Last of a two-part series
SWANSBORO – A lot of people hate the idea of building a public, five-ramp boat launch on new land acquired for Hammocks Beach State Park. Some like it. Others aren’t sure.
Those opinions and others should shake out during when park official amend their master plan to include the 290 mainland acres along Queens Creek that the state acquired through a legal settlement two years ago. That process should begin later this year. Nothing will happen on the land until it’s complete, probably a year later, state park officials said. They assure everyone that their voices will be heard.
Tom Roulund is all in favor of a boat launch either at the park’s maintenance ramp near the visitors’ center or on the new property. The new property, he thinks, would be best, because the vehicles pulling boats would not go by some of the homes on Hammocks Beach Road.
Rouland, who lives in a nearby subdivision, said he takes his boat out every weekend during the summer, and currently goes all the way to the Emerald Isle to put it in the water. “I could go to the ramp in Cedar Point, but it’s small, always very busy and a lot of the boaters there don’t obey the no-wake zone,” he said. “It’s dangerous. I don’t see why a ramp in the park couldn’t be a good fit.”
Bill Gerdsen, a longtime avid boater who lives near the park, might be described as being on the fence. He said the state boat ramp in nearby Cedar Point is crowded, and tough currents can be dangerous, particularly when lots of folks are out on the water and see a storm approaching and head for the ramp all at once. “It can be a mess, chaos, scary,” he said. “I’ve seen it.”
The same, he said, can be true at the state launch on Bogue Sound in Emerald Isle and at Onslow County’s Shell Rock Landing ramp at Bear Creek. A new public launch is needed in the area, Gerdsen said.
On the other hand, Gerdsen said he understands the environmental issues raised by opponents of a ramp at the park. They fear that such a large boat launch will disturb the natural beauty and serenity of the park, create large volumes of stormwater that will pollute the creek and require dredging through fish nursery areas.
Queens Creek, Gerdsen also noted, is far from “boat friendly.” It’s wide, subject to strong winds, has numerous tiny islands and oyster reefs that appear and disappear with the tides, and there’s not that much deep water near shore for a ramp or ramps.
Dredging May Be Issue
On the issue of dredging, state officials confirmed that portions of the creek are designated as primary nursery areas. That means that only dredging of existing channels are allowed. Ryan Davenport of the state Division of Coastal Management said it was impossible to speculate without a specific proposed site, but acknowledged there are potential problems, particularly since there are multiple state and federal agencies, including the National Marine Fisheries Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries, that would review a permit application.
Phil Keagy, a Swansboro commissioner, said he’s worried not only about traffic, but also about the other big needs at the park. “I understand the desire for more boat launches; they are all crowded,” he said. “But $1 million is a lot for a boat ramp and a parking lot, and there are a lot of maintenance needs at the park.”
Keagy is referring here to the $1.2 million earmarked for the park in the Connect NC bond that voters approved in November.
Keagy said at least a couple other town commissioners share his concerns, and if the state or anyone else seeks the town’s endorsement for the boat ramp, he’s not sure they’ll get it.
“I’m not totally against it, but I do have a lot of questions,” he said, and “we don’t really know what the plans are. I do know that I’m a firm believer that there are other needs that probably should be taken care of at the park first. It’s a great park, but it needs maintenance.”
Swansboro Mayor Scott Chadwick said he generally favors a ramp at the park because more water access is needed in the area and it would be good for businesses in town. But, he added, he, too, has concerns about the increased traffic in town.
“I think that before I could be 100 percent for it, I’d need to see a plan for how the state would handle the increased traffic so it wouldn’t be such a headache for the people who live out there,” he said.
Brian Strong, the planning chief for the state Division of Parks and Recreation, said the park must update its master plan to include what it will do with the new land. That planning process, funded by $125,000 from the state Parks and Recreation Trust Fund, is out for bid, and consultants have responded with proposals.
The chosen contract will lead a public process that will take eight or nine months, he explained. There will be plenty of opportunities for people to participate, Strong added.
“If the master planning process shows that a boat ramp is not needed or desired or is not feasible on the property, we can request that the bond funding be reallocated to a different project on the new property at Hammocks Beach,” he said. “It’s important for the decision on the boat ramp to be made as part of the overall master planning process. This will ensure that all viewpoints are heard and considered, and it will ensure that all relevant engineering and environmental information is available for the evaluation of feasibility. The master planning process is open to everyone, and we welcome all ideas and comments.”
State Sen. Harry Brown of Jacksonville is the majority leader who was instrumental in putting together the financing package to buy the Queens Creek land and also was a key in the bond legislation’s adoption. He doesn’t think the legislature needs to get involved in how that bond money is spent at Hammocks Beach.
“There was nothing specific in the legislation about how that money would be spent,” he said. “It’s up to the public and the parks department, through the planning process, to decide.”
The boat ramp at the park is a tough issue because there are always more boaters than ramps, Brown said. “This is just me, but I’d think there’s got to be as solution, a way to find a compromise,” he said. “Maybe we could put a smaller facility in there that wouldn’t have so much impact, if we could find the right place. I know not everyone would be happy, but that’s normal. I think there’s an answer. But I don’t think the legislature needs to be saying ‘You need to do this,’ or ‘You need to do that.’”
State Rep. George Cleveland, a Republican whose district includes the park, agreed that it’s not the legislature’s job to decide how the money gets spent, but said the park isn’t the place for a public boat ramp.
“I don’t think a boat ramp facility fits in with the park’s mission or in any way would enhance the park,” Cleveland said. “You’ve got this beautiful new property in a state park and you’re going to use a big piece of it for a boat launch and a big parking lot? I’m not saying there’s not a need for a boat launch in the area, but there are other places.”
One thing does appear certain, though: The opposition isn’t going to go away, said Mary Ellen Yanich, a Swansboro resident and a frequent park volunteer. “I’m at the park a lot, on the ferries, and I never talk to anyone who wants a boat ramp there,” she noted “People like it – love it – the way it is. They want trails and campgrounds, things that will fit in with the environment.”
Paul Donnelly, a former Hammocks Beach superintendent, said that he hopes people will make their feelings known during the planning process. “The number one thing I’ve heard that people want is hiking trails,” he said.
Sam Bland, another retired superintendent, also encouraged those who love the park to speak out during the process. “There are a lot of needs in the park,” he said. “The bathhouse on Bear Island is showing some signs of deterioration, as is the visitors’ center on the mainland,” he said. “And we don’t need the habitat destruction you’d get with a boat launching area. They already destroyed some habitat at the visitors’ center last year when they cut the thicket along the shore. We don’t need to lose any more. It’s all important.”
Strong said that public input would be a major factor in deciding what gets done with that new land. “We obviously don’t want to build something that no one wants,” he said. ““There are all kinds of things that could be done there – primitive camping, trails, picnic areas, other kinds of outdoor recreation. That’s what we want to find out through the planning process: What do the majority of the people want?”
David Pearson, president of the Friends of the Hammocks and Bear Island, said that’s been his intent all along. He said that when he’s mentioned a boat launching facility, he’s prefaced his remarks by insisting it’s only his idea of what he thought would be a good thing to make the park more of a drawing card, more of a year-round destination, more of a tourism-generator, more of a boon to the local economy.
“All I’ve been trying to do, all I’ve ever tried to do, is get funds to make this park the best park it can be for all the people who want to use it,” he said. “I want it to be the park the citizens want it to be.”
The bottom line, Pearson said, is that the master planning process will determine how the Queens Creek property will ultimately be used.