OAK ISLAND — It’s official: Visitors who want to access Oak Island’s 10 miles of beach will have to pay for parking beginning this spring.
The Oak Island Town Council voted 4-1, with councilman Bill Craft dissenting, for rates to be $5 an hour, $20 per day, $80 per week and $175 for annual passes, capped at 1,000. The season begins April 1 and ends Sept. 30, with enforcement implemented daily, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., by law enforcement and Otto Connect parking attendants.
The two-year contract can be tweaked at any time by council.
“Consider this the soft-opening of paid parking,” Mayor Elizabeth White said. “We’re going to learn. We’re not going to get it right the first time — I’m going to tell you that right now.”
While most residents spoke in favor of visitors burdening the share of upkeep in their beach town, many still took issue with the fine print put forth at the start of Tuesday’s meeting. The contract stipulated at first the removal of designated decal parking spots for residents. Dismayed, almost 10 people spoke out during public comment.
“Taxpayers were led to believe they would still enjoy reserved parking spaces, up to 300 of them were discussed, and somehow, now — based on the information that was posted for this meeting — that’s been changed,” resident Gerald Edwards said.
“It’s almost like a bait and switch,” Gail Baker commented to council. “I’m absolutely not for it and, as you can tell, my fellow citizens and my fellow taxpayers are not for it. This needs to stop now. You need to go back to the drawing board.”
Council has been hashing out details of the paid parking contract since choosing Otto Connect as its vendor in December. Although, leaders were embroiled in conversations about starting the program since last summer.
The beach town currently has 182 designated spaces for residents, who are allowed to purchase up to three decals for $10 each per property. Resident decals are valid for the next year.
Beginning 2024, everyone will be required to register through Otto annually and are still allowed to purchase $10 passes, up to three per household. While council impressed the fact residents can park in any space island-wide free, keeping designated areas for residents was a hot button citizens pushed on.
“We created an illusion years ago with these decals that you would always find a space,” councilman Mark Martin said. “And that’s unfortunate.”
The reality is, according to Mayor Pro Tem John Bach, 7,500 decals are sold — they anticipate it will be more than 8,000 this year — which means 2.4% of buyers can access designated spaces.
“You were actually competing against yourselves for a parking space,” Martin said.
Councilman Craft, who has been outspoken against paid parking since the onset of discussions, came around during the parking vendor vote last month. He said on Tuesday it was primarily due to Otto representatives saying they would be able to increase parking on the island, finding 2,000 spaces to monetize, and that decal spaces would remain.
“Now, the contract we have in front of us says only 1,200 spots — no attempt to secure the other 800 spots,” he said. “That’s unacceptable. And there was no second thought given to protecting the decal spots. What happened to the 364 decals? What happened to the 300 decals? … Doggone it, they’re peeing on your shoes and telling you it’s raining. This is not right. They’re telling you one thing; they’re doing another.”
Applause erupted, some giving the councilman a standing ovation. Yet, as other members deliberated, citizen callbacks and chatter waxed and waned, sometimes rising to multiple interruptions.
“This is deteriorating quickly and if we have to clear the room to continue the discussion, I will ask that we do that,” Mayor White said at one point. “Out of deep respect, we heard you; we were quiet. But you’ve got to let us have this discussion. Please, respect the process.”
Council agreed to amend the contract to keep the designated areas and add 182 more.
Parking in the right-of-way will no longer be allowed and three parking zones will be created on the island:
- Police enforcement zone — officers oversee parking violations
- Commercial zone — still allows some right-of-way parking
- Vendor enforcement zone — Otto personnel enforce citations
Bach added that before bringing on Otto, parking was an “enforcement nightmare.” There wasn’t enough manpower to stay on top of violations and the majority were for expired decals.
The switch to paid parking was imminent, he added, a move council considered three years ago but shelved. The bolstered revenue stream will help Oak Island keep up with growth.
“We as taxpayers bear 100% of the cost of the beach and that’s not fair,” Bach said at the meeting. “And it’s going to get worse if we don’t take action. There are more developments and more people, and they are coming.”
State statutes currently dictate what parking revenues can cover and it differs between on-street and off-street parking. On-street parking money can be put toward parking enforcement needs, ordinances and regulations, while off-street can go to “amortize bonds issued to finance such facilities, or used for any other public purpose,” according to statute 160A-301.
“Town Council approved a request to the State Legislature for a ‘Local Act’ to allow the Town of Oak Island to use proceeds from on-street parking in the same manner in which proceeds from off-street parking are used,” OKI spokesperson Michael Emory said.
Some residents are decrying the town’s partnership with Otto a “money grab.”
“We’re pitting local citizens versus tourism,” resident Bonner Stiller said during public comment.
He referenced an article from the State Port Pilot reporting the town could get anywhere from $689,000 to $1.7 million from the arrangement.
According to Emory, any estimates are speculation at this point.
“A true and accurate estimate for the Town of Oak Island cannot be provided,” he told Port City Daily.
Otto will receive 30% of the parking and violation fees collected, according to the contract.
Violations will be $25 when paid the same day the citation is issued. It then bumps to $50 if paid through the next 30 days. A late penalty of $25 is added after, with the fee increasing to $75.
Higher $250 fees are attached to violations that pose safety hazards, like blocking a fire hydrant, fire lane, or emergency access, and illegally parking in handicap spaces.
The contract states a la carte fees are tracked per license plate and won’t exceed rates of permits. So if a vehicle is parked five hours at $5 an hour, it’s automatically upgraded to a day permit ($25) through Otto’s digital system. Parking customers register vehicles through an app by scanning QR codes on a sign or calling a toll-free number.
It also noted vehicles are tracked throughout the calendar year, never to be charged more than the “equivalent of an annual permit.” This indicated parkers would never pay more than $175 a year, which could have eaten into the 1,000 annual pass cap. Emory said the council removed that clause from the contract.
“Moving forward, the only charge users are capped at is the daily rate,” he said.
Anyone can purchase annual passes, a move councilman Craft said was disproportionate to the 1,200 spaces available. More so, he didn’t consider it honorable to the taxpayers.
“Why do we care how many spaces we sell to people in Charlotte and Raleigh and Ohio and Virginia?” he asked. “There’s no space for them. Part of our reasoning to do this was to control traffic coming over the bridge. But now we’re saying 1,000 of you come on over — we got 1,200 spots, you can have them?”
“Those 1,000 people are coming now for free,” the mayor responded. “So at least we put a cap on that.”
Resident Carrie Lenzen suggested before council’s discussion that the annual passes only be sold to locals in surrounding towns.
“I can see Brunswick County residents who work here,” she said.
“It always feels residents are pushed behind and tourists are put ahead of us,” local Glenn Baker said.
The council will be able to access data on the program weekly, monthly and seasonally via reports provided by Otto to help inform changes as needed.
The city plans to assess areas for additional parking spaces in the next few months. The intent was to always add more by year two, as identified by a survey done during the process, according to Town Manager David Kelly. Mayor White proposed those spaces are put in place sooner.
“Say, by May 1 when it gets really hot and heavy here,” she suggested.
“We’ve already got the [construction] grader on order,” Kelly said at the meeting. “There are certain areas we know are hot.”
Emory told PCD Thursday the current 182 spaces marked for town residents are closest to the beach, while the additional 182 being identified likely will be spread throughout he town.
“These spaces provide close access to more features than just the beach, such as parks and other facilities,” he said.
Non-residents who park in marked residential spaces will be ticketed the same as a normal violation, he added, regardless of having a paid parking pass.
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