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Currituck officials encouraged on dredging after Corps talk

Currituck Sound is barely ankle deep at times off the Whalehead Club.

Posted on January 24, 2024

A decades-long battle to restore navigable access on the Currituck Sound off Corolla appears to have taken a more upbeat tone at a recent meeting between representatives from Currituck County and Army Corps of Engineers staff.

County Manager Ike McRee and state Sen. Bobby Hanig, R-Currituck, met with Corps officials Jan. 12 in Wilmington to discuss allowing dredging of a channel in the sound from the Whalehead Club public docks and ramp, and inside the Historic Corolla Park boat basin.

“Going down there and spending time with them had a big impact on them,” Hanig said. “It was a very good meeting.”

A channel has existed in various forms through the shallow waters off Corolla since before the Currituck Beach Light Station was built in the 1870s.

Efforts to dredge a channel since the 1990s have been blocked by state regulators on the grounds that it would harm submerged aquatic vegetation, and the Corps has used various other regulatory and technical reasons to turn it down.

Attempted illegal dredging of the channel using the propellers of three boats led to the conviction of two NC Ferry Division employees and guilty pleas by two others to federal charges in the early 2000s.

Prior to January, the last meeting between the county and the Corps on the Whalehead channel was in 2018, when the county was essentially told it would ever happen.

McRee shared with the Currituck Board of Commissioners at its Jan. 16 meeting some of the details that came out of the gathering with the Corps.

“I thought (it was) a positive meeting, partially because they have a new team there,” McRee said. “(A) new colonel, new regulatory affairs director… their attorney was also there as well as the deputy for the Corps and the Wilmington district.”

“They did not say no, they didn’t say yes, but they said there’s a possible path forward,” McRee said. “They would like us to put together again a more defined statement of purpose.”

Hanig noted that they were very prepared heading into the meeting, with detailed information about the history of not only the channel and the Whalehead Club itself, but also the millions of dollars invested in the mansion and grounds that have been owned by the county since 1991.

“Jenny Kelvin from the (state) Senate President Pro Tem’s office did a remarkable job,” Hanig said. “Her research was spot on; we had all the information from previous attempts.”

McRee and Hanig also noted that staff from the office of state Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, were also very helpful, spending the week prior to the meeting gathering information and making contacts at both the federal and state level on behalf of the county.

“I think we have an opening that will allow us to attempt to move forward again to (with an) application to hopefully be successful this time,” McRee said.

Local officials and residents are hopeful that the dredging would not only allow boats to access Historic Corolla Park, but also improve waterflow and help address invasive submerged aquatic vegetation that choked the boat basin this past summer.

Low oxygen levels caused by high temperatures led to at least one fish kill in the boat basin, while decaying mats of Eurasian watermilfoil and alligator weed were responsible for a noxious smell across the Currituck Outer Banks on strong southwest winds.

Following Hanig’s comments to the board, County Commissioner Paul Beaumont noted that the state senator, who was previously a Currituck commissioner, having direct involvement at the meeting made an impact on Corps officials.

“It adds credibility that the state is very interested in this as well,” Beaumont said. “You’re about as busy right now as you could possibly get … taking the time and going down there. Thank you so much.”

“(The Corps was) very forthcoming with how … to make it a good application to get it across the finish line,” Hanig said. “We do have our challenges — it’s going to be a process.”

Hanig expressed that everyone needs to have patience with the process, estimating it may be up to two years before a final decision is made.


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