This story has been updated to clarify the headline.
TOPSAIL BEACH – As summer crowds grow larger and more full-time residents settle down for island life, once-sleepy small beach towns along North Carolina’s coast are left looking for ways to manage public parking.
Topsail Beach, the lone town on Topsail Island to maintain free public parking, could be next in joining the ranks of beach towns that charge public parking fees.
In a special-called meeting Wednesday morning, the Topsail Beach Board of Commissioners discussed the possibility.
Wednesday’s meeting was not the first time that commissioners have mulled whether to charge for parking at its accesses.
The board struck up an agreement last year with parking management company Otto Connect to implement paid parking at the town-maintained south-end lot where people can access “The Point,” where residents and visitors are drawn for its undeveloped, unspoiled beauty.
Facing some hefty capital projects in the future, including construction of a new town hall and firehouse, commissioners are once again debating whether to take the leap and implement paid parking at public access lots.
Commissioner Joe Bell said paid parking is “a major issue,” one that should be discussed in a regular meeting of the board of commissioners.
But that does not mean a public hearing will be held on the matter, commissioners said.
The Pender County town has about 172 parking spaces at beach accesses. There are also town-owned properties where an additional estimated 155 spaces could be created, said Assistant Town Manager Christina Burke.
Commissioners instructed town staff to provide additional information, including details about rights-of-way in the town, at the board’s March meeting.
Just last month, Oak Island in Brunswick County became the latest beach town along the southern portion of the coast to charge for public parking.
That town council’s vote to enter into an agreement with Otto Connect ultimately resulted in a group of property owners petitioning for an election recall for four of the town’s council members.
The move to seek a recall was not about paid parking, said Oak Island resident Gail Baker, but what the group says is a lack of representation.
The Oak Island Civic League, which now has more than 130 members, was born out of frustration, and the recent vote on paid parking was the straw that broke the camel’s back, Baker said in a telephone interview.
“All we want to do is keep Oak Island a friendly, family-oriented beach community,” she said. “Unfortunately, the council is not listening. They’ve failed to listen to the people. It was almost like they knew what they were going to do before they even walked in the room.”
The group will have to obtain a minimum of 2,050 signatures from registered voters in the town. Those signatures must be verified by the county board of elections.
Baker said earlier this week she did not know how many signatures had been collected.
“We’re working every day on it,” she said. “We’ll just see what happens.”
Oak Island Mayor Elizabeth White declined to comment on the recall petition.
Since White is mayor, she did not cast in the move to paid parking. But she said charging parking fees is a way to help the town deal with a cultural shift.
“The shift has to do with the rapid growth that we’ve experienced in the last five years,” White said.
Between 2019 and 2021, the year she ran for mayor, White said the number of registered voters in Oak Island jumped by nearly 2,000 people, a signal of the rapid growth the town is experiencing.
“And it’s only been increasing since then,” she said. “During the summer months our population grows by plus or minus 40,000 and what we experienced last year was sheer chaos.”
There were issues with visitors being disrespectful of private properties and the town was fortunate that no one was injured or killed, White said.
“It is about safety, helping to ensure the safety of not only our residents, but our visitors,” she said. “It’s an opportunity to ensure that everyone that uses our beach contributes to its maintenance, otherwise it falls only to our taxpayers and that’s very costly. And it’s to help manage growth.”
For additional information about Oak Island’s paid parking program visit https://www.oakislandnc.gov/residents-visitors/paid-parking-program.