the public hearing, one resident advocated for a program inclusive of beach access spots reserved for residents — the council did not rule out the option. 

“I’m willing to pay more for that,” resident Glenn Baker said. 

At the council’s special meeting Oct. 4, Bell warned against offering too many reserved spaces to residents that it prevents the parking program from generating money. Bell said she was in favor of a reduced cost for residents.

“This was the contention last time,” she said at that meeting, referring to when a previous council reviewed a program in 2019. The council voted not to go through with paid parking that year, citing a lack of due diligence.

The small beach town picked back up on the conversation and potential development of a paid system this July. Council could vote on the RFP draft — which will be sent to parking vendors — at their next meeting, scheduled for Nov. 8. Thereafter, the council plans to finesse details and choose a parking enforcer by January.

The only detail currently hashed out on the checklist is when the paid parking season will be in effect: April 1 to Sept. 30. The hour enforcement, rate, number and type of spots, and pass details remain up in the air.

Mayor Pro Tem John Bach said the council will work through the minutiae as they receive feedback from vendors.

“We want to judge our thinking against what they think is practical,” he said during the meeting.

Since broaching the topic, council held a public hearing on Sept. 6 and speakers were divided on the issue.

Those in favor of the parking program state the revenue could be used to fund town maintenance and other improvements — costs that would be burdened not just by residents but visitors, too. The opposition cites current parking violations are not being enforced already and paid parking will only punish residents.

“People will get very resourceful if you tell them you have to pay to park,” resident Gerald Edwards said during the hearing. 

He said the onus on enforcing the rules is beyond just the town; local business owners would have to police their parking lots as well, in the event that beachgoers attempt to park in free lots to enjoy a day on the shore. 

One perk the council has favored is tracking short-term rentals through parking permits. Edwards said requiring permits for renters would place an undue burden on them, many of whom already pay thousands of dollars to vacation in Oak Island. 

However, as clarified by town lawyer Brian Edes, Oak Island would probably not be able to require a separate permit for short-term rentals per Shroeder vs. City of Wilmington. The 2022 case decided against the registration requirements the city mandated for short-term rentals.

Resident Kelly Smith countered council’s reasoning to implement parking as a way to financially cover the town’s needed services, namely its $20 million beach renourishment project. She noted the town would have to seek approval from the state legislature to use the revenue for anything other than offsetting parking maintenance. However, Wrightsville Beach and other New Hanover County municipalities are exempt from this requirement.

“Will fees for paid parking pay for anything else?” she asked the council at the public hearing. “If not, what’s the purpose?” 

The two most controversial aspects of switching to paid parking are reserved spaces for residents and right-of-way parking — or parking on the side of the street. It typically happens in residential areas, where no space is delineated. 

The latter issue is a predominant problem in almost all beach towns. Carolina Beach, in process of tweaking its current program, has debated how to handle its ROW parking, frequently overrun with beachgoers seeking respite from paid spaces.

Oak Island is trying to avoid that consequence without forcing residents and business owners to sacrifice the use of nearby ROWs.

“Ending right-of-way parking would fundamentally change the way I do business and may put me out of business,” said Mariah Brazil, owner of cleaning company A Clean Break, during the Sept. 6 public hearing. She explained her employees regularly use the ROW on the job, which is only policed when drivers present a safety hazard.

The council’s current stance is to restrict ROW parking during hours of enforcement, yet to be determined. The chosen parking enforcer would be responsible for patrolling south of Oak Island Drive, land predominantly dedicated to businesses and beach access. North of Oak Island Drive would not be enforced; exceptions to enforcement would be granted for service vehicles. 

After the town backed out of a paid parking decision three years ago, Bach’s stance is that now is the time to make the plan a reality.

“We can’t keep deferring these decisions, kicking them into the future,” he said at the Sept. 6 public hearing.

Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at brenna@localdailymedia.com 

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