NAGS HEAD — After intense pushback from nonprofit Friends of Jockey’s Ridge and its supporters, the state of North Carolina on Friday shot down construction of a privately operated museum to honor Francis and Gertrude Rogallo’s invention of the flexible wing used in hang gliding.
“While we remain interested in telling the story of the Rogallos and low speed flight as part of our educational mission, the Department does not support proceeding with a lease of property to the Foundation or construction of a museum at Jockey’s Ridge,” Director of North Carolina State Parks Dwayne Patterson wrote in a letter sent Friday to the friends group.
For Ann-Cabell Baum, the state’s rejection of the project was a second victory: Nearly 50 years ago her mother, Carolista Baum, famously laid down in a front of a bulldozer to stop development at Jockey’s Ridge, the tallest sand dune on the East Coast. Baum’s persistence rounded up the support that led to creation in 1975 of the Jockey’s Ridge State Park in Nags Head. Today the park, which abuts Roanoke Sound, is one of the most visited state parks in North Carolina.
“My mom would be so happy now,” an exultant Baum said after receiving the news Friday. “She just would be over the moon.”
In recent weeks, representatives of the Rogallo Foundation, a nonprofit established in 1992, had made presentations at several local government board meetings about its proposed plan to construct a 12,000-square-foot museum, with the estimated $7 million cost raised by the foundation.
Francis Rogallo, with his wife’s assistance, invented the flexible wing in 1948 while working at NASA. Rogallo did numerous test flights of his hang gliders at Jockey’s Ridge in the 1970s. Today, his invention is used in paragliders, parafoils and kiteboard kites, among other flying machines.
In the foundation’s draft memorandum of understanding, the foundation would staff and operate the proposed Rogallo Museum and seek a 99-year lease at no cost on land adjacent to the existing park visitor center.
But the friends group insisted that the proposed site was not suitable for a commercial operation at a public park and an environmentally sensitive area.
“All we wanted to do is protect the park and the land,” Michael O’Brien, chair of the Friends of Jockey’s Ridge, said Friday. “I’m extremely happy, but I still think the Rogallo Museum is a great idea. I just don’t think (Jockey’s Ridge) is an appropriate location.”
At the group’s board meeting Oct. 11, members said they felt blindsided when hearing about the Rogallo Foundation presentations at meetings in the community that did not include their board. The museum was first proposed about five years ago, but then little had been heard about it until recently.
“It looks like this is basically a done deal, and we want to stop that,” board member George Barnes told North Carolina Division of Parks and Recreation Deputy Director Brian Strong, who attended the meeting. “At least I do.”
Barnes, a retired superintendent at the park, along with the eight other board members, questioned the benefit to the park, as well as the friends’ lack of input into the proposal.
Joy Greenwood, current superintendent of Jockey’s Ridge State Park, said another meeting with her and Strong was held Oct. 20, when they met with John Harris and Billy Vaughn with the Rogallo Foundation. The state was evaluating the concept and had not taken a position, Greenwood said, adding that public engagement would be an important component if it moved forward.
“I don’t feel like it’s either support, or against,” she said in an interview Thursday. “Right now, it’s collecting of information.”
But in discussions with the leadership of the state Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, overseer of the state parks, the Oct. 28 letter revealed that concerns about the project outweighed its educational appeal.
“The Secretary is concerned about the size and scope of the proposed museum and its effect on both the natural landscape and the limited acreage available in the vicinity of the visitor center for recreational and other uses by the Park,” the letter said. “The Secretary is also concerned that the proposal does not meet various legal requirements affecting the property, including the purposes of the constitutional and statutory provisions establishing the State Nature and Historic Preserve, of which Jockey’s Ridge is a designated component.
“There are also concerns about the appropriateness of leasing public land to a private entity whose mission and objectives may vary from those of the Division, and with recently expressed public opposition to the proposal,” the letter continued.
In an interview Friday, Harris, who owns Kitty Hawk Kites, with a location across the street from Jockey’s Ridge and elsewhere on the Outer Banks, said he was “disappointed” by the state’s disapproval.
“I thought that they would do due diligence … it was a process that had to be worked through,” he said.
Harris denied that the project site was planned on an environmentally sensitive area at the park. Although he said the recent board meetings were meant to get the information out to the public, he said it was a mistake not to meet early with the Friends group.
But Harris said he still believes the Rogallo Museum would have been a great fit at Jockey’s Ridge.
“We haven’t pursued any other locations because that site makes the most sense for the museum from the standpoint of history,” Harris said.
But that doesn’t mean he is giving up on getting the museum built.
“It’s a good project,” he said. “The bottom line is, we’ll get it done.”