First of two parts
SWANSBORO – Call it the Tempest on Queens Creek.
An idea is afloat to build a public boat launch with five ramps and acres of parking lot for 100 vehicles and trailers on undeveloped land along the creek in Onslow County. The state recently acquired the property as an addition to Hammocks Beach State Park. The idea’s origins are a mystery – no one will say who first came up with it. But fueled by desires for more boat access and the tourism dollars that follows, the idea has slowly taken shape over the last few months as park officials prepare to decide how to use the land.
And it has roiled the waters of this usually languid creek.
County officials would like to see a regional boat ramp on the property, as would some influential park allies. Former park superintendents, though, are opposed, as are park employees and volunteers, though most are fearful to speak out. Some neighbors of the park aren’t thrilled with the idea either. Neither is the state representative whose district includes the park. Some Swansboro town commissioners and the mayor worry about the additional traffic it will generate on already crowded roads and the stormwater runoff that will have to be controlled and the dredging that may be required.
From Trails to Trailers
No one talked about boat ramps back in 2014, when a court settlement allowed the state to buy 290 acres along Queens Creek to add to the park near Swansboro. Then, lots of folks talked about nature trails, campsites and kayak launches.
David Pearson is president of the Friends of the Hammocks and Bear Island, the park’s volunteer support group. He helped put that deal together after an eight-and-a-half-year legal saga. When the state finally reached a settlement with the Hurst family to acquire “The Hammocks,” Pearson said that most people in the community would want to keep it as natural as possible. There should be primitive camping areas, he said then, and at least one large campground suitable for major events by Boy and Girl Scouts.
Carol Tingley, the deputy director of the state Division of Parks and Recreation, had the same concept in mind two years ago. She, too, talked about trails and possibly a campground. State Sen. Harry Brown, the Jacksonville Republican and Senate majority leader who championed the purchase in the legislature, waxed nearly poetic back then about preserving the environment and providing educational opportunities for kids.
Fast forward to June 30, 2015, when Gov. Pat McCrory visited the park to urge area residents to vote for Connect NC, a general obligation bond that eventually came to include $75 million for state parks. It includes about $1.13 million for Hammocks Beach. McCrory didn’t mention a boat ramp in his speech.
But Mike Murphy, the director of the Division of Parks and Recreation, noted in an interview before the governor’s arrival that day that money earmarked for the park would go “largely” to build a new a boat launch. He said the ramp was “very much in demand.”
That boat ramp was just the subject of talk back then, but now almost a year later a five-ramp launch is considered a serious option. Pearson now wants it considered when the park devises a new master plan. The Onslow County Board of Commissioners has committed $1 million towards the land’s purchase, and county officials have expressed their desire for a major boat ramp there. Parks officials now claim that the money for Hammocks Beach that’s included in the bond, which voters approved in November, is earmarked for the boat ramp, though the legislation authorizing the bond makes no mention of it.
Chuck Roberts, a longtime member of the Friends group and a resident near the park, references an old folk song, calling the ramp idea “paving paradise to put up a parking lot.” Mary Ellen Yanich, a Swansboro resident and frequent park volunteer, said people pretty much want to keep the park natural, low impact and quiet.
“At a state park in the mountains,” she said, “you wouldn’t clear cut a forest to put in a ski slope.”
State Rep. George Cleveland, a Jacksonville Republican whose district includes Swansboro and the park, strongly opposes a big ramp facility. He’s told angry constituents who have called him to “start raising hell.”
Two Onslow County commissioners – Jack Bright of Hubert and Paul Buchanan of Swansboro – said a ramp is needed somewhere near Swansboro but the park might not be the best place for it. They want to hear from their constituents.
Swansboro Commissioner Phil Keagy also is not totally opposed, but is worried about the traffic the ramp would generate on Hammocks Beach Road, a two-lane stretch of asphalt that leads to the park from N.C. 24 — a Walmart is slated to be built at that intersection – and about the effects on the park’s quiet beauty and pristine waters.
Frank Tursi, another town commissioner, said the low-lying land and surrounding shallow water is ill suited for a regional ramp that will be equivalent in size to the state boat ramp in Emerald Isle. “Stormwater control will be a major problem, as will dredging through fish nursery areas,” he said. “Those are issues that I hope will be considered during the coming planning process.”
Pearson remains a supporter of the boat ramp, but only as part of that soon-to-start master plan update for the park. “We’re a park of islands,” he said. “We’ve got Bear Island, Huggins Island, part of Jones Island and soon, Dudley’s Island. The boat ramps in this area are very crowded in the summer months. If you have waterfront property and you can keep a boat there, it’s not a problem. But if you don’t, and if those other facilities nearby are full, as they often are, how are other people with boats going to get to the islands?”
He said the park could “tuck” the ramp somewhere on the 290 acres without disruption. “I know it won’t be simple, but it can be done,” he said. “Again, though, when I have mentioned a boat ramp, I’ve always said it would be something people would decide as part of the master-planning process.”
Paul Donnelly, who retired last summer after a 10-year stint as park superintendent, said he never wanted the ramp and doesn’t know of anyone at the park who does. The park, he noted, has much bigger needs, including maintenance of existing facilities and the creation of trails and camping areas.
Sarah Kendrick, a longtime ranger who is now superintendent, said she couldn’t comment.
Sam Bland, a naturalist with the N.C. Coastal Federation and Donnelly’s predecessor as superintendent, is more adamant, saying a ramp on that Queens Creek property would destroy precious habitat, and the parking lot would increase stormwater runoff and impair the waters.
Cleveland, the legislator, said he knows members of the friends group who are strongly opposed to the idea.
So how did it get to this point?
Let’s start with House Bill 943. That’s the bill that the legislature passed last year to authorize the bond. It doesn’t list specific projects for any of the state parks that were to get money, just the amounts of money they were to receive.
Brian Strong, chief of planning and natural resources for the parks division, said last week that the boat launch was in the legislation and it would take legislative action to get it out. When informed it wasn’t in the bill, Strong later said by email that, “At the time the list of bond projects was being compiled, no planning or design work had been done for the newly acquired property at Hammocks Beach. It was clear funding would be needed for development of visitor facilities on the new property, so that was included as a component of the bond project list. At that time, our preliminary understanding was that a boat ramp was needed and desired by the community, and that a boat ramp was feasible on the new property.”
So, Strong said, the boat ramp was on the list of state park bond projects submitted to the state Office of Management and Budget, and he provided that list last week. But he didn’t say who, if anyone other than the parks department, put that ramp on that list.
Pearson, who also is executive director of the statewide Friends of State Parks, said that “senior leaders” in the department “solicited suggestions” from the state parks staff. “Somebody put it in there,” he said. “I have no idea who.”
Donnelly said he certainly didn’t do it, and Kendrick wasn’t superintendent until December, well after the bond package had been put together. Strong said the list had been in the works for at least two years.
Some have speculated that Onslow County might be behind the boat ramp idea, because the county has pledged $1 million over the next four years to the park, and county officials have made it no secret they’d like to see more boating access.
But County Manager Jeff Hudson said that money was never tied to the boat ramp. “We made that commitment because they (Pearson and Parks Department Director Murphy) came to us in person and asked us for help with funds for the purchase of the property,” he said. “All we asked was that we be given the opportunity for input into the planning process.”
Hudson, though, put the county’s desires a little more directly in an email to a newspaper columnist in March. He wrote that the county had told park officials that additional water access was needed in the county and that “we would like for a portion of the property to be set aside for public motor boat access.”
Million Dollar Access
The sale required two transactions. In one, the state paid Harriet Hurst Turner of Raleigh and John Hurst of Onslow County $6.9 million for 200 acres of the tract, using a combination of money from the state’s Parks and Recreation Trust Fund, which is appropriated by the legislature, and from the previous sale of bonds designated for this purpose.
In a second sale, the Conservation Fund, which is based in Arlington, Va., and has an office in North Carolina, paid $3.1 million to the Hurst family members for the remaining 90 acres. The family had claimed to have inherited the land and had fought state efforts to take it without what they considered just compensation. The Conservation Fund immediately leased the land back to the state for the park’s use. The state will repay the Conservation Fund over the next three years. That’s the money Hudson said the county committed to help provide.
The court settlement set aside 27 acres that include the site of a long-abandoned 4-H Club camp, and gave Turner three years to set up a youth camp there. Near that property is the area Pearson and others have frequently mentioned as a good site for a ramp. Turner did not return phone calls seeking information about her progress on the camp.
Bland, the former park superintendent, said he didn’t think it was right, and was potentially a bad precedent, for the state parks to accept a donation of up to $1 million in exchange for boat access or a seat at the table in the planning process.
Hudson, however, said the county’s request shouldn’t be taken as a demand for more access to the planning process than that available to the general public. The county, he added, would like to see a boat launch in the area near Swansboro, because there’s great demand, but “it’s not the county’s place” to endorse or request a ramp facility at the park.
The money, he said, comes from the county’s occupancy tax, which is intended to foster tourism development. Buying the property along Queens Creek for the park surely qualifies, Hudson said.
“We would have input whether or not we provided any money,” he said. “But this money was certainly not pledged for a boat ramp.”
He added that only $250,000 of the money is in the county’s current budget. It will be up to subsequent county commissioners to provide the three other installments pledged, Hudson noted
Strong also denied the county was getting anything “special” for its contribution.
“The county’s $1 million contribution toward acquisition of the property, to be made over four years, is definitely not in exchange for the opportunity to provide input to the master plan,” he said by email, after he had been interviewed by phone. “The county’s input during the planning process is welcome, as is input from all stakeholders, partners and the public. The planning process will include multiple opportunities for everyone to provide input and is completely separate from the county’s contribution for land acquisition.”
What the People Say
Bright and Buchanan, the Onslow County commissioners, said they were told by county staff that the county’s money was for the property purchase, not for a boat ramp. But Bright said that good access to the planning process would ensure that the county can adequately represent county residents’ desires.
“I’ve had a lot of calls from citizens,” he said. “There are people in the Friends of Hammocks Beach on both sides of the fence, and probably some who are on the fence. I didn’t think this was going to be a big issue, but it obviously has become one. I see the need for more boat launching facilities, for sure, but if people don’t want it at the park, we need to know that.”
Buchanan, likewise, said he would like to see a survey of area residents and park users, and said he always tries to follow the desires of his constituents.
Pearson in March said the Friends’ group had begun such a survey, but the results have yet to be posted on the group’s website.
Roberts, the Friends member, opposes the ramp, said most of the responses he’s collected support hiking trails, camping areas and low-impact improvements, but don’t mention a ramp as something they’d like to see at the park.
Roberts said he understands the perceived need for a new boat launch in the area, but is unconvinced that the park is the right place for it. “I’m not a Luddite or a tree-hugger,” he said. “I just think there are better places for this than at a state park. It would take a lot of clearing, probably a lot of dredging in Queens Creek, and it’s just not what people want to see in the park.”
Thursday: Where to go from here