Posted on December 10, 2023
Oak Island residents took advantage of the opportunity to speak their minds regarding the inaugural paid parking program at a Nov. 28 town council meeting.
People expressed overall support for the program while suggesting a variety of tweaks they feel would benefit the local public. The number of season permits issued, whether decals should stay, and how much the 2024 rate will be were a few of the issues raised by residents to council members during the open meeting.
Dolphin Drive resident Chip Frazier said he’d like to see season permits limited to one per address, and anyone with an outstanding fine shouldn’t be allowed to park until it’s paid. He felt the program’s biggest failure was a lack of communication and poor signage.
“I’m a big proponent of the paid parking program,” said Frazier. “But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t room for improvement. We all already understand that.”
Glen Baker is also an advocate of the program, but told council more resident-only parking spots should be available. He said residents stickers should stay and he did not favor season passes. Baker felt rental houses where golf carts are furnished shouldn’t be granted resident passes, and season passes need to be limited to one per household.
“I believe we lost a rather large revenue stream by pricing the season passes extremely low when compared to the other beach communities,” Baker said. “If season passes are kept (their cost) should go up considerably. Season passes should only be available to Brunswick County residents.”
Bolivia resident Leonard Lowry expressed frustration with the initial application process, calling it “one of the worst experiences.” Between the long lines and big crowds, Lowry said he waited for hours and still didn’t secure a pass.
Island resident Linda Evans told council that without paid parking, locals wouldn’t be able to get anywhere on the beach. Some of the new parking spots, Evans said, are big enough for two golf carts and people should be able to double up if they both paid. Evans would also like to see a committee created to monitor the program moving forward that includes full-time current homeowners who use the beach regularly.
“I fully support paid parking,” said Evans. “I know the program is going to be revised some.”
Mark Spicer supported keeping the resident decals while increasing enforcement at the town’s three walkovers: SE 9th Street, SE 20th Street and SE 31st Street. During a presentation in November, Jim Varner, president of Otto Connect, the company that administered the paid parking program, said he did not favor bringing back the decals.
Spicer lives near the 20th Street walkover and told council visitors were taking advantage of the parking. He also supported limiting annual passes to Brunswick County residents.
“I see the 20th Street walkover day-in and day-out,” Spicer said. “When paid parking first started it was nothing but mass chaos, there were problems every day. Finally, the town came and put bumpers in and that helped. As the season went on, it was daily that you saw park there, unloading all of their beach gear and parking there for free all day.”
Islander Tammy Smith hopes the town will cap the paid parking rate for residents.
“I had to walk two miles up the beach on Labor Day to get to my car,” said Smith. “I don’t know what the solution would be.”
‘This is a learning experience’
At the end of the meeting, council had a chance to offer their thoughts on the public feedback. Members expressed unanimous agreement that the new program, while overly successful in that it generated more than $1.1 million for the town, needs to be tweaked.
Councilman Mark Martin who, along with Bill Craft and John Bach, successfully campaigned on the issue of public parking a couple years ago, said the new program brought some “sanity” to an untenable situation.
“I do think it went far in helping to control some of the chaos,” Martin said. “For those of you who remember parking season 2022, it was literally chaos out there. People were parking wherever they felt their vehicle could fit in a spot.”
Charlie Blalock said he was initially on the fence about the program, but came around as the town began gathering more data and statistics.
“I really like the patience and the feedback,” said Blalock. “I was also very pleased with the revenue stream.”
Bill Craft drew several applause from the crowd when he suggested keeping resident passes at $10, allowing golf carts to double-up in spaces, and continuing to find ways to increase the number of available reserved parking spots.
“This is a learning experience,” Craft said. “We’ll get better. We’re asking for the people of the town to help us get better. My thought is, I would like to see stickers come back. Not for the benefit of Otto, but for the people of Oak Island.”
Shelia Bell did not support paid parking when the town first broached the topic in in 2016. She changed her tune, however, after the back-to-back summers following the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I fought it really hard until the summer of ‘21 and ‘22 when people were parking everywhere,” said Bell. “We had been let out from the pandemic and everybody wanted to come to the beach, and they didn’t care where they parked. We had a good year and I think there is some tweaking that needs to be done, but stay involved and we’ll get there.”
Councilman John Bach credited the program with generating revenue that will be used to offset future costs, like infrastructure, but there still are aspects in need of tweaking.
“Whenever you launch a program that threatens past norms and practice(s), it’s a huge undertaking,” Bach said. “There’s risk involved, but we managed that risk effectively. The citizens of this community adjusted and they made sense out of the rules. Were the rules perfect? No, of course not.”
Bach recommended having a professional come in and help reimagine the town’s parking design to optimize the number of spaces and promote safe traffic and access.
Town council has scheduled additional meetings on Dec. 12 and Dec. 19 to discuss paid parking as the board makes its decision on 2024 rates.