Tuesday, November 29, 2022

New regulations for alcohol, camping, and more: Carolina Beach Town Council weighs in on Freeman Park changes

FreFreeman Park is once again open to daily visitors (Port City Daily/File)eman Park will only be open to season pass holders this holiday weekend (Port City Daily/File)
Town Council in Carolina Beach were hesitant to make any significant changes to Freeman Park on Wednesday night (Port City Daily/File)

CAROLINA BEACH — When the Town of Carolina Beach started talking about making changes to one of its biggest assets, Freeman Park, residents and visitors alike had plenty of opinions.

During Wednesday night’s special meeting to discuss the proposed rule changes that included the prohibition of alcohol, the limitation of camping, and a proposed change to the hours people can stay on the beach, it was a full house.

Despite the fact town staff along with several council members discussed making some pretty significant changes to the park earlier this year, it appears very little will actually be different for the upcoming season.

A little bit of background

For those who might not know, Freeman Park lies just north of the Town of Carolina Beach (it actually is not in the town limits, instead it is part of the town’s extraterritorial jurisdiction). It is a somewhat rare part of North Carolina beaches for the fact that visitors are allowed to drive onto the sand — provided they have a pass purchased from the town.

It is also unique in the fact the town allows visitors to drink beer and wine while on the beach.

Revenues for Freeman Park were second in the town only to property taxes in the FY 2018-19 budget (Port City Daily/File)

Over the years the town has relied heavily on sales to the park to fund its budget. For example, in Fiscal Year 2018-2019 the town budgeted $1.9 million in revenues for the park.

According to Town Manager Ed Parvin, in 2019 there were 5,561 annual permits sold during the ‘early bird’ special, 1,563 annual permits sold at full price, and 4,347 day passes sold — this comes out to more than $1 million in sales and the year is not over yet.

Over the years, as the park continued to increase in popularity the town made some minor changes to the park and slowly began increasing the cost of access passes over the years. But there has been trouble in the making for several years now with ongoing disputes from property owners and the town.

The property behind the sand dunes at Freeman Park is not actually part of the park, nor is it owned by the park. Instead, it is private property that has been purchased by a seemingly singular entity over the past few years, albeit, under several different company names.

Back in 2016, property owners first notified then-Mayor Dan Wilcox of their desire for the town to stop allowing camping on the beaches as visitors were damaging the dunes and in turn, private property. It is worth noting that in North Carolina there are no private beaches, thanks to public trust laws, dry-sand beaches are considered public. However, public access only extends from the toe of the dunes to the mean-high water line.

Beach grass planted along Freeman Park by private landowners (Port City Daily photo/JOHANNA FEREBEE)
Beach grass planted along Freeman Park by private landowners (Port City Daily photo/JOHANNA FEREBEE)

But campsites and visitors were leading to the erosion of the dunes, according to the property owners, thus taking away their private property and enlarging the dry-sand beach.

Related: Freeman Park: A timeline of recent events

In 2018 things came to a head when property owners installed rope fencing along the beach and planted sea oats forcing the town to close the park for several days. The entire fracas eventually led to lawsuits filed against the town and property owners claiming the town was abusing the Public Trust Doctrine to run a for-profit operation.

Litigation is still pending on these cases and will not likely be resolved for some time.

Erosion leads to closures

Erosion is always a concern for any beach town and Carolina Beach is no different. This past year the town saw significant issues with erosion at the park which eventually led to the closure of the park and some pretty significant changes.

Because of the popularity of the park and the thousands of annual passes sold, the first actions taken by the town was to close the park to new visitors. This policy was later revised to allow season pass holders and stop the sale of day passes for an indefinite period of time.

Despite those efforts, the park was getting too packed which led to the early closure of it, regardless of season pass status (a few times this summer the park reached capacity at 11 a.m.).

The town obviously realized that things needed to change for the 2020 season because, unfortunately, erosion issues are unlikely to get any better — so they turned to visitors for guidance.

The survey

Earlier this year the town hosted a survey for visitors and residents to complete regarding the park which gave the town some valuable insight into what people want and who is visiting the park.

More than 2,000 people responded to the survey, a surprisingly good respondent pool for the somewhat short period of time the survey was open, Parvin said.

One of the interesting things the survey looked at what who exactly is purchasing these annual passes. As it turns out Carolina Beach residents were not the top purchasers of park passes. With nearly 50%, residents of New Hanover County and Wilmington were the overwhelming majority of pass holders in 2019 — Carolina Beach residents only made up 21% of the pass holders.

Proposed changes

This weekend's Carolina Beach Wine and Beer Walk will give participants a chance to try out 10 different local venues and sample beer and wine (Port City Daily photo/File)
Banning alcohol at Freeman Park was discussed but did not get favor from the Town Council. (Port City Daily photo/File)

The Town Council did not take any official action during Wednesday night’s meeting, although they did have lengthy discussions on the proposed changes and gave staff direction of where to go from here.

Another meeting which will be held on Nov. 19 will be the time council approves any proposed changes, but for now, it appears their suggestions will be what gets approved.

Dozens of residents took the opportunity to speak during the public hearing portion of the meeting voicing concerns on all aspects of the proposed changes.

When it comes to camping on the beach, the Town Council was amendable to limiting the times the town allows it. Initially, Parvin suggested only allowing it in the off-season, which runs from Oct. 1 — March 31. But council decided to expand those camping dates a little.

The new dates the town will allow camping will be right after Labor Day and a few days prior to Memorial Day.

There were suggestions to change the cost of annual passes increasing them to $120 for early bird purchasers and $240 for regular, however, the Town Council decided it was best to leave them at $100 and $200 respectively.

“I’d prefer to keep the annual pass at $200, we’ve always said this isn’t about the money, at some point we start pricing people out of the experience, $200 is a lot of money … I understand the budget issue, but Freeman Park has not been about revenue,” Councilman Steve Shuttleworth said —- despite the fact that it is the town’s second-largest revenue generator after property taxes.

When it comes to banning alcohol on the beach, and despite the Town Council’s previous sentiment on the issues in favor of banning it. This, in part, has to do with the fact Chief of Police Chris Spivey addressed the council on Wednesday and helped ease their concerns.

For Spivey, alcohol is not really a problem for the police — at least — not anymore.

“We don’t have a ton of alcohol problems on the municipal strand or Freeman Park, ours is more about safety … Alcohol is not our biggest concern right now, not anymore,” Spivey said.

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