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Hi, and welcome to my "Editor's Blog"! In this space I'll be attempting to keep our readers informed on fast-breaking news and issues affecting our islands. Visit often. There's a lot going on!

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Too much sand here, not enough sand there: Part I

Friday 26 February 2016 at 4:51 pm

Rom Whitaker, captain of the Release, who has been running his charter boat out of Hatteras Inlet for several decades, had some words for the Dare County Board of Commissioners when they came to Hatteras for a town hall meeting on Feb. 4.

Much of the meeting had focused on Dare County's plan to nourish the beach in north Buxton to protect Highway 12 and who is going to pay what to get it done. That discussion grew into more talk of places on Hatteras Island that need more sand on the beach -- in Avon, between Frisco and Hatteras, and the list goes on.

However, Whitaker and commercial fisherman Jeff Oden wanted to talk about another topic -- the shoaling of the channels in Hatteras Inlet that threatens lives and livelihoods.

"There enough sand in Hatteras Inlet to fix all the problems we got," Whitaker said to applause and laughter from the crowd of about 250 islanders who attended the meeting.

The irony of his statement was lost on no one that night.

While many Hatteras beaches are starved for sand, the channels in Hatteras Inlet upon which we depend for ferries to and from Ocracoke and for access to and from the Atlantic Ocean for commercial and recreational fishing are so choked with sand that they are at times impassable and, at other times, downright dangerous.

Too much sand in the inlets, too little sand on the beaches.

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NPS plans meetings, wants comment on proposed ORV rule changes

Friday 19 February 2016 at 5:03 pm

The National Park Service has released an environmental document, opened a comment period, and scheduled five meetings for the public to consider its alternatives for changes to the off-road vehicle rule for the Cape Hatteras National Seashore.

We posted an article on the release of the document -- called an Environmental Assessment -- and the planned meetings on The Island Free Press on Wednesday, and the first comment on the story was a question -- "Is Cape Point more accessible during the summer under any of the alternatives?"

The answer is "no."  The Point will not be more accessible during the summer because of any of the proposed alternatives.  In fact, nesting shorebirds will probably continue to keep the Cape Point area closed to vehicles during the summer into the future -- as it has for much of the past decade.

That's the bad news.  The good news is that the proposed alternatives will make some changes in certain aspects of the ORV rule that will allow more public access-- including morning beach opening, seasonal ORV routes, vehicle-free areas, access to the ocean and sound, and ORV permit lengths.

As is always the case, the proposed changes will not go far enough for some park users, and it will go too far for others.

The Environmental Assessment covers the last part of changes the Park Service was instructed to consider under legislation passed by Congress in December of 2014 as part of the 2015 National Defense Authorization Bill.

The legislation mandated the Secretary of the Interior to consider changes in basically three areas of its ORV plan -- wildlife buffers, access infrastructure, and the ORV rule as it relates to three areas -- morning opening of beaches, seasonal ORV routes, and vehicle-free areas.

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Don't let this important primary election sneak up on you

Friday 12 February 2016 at 5:12 pm

The problem is that redrawing those two districts would mean redrawing other districts that border the counties involved.

The 1st congressional district, for instance, is in northeastern North Carolina.  It meanders for miles through parts of 24 different counties, containing only five whole counties. It includes Durham, Elizabeth City, Roanoke Rapids, Rocky Mount, Goldsboro and New Bern.

Parts of the 1st congressional district border the 3rd, which includes Hatteras and Ocracoke islands, represented by Republican U.S. Rep. Walter Jones.

Of course, a major problem with the federal court ruling is that the election is only a month away and it would be impossible to get the district maps redrawn and approved by March 15. Furthermore, absentee voting is already underway.

Gov. Pat McCrory and other state officials asked the federal panel to stay the decision until after the election.  On Monday, Feb. 8, the judges refused, so state officials have now appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.  On Tuesday night, they asked Chief Justice John Roberts to set aside the lower court decision.

On Wednesday, Roberts responded, giving plaintiffs in the case until next Tuesday, Feb. 16, to respond to the state's request.

Meanwhile, the March 15 election is in turmoil.  The governor may be forced to call a special session of the legislature next week to redraw district lines.  Or the state may be forced to move the congressional primary only.

This mess is not unprecedented.  Similar fights over district boundaries caused delays in elections in 1998 and 2002.

And just a word about "gerrymandering" -- manipulating the boundaries of electoral districts to favor one party or another.  

Both Republicans and Democrats do it.  They manipulate not only congressional boundaries, but also state legislative districts. Apparently, it's okay with the courts if elected official do it for political reasons but it is unconstitutional to gerrymander districts on racial grounds.

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Commissioners get an earful from Hatteras islanders

Friday 05 February 2016 at 5:47 pm

Hatteras islanders packed the gymnasium at the Fessenden Center in Buxton on a particularly rainy, nasty, and foggy Thursday night to tell the tell County Board of Commissioners what is on their minds.

The official count is that 250 islanders attended, along with 30 or so county employees and department heads.  

Six commissioners attended.  Commissioner Margarette Umphlette was absent because of an illness in her family.  

The commissioners listened attentively for almost two hours as 28 islanders came to the microphone to speak to them without time limits -- including three who came back for a second round of comments. Then each board member made some brief comments.  The meeting, which started at 6:30, did not break up until after 9 p.m.

The crowd was respectful, but enthusiastic and very eager to share their thoughts, concerns, and suggestions with their county leaders.  

Almost all of those who spoke mentioned how much they appreciated the board members traveling to Hatteras Island for the meeting. And several made the point before the evening was over that they hoped the commissioners would come back -- and more often.

The issue mentioned most often was the possibility of a "sand tax" -- a special tax district to pay for beach nourishment in north Buxton.  And almost every one of the islanders who spoke on the issue, opposed a tax increase.

The county has asked the National Park Service for a special use permit to nourish the beach in Buxton to protect Highway 12 from the encroaching Atlantic Ocean and frequent ocean overwash.   Woodard said last night that the permit is expected to be issued, and the project is on track to begin in late spring or early summer.  

The estimated cost is about $25 million, and most of it will be paid for with funds from a 2 percent occupancy tax that is earmarked for county beach nourishment projects, including those in four towns on the northern beaches.

Woodard emphasized last night that the board has made no decision on Buxton nourishment but is considering its options, which include a special tax district to help fund the project.  For some, it's an issue of fairness -- property owners in the towns will be taxed to help pay for nourishment and Hatteras islanders should then have to contribute also.

And, while the sand tax was mentioned often, the comments were more broad and general than just beach nourishment and whether islanders should pay for it. Many speakers expressed a general concern for the island's transportation corridor -- including issues of erosion, hotspots, overwash, and bridges.

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