Dare County stepped up its efforts last month to get the owner of one of the island's worst eyesores to clean up the property -- so far with only minimal success.
On June 11, Dare County attorney and manager Robert Outten sent a letter to Ritsa Merjos of Virginia Beach, owner of Waterfall Park in Rodanthe, advising her that she had not resolved safety issues at the site and that the property, therefore, was not in compliance with county ordinances.
The 14.5 acre park is a prime property in the tri-villages, with land on both sides of the highway that extends from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pamlico Sound.
It's one of the first things that visitors to the island see as they head south on Highway 12, and for the last four years, what they have seen are falling down structures and fences, putrid pools and ponds, old tires and other debris, and overgrown shrubs and grass.
The park was built by Ritsa Merjos and her late husband, George, and during its heyday in the 1980s and ‘90s, it was filled with families enjoying all of the water-themed attractions, such as waterslides, bumper boats, go-carts, a bungee tower, and swimming pool.
Waterfall Park started its downward spiral after George Merjos died and then the bottom fell out of the U.S. economy in 2007. It fell on hard times, business fell off, land values plummeted. The park had not been in operation for several years and was looking pretty rundown by the time Hurricane Irene hit in August of 2011.
The hurricane's epic storm surge off the Pamlico Sound caused an incredible amount to damage to homes and businesses in the tri-villages, including Waterfall Park. While before, the park was rundown, it was now wrecked.
In the almost four years since the hurricane, the owner has not moved forward with repairing, rebuilding, or reopening the park -- or tearing down the structures and putting the property up for sale.
The Rodanthe-Waves-Salvo Civic Association has made three efforts to buy the park, its president, Mark Dingman, said last fall. The latest offer was early last year for $1.6 million, which is just slightly more than the assessed tax value of the land.
The assessed value is $1,568,700 -- about half of what it was during the boom years of a decade ago when it was assessed at about $3 million.
Dare County planning director Donna Creef and her staff have worked diligently with the owner, who is quite elderly and her grown son and daughter, to get the place cleaned up -- with little success.
At various times last year, the owner sent workmen to gate the door of the falling-down bungee tower, knock down a small building, paint over some graffiti and pick up some debris.
Their efforts have done little or nothing to change Waterfall Park's status as one of the island's worst eyesores.
Last September, Warren Judge, then-chairman of the Dare County Board of Commissioners, railed against the condition of the park at a meeting:
"For too many years now, I have driven through the village of Rodanthe only to look at the decrepit condition of the defunct Waterfall Park. The condition of these parcels of land, says more about us as a community than it says about the property owner. Who would like to live next to this unsightly mess? Do you think driving by this day after day would be depressing? Is it safe? Do the falling down buildings and structures, overgrown with vegetation, provide a refuge for animals of all descriptions which can become a public nuisance or menace? Is this area an attractive nuisance for our young people, younger children who can get hurt, older children who may want to hide? There are areas that allow rain and flood waters to pond, creating a fertile area for mosquitoes, and, worse, a potential for deadly consequences should someone fall in this ponded water."
Judge asked for -- and received unanimously -- board approval for his motion to instruct Outten to use every legal means possible to force the owners' compliance with county ordinances.
In November's election, the leadership of the board changed, and since then, there has been little progress on or discussion of Waterfall Park issues -- until Outten's letter.
In the letter, Outten requested that Ritsa Merjos contact him within 10 days to let him know her plans to bring the property into compliance with county ordinances protecting public safety.
"If I do not hear from you or if the plan you propose does not bring the property into compliance in the next 30 days," Outten wrote, "Dare County will have no alternative but to initiate legal action requesting a court order requiring you to bring your property into compliance and upon you failing to do so authorizes Dare County to do it at your cost. Dare County will also be seeking to recover its legal fees and cost of clean up from you."
Outten says the owner never contacted him or presented a plan. However, a work crew did show up to erect new fencing around the east side of the property and add fencing on the west side, where there had been none.
And that may be about all Dare County can force Merjos to do with its current ordinances.
"They are going to do the minimum possible to satisfy our ordinances," Outten predicted last year.
"We may get it within our ordinances, but it will still look like crap," he bluntly added.
Turns out he was right.
Outten said the county's next step will be to look at what the owner has done and determine if that satisfies the current public safety ordinances.
However, he said, "With it fenced in, it would be hard for me as a lawyer to argue that it's unsafe."
Dare's current public nuisance ordinances address public safety issues and not the appearance of a property, which can open a Pandora's box of issues. Outten quoted the often-heard phrase, "One's man's junk is another man's treasure."
In Dare's fishing villages, it's traditional and acceptable for watermen to stack their crab pots or store their nets or old boats on their property. Others, especially some who are relocating here from cities, don't find a stack of old crab pots next door to them that appealing.
Politically in the county, it will not be easy for the commissioners to broaden nuisance ordinances to include appearance issues.
In any event, the owner of Waterfall Park appears in no hurry to clean up, rebuild, or sell.
“It’s not that I like to see the property like that,” Steve Merjos, speaking for his mother, said last year. “We don’t.”
He said he and his family built the largest park on the island, which over the years has contributed immeasurably to the economy. In return, he said, they have gotten very little consideration from the state or the county, especially after Hurricane Irene.
Whether or not the family rebuilds, he said, depends on many things. Chief among them is the replacement of the Bonner Bridge and the repair of the “hotspots” on Highway 12. Without a reliable transportation corridor, he thinks, the park cannot be viable.
He added that they were not willing to sell just then.
“It was worth a tremendous amount of money at one time,” he said of the park. “Someone is trying to pick up the property for pennies on the dollar."
He also said that the people complaining are locals not visitors.
I tried to contact Steve Merjos this week to see if he had anything he wanted to add in response to the county's most recent complaints. He did not respond to either of two messages I left asking him to please call me. I'll let you know if I hear from him.