By Connie Leinbach
The Hyde County Commissioners Monday night agreed to allow visitors to mainland Hyde starting at 5 a.m. on Wednesday and will work with Dare and Currituck counties to lift the visitor restriction on Ocracoke before Memorial Day, possibly on May 21.
Hyde County Manager Kris Nobel will work with the two counties as to the exact date for the reopening and for issuing a joint press release, which could come in a day or two.
The commissioners met in the Hyde County government center in Swan Quarter with Ocracoke Commissioner Tom Pahl participating via a video feed from his home. Due to the restriction of not having gatherings of more than 10 persons, the meeting was closed to the public and and broadcast live on Hyde County’s Facebook page. Much of the meeting was devoted to the COVID-19 pandemic and Hyde County’s response.
Commissioner Pahl said the Ocracoke Control Group, which is made up of various officials who convene when hurricanes threaten or other disasters strike, met to discuss visitor reentry.
Ocracoke wants to coordinate its reopening with Dare since many visitors travel through Dare to get to the island. Otherwise, they would have to go through Swan Quarter or Cedar Island.
The Hyde County commissioners previously OKed allowing all non-resident property owners (NRPOs) on the island starting May 11. Hyde County is asking them to bring their own provisions.
“We can’t stay closed forever,” Pahl said and Hyde, Dare and Currituck want businesses that do open to put some restrictions in place.
He said Gov. Roy Cooper, in his next press conference today at 5 p.m., will give further directions, and he noted that even if Cooper extends the statewide Stay At Home order, which expires on May 8, “that would not prevent us from lifting the visitor restriction.”
He said that once the restrictions are lifted, businesses will be asked to put (social distancing) restrictions in place.
“I had a woman begging me to go back to work,” said Commissioner Ben Simmons III. “We’re stopping people from making a living.”
He said Hyde and Ocracoke residents have been going in and out of the county the whole time of the lock down and that to really stop the virus, “we’d have to stop everything.”
He also stressed that businesses that don’t want to open don’t have to.
Earl Pugh Jr., board chairman, said he and Dare County Board of Commissioners Chair Bob Woodard agreed to the joint statement.
During the public comment period, Noble declined to read the many letters and comments the county received, noting that many would have exceeded the three-minute limit and that if all were read, “we would be here until midnight.”
However, she said, county staff would post all of the comments on the Hyde County website within 24 hours.
The pandemic caused numerous travel restrictions nationwide to help prevent the virus spread. Hyde County followed by prohibiting visitors and non-resident property owners on Ocracoke unless the repairs to their homes from Dorian damage was extensive enough for a building permit.
“I think that when we put this visitor restriction in place, the COVID virus was very, very new to us,” Noble said. “I don’t think that this board or any other municipalities put the COVID restrictions in place to completely keep the virus from coming into our communities because I think we’re well aware that that’s not possible. But I think those restrictions were put in place to give us enough time to make sure we have adequate precautions in effect and over this period of time we’ve had our restrictions in place.”
Nevertheless, the NRPO restriction was met with anger from some Ocracoke non-resident property owners, many of whom expressed themselves on Facebook and wrote letters to the commissioners.
“These property owners, NRPOs, of which we are part, support Hyde County extensively with property taxes, some with occupancy taxes, and many with funding for nonprofits on the island of Ocracoke such as the Fireman’s Ball/Volunteer Fire Service, and Ocrafolk/Ocracoke Alive,” wrote Dr. Brenda Peacock of Washington.
“They are also year-round customers of many of the local businesses on the island. With so many NRPOs concerned about our status, and hurricane season basically upon us, now is the ideal time for the Hyde County Commissioners to address at least some of these issues.
“One: Hatteras ferry priority access as a property owner same as a resident of the island.
“Two: representation of NRPOs on the decision-making bodies such as the Ocracoke Control Group. These property owners could then at least be involved in determining restrictions and re-entry criteria for themselves as well as tourists.”
Peacock acknowledged some restrictions had to be put into place in both post Dorian and pandemic but noted that “exposure with virus was ongoing, maybe even more so, without more restrictions on permanent residents and off island contractors.”
Hers and other letters are included in a separate post.
In other business, Luana Gibbs, Hyde County health director, reported that there is only one confirmed COVID-19 case in the county.
The commissioners approved changes to the Ocracoke Development Ordinance to exempt church steeples from the building height restriction and to extend the rebuild time to 365 days for nonconforming village structures from the time of removal or demolition. Currently, the ordinance says six months from removal.
Pahl noted that FEMA’s action in lowering the base flood elevation was met with puzzlement on the island and that it was based on data before Hurricanes Matthew, Florence and Dorian.
But it’s a benefit to islanders whose flood insurance policies will be more affordable.
The Ocracoke Development Planning Board has recommended that the base building height, or freeboard, be raised to nine feet.
However, Pahl said this might be tough for businesses who are considering being raised or new buildings since they would have to include handicap ramps, which may add significant additional costs.
Noble said Ocracoke would not be allowed to have one standard for businesses and another for residences.
She said there may be other options, such as flood proofing, which she and others will discuss.
Jane Hodges, the county building inspection technician, added that the county can also give variances to the free board height if the building is flood proof.
A hearing on the adoption of the new flood maps was continued until Thursday, May 14. The Board of Equalization and Review, which hears property tax assessment appeals, will start at 5 p.m. and the continuation of the hearing on the Flood Damage Prevention Ordinance as well as the county manager’s budget message will start at 6 p.m.