by Connie Leinbach
Ocracoke Islanders attending the public presentation July 17 of the NPS plan to renovate access points to the National Seashore overwhelmingly asked for more sound-side access.
The plan, titled “the environmental assessment (EA) for the Proposal to Facilitate Additional Public Beach Access,” is for 29 projects along the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, from Bodie Island to Ocracoke. The Ocracoke projects call for handicap ramps from the decks at the Lifeguard and Pony Pen access points to the beach. About 23 attending the public presentation in the Ocracoke School Gym all-purpose area.
A new ramp would be built for wheelchair accessibility at the north ferry dock area to the beach. Since the north end of the island has been closed to both vehicles and pedestrians since February of 2012 when the new ORV plan went into effect, a new ramp—59.5—would be built further south of the now-closed ramp 59.
“This new ramp is out of the bird area at the north end of the island,” said Randy Swilling, the natural resource program manager for the CHNS.
He said the plan also calls for a new ramp called Ramp 63, further south of the current Ramp 67, and another parking area would be built on the sound side of Highway 12 at Borrow Pit Road.
The presentation at Ocracoke and at other sites along the national seashore is the first public comment period. Citizens have until Aug. 2 to make comments on this proposed plan that calls for four new ramps and two ramp relocations along the seashore. The plan can be accessed and commented on online at http://parkplanning.nps.gov/ beach_access. Comments can also include which projects are most important.
Swilling said all comments and priority suggestions will be evaluated. Then the final plan will be sent to the park’s regional office in Georgia for final approval.
Although these approvals will take some time, Swilling, who is managing these projects, said, “We really want to get these projects started as soon as possible. We’re hoping by the end of summer.”
While these projects have been six years in the making, he said it’s taken a lot longer to write the environmental assessment because the project area is so big.
“This plan in no way limits us as to future projects,” Swilling added about the possibility of more public access to water on the Pamlico Sound side of the island. The difficulty in developing those would be funding and environmental compliance, according to Darrell Echols, deputy superintendent.
“But we’re not closed to the idea,” Echols said. He also said that repairs to the south side dock at the end of the NPS parking lot and the NPS dock on Silver Lake, both of which were damaged in last October’s Hurricane Sandy, are ready to go as soon as they receive new account numbers from Washington. He hopes these repairs also will begin by the end of summer.
These projects that facilitate visitor access to key recreational areas within the National Seashore are part of the controversial Final Rule Off-Road Vehicle Management Plan (ORVMP) that also implemented fees for beach driving and has allowed for more closures on the beaches for wildlife.S. Senate bill #486, which has passed out of committee but has not yet passed the Senate or House, calls for loosening of some of the restrictions of the Final Rule, such as, extending the seasonal off-road vehicle routes, decreasing the buffer zones around turtle nests and allowing for the beach to open in the morning as soon as park personnel have cleared the nesting areas in “rolling” openings.