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By Peter Vankevich
When Tom Pahl was sworn in as Ocracoke Township’s county commissioner four years ago, he didn’t have a crystal ball to see what he was getting into.
In the history of Ocracoke’s county commissioners, not one has had the number of challenges that Pahl encountered during his tenure which ended Dec. 7 when a new commissioner, Randal Mathews, was sworn in.
Some of Pahl’s accomplishments include setting up the new Ocracoke Waterways Commission to deal with ferry access and other important water-related issues, and the creation of the new Tourism Development Authority. He helped improve and stabilize several important committees and held open meetings to discuss contentious issues, such as passenger ferry tram service funding and the 2 percent increase to the Occupancy Tax. While not all agree with his views and votes, he reached out to the community and has listened to islanders, sometimes modifying his positions.
But it was three catastrophic events that made his tenure unlike that of any other Hyde County commissioner: The 2017 electrical shut-down during the height of summer, several significant hurricanes, including in 2019 Hurricane Dorian, Ocracoke’s worst hurricane since 1944, and finally the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic.
Early last year, Pahl announced that he would not seek reelection. This was well before the deadline for filing to run in the March primary, so as to give islanders the chance to throw their hats into the political ring as he did in a December 18, 2015 announcement that he would run against the then-commissioner John Fletcher.
Back then, Pahl won the county-wide Democratic primary beating Fletcher 504 to 406. He waltzed in from there since he had no opposition in the November 2016 election.
Pahl took some time recently to reflect on the past few years. His comments have been edited for conciseness.
Welcome to Ocracoke
I’ve lived on Ocracoke going on 16 years. I believe I was in fourth or fifth grade when I first visited as well as almost every year until 2004 when my wife Carol and I decided to move here from Pomfret, Connecticut, tucked in the extreme northeast corner bordering with Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
The town was a lot like Ocracoke, small and rural with a little diner where people would get together to discuss politics and share ideas.
We purchased Ocracoke Restoration which was then located in Spencer’s Market. It sold antique stained glass, antique furniture, and some other things.
I did my best to run that business for four years because Carol, a teacher, couldn’t retire initially and was here only when school was out of session. She then moved here full-time and thankfully took over the business before I drove it right into the ground.
In Connecticut, I had been in the building trades and came here with the expectation that I would continue to do that, and I did. And so, while I was running the shop for those four years, I was also starting up a building business called Landmark Building and Design and got a general contractor’s license.
Vive local government
In Connecticut, I served in a similar position as the board of commissioners. There it’s called the Board of Selectmen, a three-person board instead of five. I served on that board for 10 years.
I’ve always been fascinated by politics and in particular by local politics because I think it’s really where democracy takes shape and people’s understanding of democracy takes shape at the local level. And, in a lot of ways, it defines how people relate to both their state and federal government is based on their experience at the local level. I think it’s really critical that people be involved in local politics, both as candidates for office or serving on boards and committees, volunteering or just being an informed voter. It’s what makes our communities work. If democracy works at a local level, then we’ve got at least a concept of how to make it work at the state and federal level and I think it can really make a big difference in the effectiveness of government overall.
So, it wasn’t very far out of my range of experience to start thinking about being involved in government here.
I hadn’t been in town for very long. I was new blood and when new people move to the island, every board and committee and nonprofit on the island starts to try to figure out what your skill set is and how they can get you involved. And so, it was my turn when chairperson Amy Howard asked me to serve on the Community Center board.
When she stepped down, I became chair. We had a good committee and did some good work including a major remodel of the center.
Darlene Styron was Ocracoke’s county commissioner (2012) and she asked me to serve on the Ocracoke Advisory Planning Board. I had spent a good amount of my time in Connecticut working with land use regulation, so I felt comfortable being able to help out on Ocracoke.
By that time, I’d been building on Ocracoke for a while and knew the regulations pretty well and knew some of the problems with them.
What we have is kind of like a zoning regulation which we don’t call zoning, but it’s empowered under the same set of state statutes as zoning. Our regulation is called the Ocracoke Development Ordinance (ODO). And there are some really bad problems with the ODO and how it is structured and how it was written. We started to address some of those flaws while I was on the planning board.
Darlene asked us to make some amendments — to work on using travel trailers as full-time residences, which was unregulated at the time. And the other was pop up businesses–food trucks, that kind of thing.
We got these two amendments passed and adopted by the board of commissioners.
The issue of the travel trailers was a controversial issue as it is in every community. For some reason, it is a very emotional issue and people feel very strongly pro and con. Some people who are opposed to travel trailers and want to regulate them feel very strongly about it and there are others who think that it is an imposition on private property and individual rights.
We held a number of public hearings, we got input from the community, drafted a regulation and brought it to the commissioners who adopted it shortly after that.
Behind the decision to run for commissioner
John Fletcher had not spoken up during the process of developing that regulation. But once it was adopted, he became adamantly opposed to that regulation.
He made the decision that he was going to run for county commissioner against Darlene in good part because he was so opposed to that travel trailer regulation and won the election.
When John took over as the Ocracoke commissioner, one of the first things that he did was to appoint new members to the planning board. And he got the Planning Board to recommend to the commissioners that they delete the newly adopted amendment regulating travel trailers. He brought that recommendation to the Board of Commissioners and they went along with it and deleted that section out of the ODO.
After that, he called on the Planning Board to order the county enforcement official to take an enforcement action against me and my wife regarding our retail shop that would have effectively shut down Carol’s business, based on a poorly worded section of the ODO. That irritated me pretty seriously that he would do that, as it was a case of using the power of government to persue a personal issue.
Eventually they backed off the enforcement action when the county attorney informed them that they would not win in court and we were able to continue to operate our business as we had.
And it was not long after that, that I started thinking that somebody needed to run against John when the election came around, which at that point would be in two years. I followed the commissioners’ meetings and, besides being unhappy with that particular incident, I was also not happy with some of the policies that were being represented for Ocracoke by Commissioner Fletcher.
Others were not happy as well and several people said they would think about running against him. As that deadline neared, it became clear to me that nobody was willing to step forward. And so, I said “Well, if you don’t, run, I will,” and that kind of sealed the deal. That was in December 2015 which seems awfully early for a November election the following year, but it was actually for the primary in March.
When a Democrat runs against a Democrat in Hyde County that takes place in a primary, and whoever prevails in that primary is most likely going to be seated in November, because the balance of Democrats to Republicans in Hyde county is significantly weighted toward Democrats. Very few republicans are registered in Hyde County.
I knew to win I had to get the vote from the mainland, and I knew that John was well-connected over there as well on the island. I didn’t think it was going to be easy to prevail. And it wouldn’t have surprised me if I had gotten a good amount of votes but not enough to win. It wouldn’t have surprised me a bit.
But in the end, on primary night I won, and not by a lot. I won Ocracoke by a good bunch (158-65). On the mainland, I won by one vote or a broke even I’m not certain, but it was enough so that the island vote meant that I won the election.
When hurricanes barrel toward the island
After the primary, but before I was sworn in in December, I was asked if I would participate in the Ocracoke Control Group, knowing that I would ultimately be on that committee.
My first hurricane on the Control Group was Hurricane Matthew (October 2016) which set a new high watermark for the island and there was a good amount of recovery and cleanup that had to take place afterwards.
It really opened my eyes to that key responsibility of the Ocracoke commissioner and that is to serve on the Control Group and be a part of the decision making that takes place.
Leading up to a hurricane, it requires looking at the science, looking at the predictions, and listening to the National Hurricane Center, and trying to decide whether this is a hurricane that is going to impact us.
Number two: if so, is it going to be a significant enough impact that we are going to need to call an evacuation, or take protective measures?
And number three: if we are going to call an evacuation, what’s the timeline and how does that work? We have to work with the Ferry Division to see how long it will take to get their ferries to safe harbor and work backwards from there. You also estimate the number of people who are on the island and the number of people that are going to have to be evacuated and determine how many days they will need to evacuate.
And then look at the approach of the storm and determine its arrival. It is a pretty weighty responsibility.
The Control Group is a fantastic group of people who are truly, dedicated servants of their community. It’s a big responsibility with life-and-death decisions and you don’t have room for error. I came out of that first hurricane season with a tremendous respect for the members of the control group and the responsibilities that they that they take on.
The rewards of being a county commissioner
It is extremely interesting to serve as the county commissioner for Ocracoke. Given the day-to-day responsibilities, I can’t think of anything that could be more interesting, more fascinating and more challenging. This is such a fantastic community. So many people care about Ocracoke who live here, that there are more nonprofit organizations and more community-based organizations per capita than anywhere that I’ve ever lived.
Ocracoke should be a model for the rest of the world.
Every once in a while, there is an occasion for every nonprofit and every community-based organization on the island to get together. It’s stunning because you look around and practically everybody on the island is at the meeting because everybody is a member of a committee, a board, a church or a youth organization.
There is just so much activity that makes this community work that it’s just mind-boggling.
I felt honored every single day of the four years that I’ve been on the Board of Commissioners to be in a position where I can have an impact on those organizations and those people and their effectiveness as members of the community in defining what kind of community Ocracoke is.
In other communities you’ll regularly hear the complaint that, “Oh yeah. These four members have been in charge of this organization for the last 10 years because nobody else wants to do it.” In Ocracoke, we have turnover, we have new members we have new ideas we have energy. We have excitement and have people looking at problems and new problems developing.
For example, in the last couple of years, people have been aware of the need for affordable housing on Ocracoke. So, a bunch of citizens got together and created an hoc committee without being nudged into existence by the county government.
And that’s how things happen on Ocracoke. The degree of community involvement is people. If there’s a problem they begin to think about what is a community-based solution to it in a way that is not top down but bottom up?
To find myself in the position of being in leadership in this community, I just can’t stress how much I felt honored and that it feels good when you wake up in the morning. But by the end of the day, it can wear you down because that honor carries with it the responsibilities. If I wasn’t so honored, I wouldn’t have had to work so hard at being commissioner. And yet, over the years it took up a real lot of my time.
Commissioner for the mainland
Everything I’ve been talking about up till now has had to do with Ocracoke because the Ocracoke commissioner’s job is unique. On the Hyde County Board of Commissioners, there are five commissioners with four of them on the mainland.
But as Ocracoke commissioner, I am also commissioner for all of Hyde County, and that, likewise, felt very much like an honor.
Clearly, I was not from around here, and made no secret of the fact that I was a Yankee from Connecticut who moved to Ocracoke and got myself seated on the Board of Commissioners of Hyde county.
The commissioners and the community over on the mainland were extremely welcoming to me and Carol. They made us feel like we were a part of a big family over there. That level of honor translated, again, into a sense of responsibility.
You can’t be a Hyde County Commissioner, and just know Ocracoke issues.
You’ve got to know Hyde mainland issues as well, and they have a whole different set of problems than we have. I’ve said many times that I would never want to trade our plate of problems for theirs. They have got a lot of long-term issues, socio-economic and geographic issues.
To hit on the geographic issues is to first talk about climate change and the fact that there are great sections of Hyde county that are at or below sea level.
Without the ability to keep sea water out will mean water rise will inundate Hyde County. They are constantly moving the water by mechanical means over there.
And interestingly, that does not take place as a function of the local government. The county is divided up into, I believe, five drainage districts run by volunteer committees of people who care about that issue. They raise money and do the work of cleaning out ditches and maintaining pumps and keeping that land dry enough that they can live on it and farm. Without the work of those drainage districts, there would be thousands of acres of Hyde County underwater, or, or at least so wet, that it would not be usable land.
I had to start from scratch on that issue which I was barely aware of when I became a commissioner, and it’s their biggest issue really in a lot of ways.
Ben Simmons (Fairfield Township) is the commissioner who’s most interested in that topic and is constantly pushing the importance of drainage.
After I got to know Ben and the other commissioners well enough, we could have an easy exchange. Some of it was somewhat light-hearted, but you know those guys over there are generally a little more conservative than I am.
Their more conservative outlook which, in some cases, does not recognize climate change in the way I might define it. For me it is something that’s significantly impacted by human activity and we need to at least slow the progress of climate change and the bad impacts that it’s having.
So, the fun part of all that was being in a position where I could work with those guys and talk about climate change in a way that was problem solving, rather than just politically based, although I have to say that I occasionally would throw in a little bit of a political jab now and then. And they could take it, because we worked together and established respect for each other and they were willing to hear it from me.
It’s interesting to be working with people who we philosophically disagree with on, you know, bigger political issues. But we’re addressing problems that need to be solved, and we’ve agreed among ourselves by the nature of the fact that we’re that we’re on the Board of Commissioners that we’re going to work together. It allows for the ability to establish respectful relationships and have conversations with each other.
If you ride the issue, the higher up you get, you’ll reach a point where you just simply can’t agree. But if you take the issue down to where the rubber meets the road, you work together because you need solutions to problems, because you’re losing thousands of acres of farmland.
The specific events that made this a unique four-year period started my first year as commissioner when the PCL workers cut the power line (July 27, 2017) while they were working on the replacement for the Bonner Bridge that left us without power for a sustained period.
It was a difficult call to evacuate visitors to the island because it wasn’t a hurricane, and the weather was seasonally typical. And yet, we had to because we could not accommodate them from a health and safety standpoint. All we had was a generator on the island, but it could not handle the power needs and all the air conditioning. We would have had people having heart attacks on us if we had not got them off the island, they wouldn’t have been able to stand the heat.
There was a succession of major storms, including Hurricanes Mathew and Florence that called for mandatory evacuations and caused some damage.
And then, of course, came Hurricane Dorian on Sept. 6, 2019. It started off like every other hurricane with meetings of the Control Group, followed by a series of decisions to evacuate and take protective measures.
In that early morning, I watched Dorian come in and did not anticipate that it was going to be any more significant than other hurricanes that we’ve been through. But then, I started watching the water come in. There was whitewater in front of our yard. And it just kept on rising. It hit the Hurricane Matthew (2016) level, which was our high-water mark to that point, and then it continued rising for another foot and a half or almost 2 feet above Matthew. We saw breaking waves from the sound coming across Highway 12.
Meanwhile, I was receiving text messages and phone calls about people around the island who were in trouble. I passed those messages along to the fire department. By that point, everybody knew we were in deep trouble.
It took all of us several days following the storm to wrap our heads around how much damage had been done. It took a couple of weeks for the demolition to really get underway, and people started tearing their houses apart and putting all that was destroyed — you know, appliances, furniture, the sheetrock and the insulation and the floorboards and the sub floor and everything else out beside the road.
Pretty soon, that pile of debris started off roughly the size of a small car and then two days later, it was the size of a dump truck in front of every house. These big piles of debris started to connect with neighbors’ piles, and they got high enough that it felt like driving through a tunnel when you went down the road there was so much debris stacked up.
It was really only then that we realized how much damage had been done by this storm and the impact on the islanders in terms of financial and emotional impact was huge.
Hyde County Manager Kris Noble and Emergency Services Director Justin Gibbs as well as the state Emergency Management people were a significant part of the recovery. We all had to work together and created an organization that did not exist at that point, to manage the incredible outpouring of donated goods, volunteer time and, in the end, over a million dollars in cash donations.
Hurricane Dorian brought enormous tragedy and hardship to Ocracoke, but there was a simultaneous outpouring of generosity and it was just overwhelming. There was truckload after truckload of stuff that individuals, businesses, communities, organizations and church groups made of food and supplies. There were even boats sneaking past the official blockade to make deliveries. Then came a long list of volunteer organizations, many of them faith-based to help with cleaning, house repairs and demolition.
Hundreds of people showed up on the island to help us. It was breathtaking. Our job was to figure out how to direct those resources, whether volunteer resources or material or food, to where they’re most needed.
So, our prime job was to create an organization that would manage all of that, and it went on for months. It’s still going on today with the creation of the Ocracoke Interfaith Relief & Recovery Team (OIRRT) that continues working as Ocracoke Island’s long term recovery group to continue the relief and recovery efforts from the devastating flooding caused by Hurricane Dorian.
As Ocracoke was preparing for a new tourist season early in the year, the COVID-19 pandemic hit and shut down the world and Ocracoke was again shut down due to fear of having the virus arrive on the island. The island streets were quiet as event after event was canceled.
Initially, the Hyde commissioners enacted a state of emergency prohibiting visitors but allowing non-resident property owners (NRPOs) access. But many island residents worried that outside folks would bring the virus to the island and strain the island’s limited resources.
In late March, the Hyde County commissioners further restricted non-resident property owners who were not actively working on critical repairs of their homes or businesses.
Pahl noted that NRPOs were incredibly generous allowing many island families to use their homes after Hurricane Dorian.
“The intent is that both resident and non-resident property owners should be allowed to continue with hurricane repair to their homes and businesses through the COVID-19 crisis, as Ocracoke is responding to two disasters at the same time,” he wrote on a Facebook post.
This further restriction prompted an NRPOs protest. In letters to the commissioners, they said that they pay equal taxes, support island businesses and nonprofits, and should be allowed to come to their houses. The ban was lifted, but there are still some hard feelings.
Pahl sees COVID-19 as a continuing serious problem, and there has been an uptick of cases on the island since Thanksgiving.
As far as COVID is concerned, we are going into the winter season; our activity is going to move indoors. We are very vulnerable.
I hope people are really cautious and I hope they take this seriously. We have learned a lot, since March, about how this thing works, and I hope people will take it extremely seriously and try to protect our community as best as you can.
The vaccination is coming, and hopefully by spring, we will all be vaccinated, and we can go about trying to find some normalcy. But I don’t think there is such a thing anymore.
Between Dorian and COVID. I think whatever was normal will never be again on Ocracoke. We’re remaking Ocracoke with the same raw material as we always had but we’re remaking it in a time of Dorians and in the time of a pandemic.
What’s next and the new county commissioner
Anyone that says Tom Pahl does not have a sense of humor to make a point does not know him. On his Facebook page on Oct. 18, perhaps more prophetic than he realized, he took a shot at the highest levels of elected government.
Pahl attended his last meeting on Dec. 7. After receiving many accolades from the commissioners and county manager, Randal Mathews was sworn in and assumed the responsibilities of the island’s commissioner. Pahl was asked about his future involvements.
I don’t think I could help but follow it (commissioners’ activities and meetings) closely. But I would say that the thing that makes me feel most comfortable with stepping out of this position, besides the fact that I know it is something that I need to do for my own reasons and for my family, is that Randal is taking over.
He’s (Randal) fortunate he didn’t have to run against anybody, he just had to go down and sign the paperwork. And I tease him about that once in a while.
I had to work pretty hard to get to be commissioner and he gets to just waltz in and take it. He and I have joked about that, but he’s going to do a really good job.
As for my predecessor, John Fletcher, after he passed on earlier this year, at our commissioners meeting, we recognized him and some of his family and a lot of people said such good things about him. I know that he and I had our differences, but he did a lot of good in the community over the many years that he was involved.
I have told Kris and Randal that I’m not available to be appointed to any boards or committees or commissions for at least six months. I just need a break.
But if there’s a single issue that I’m most interested in and want to continue to be involved in, it’s resilience for the island and, in particular, as that may affect our transportation infrastructure.
If the north end of the island gets shut off, how are we going to survive?
If the ferry basin washes out, we lose our connection to everything going north from here which is, you know, 85% of our business.
That’s the issue that I’m most concerned about long term. It’s the one with the biggest potential impact — not just the sustainability of our transportation infrastructure, but also the village, our homes and businesses. How do we continue to survive as a community in the context of climate change?