Public access to the water in Ocracoke village is at the community square docks, above, and the National Park Service areas near the ferry docks. Photo: C. Leinbach
Public access to the water in Ocracoke village is at the community square docks, above, and the National Park Service areas near the ferry docks. Photo: C. Leinbach

Editor’s note: A North Carolina Court of Appeals has reversed a February 2020 decision from a Camden County Superior Court judge, ruling on Tuesday that a private walkway, although used for years by the public to access the beach, is, in fact, private. Read the story in the OBX Voice here.

No doubt, the world is complicated with simple solutions harder to come by, and Ocracoke is not exempt.

Although many have looked fondly on Ocracoke with its few local regulations, it is time to examine whether something is needed so all can have a clear understanding of what one can and cannot do.

Ocracoke is a small community with a school of about 170 students, two churches, one vehicle repair shop, one gas station and no traffic lights other than a few that inform you of your speed.

It is also a high-profile tourist destination with visitors in-season numbering in the thousands.

Islanders welcome visitors. The majority of them respect the community and many friendships have developed over the years.

But there are times when clashes occur. Loud noise late into the night, drinking and hot dogging on golf carts are some examples.

There are also times when people trespass onto private property, especially to get to the Pamlico Sound. North Carolina law says the public has a right to any beaches up to the mean high tide lines but getting to these beaches via private property can cause problems and hard feelings. Just because people have been “doing it for years” doesn’t mean it’s right.

This came to a head after people using vacant lots on the sound side as a campground, barbecue place or public toilet prompted the owners of one of these lots to install a chain link fence around their property.

Adjacent to this lot is one with a well-worn path—also on private property–that has been used to get to a small beach area.

The fence installation caused a storm on several Facebook pages with both islanders and off-islanders taking almost every position possible, such as defending private property rights and the poor aesthetics of the chain link fence.

Could the lot with the trail be made into a public park like Springer’s Point, which is owned by Coastal Land Trust, a nonprofit out of Wilmington?

Well, maybe, but not by the Trust, which is not in the business of purchasing random lots, said Janice Allen, director of land protection. The Trust manages more than 80,000 acres and does not have the resources to deal with separate lots. If this lot abutted Springer’s Point, that might be a different story, she said.

A newly installed fence and sign along sound front properties are meant to deter trespassers. Photo: C. Leinbach

One business owner suggested that the county purchase this particular lot and create a park.

But Hyde County barely has enough money to pay for the services it does provide let alone purchase and deal with a public park on Ocracoke.

In the village, there’s much more privately owned property than is public around the harbor, North Pond and the sound and many bemoan that shortcoming, with Springer’s Point the exception.

Indeed, being close to the natural world, or living on the edge as we like to put it—there’s way less civilization here–is one of the chief appeals of Ocracoke. 

But since the 1950s, the island has changed from a fishing economy to a booming tourism economy.

In the last year, despite a worldwide pandemic, Ocracoke and the Outer Banks saw steady visitation and an unprecedented real estate boom as more people bought houses to live here or as rental investments or lots on which to build new ones.

The summertime passenger ferry brings the day visitors businesses have clamored for since the ride on the Hatteras ferry became longer in 2013.

While these visitors want to shop, they also want to visit the beach and can’t do so via golf carts.

Islanders chafe at rules and regulations, yet this is something Ocracoke needs to grapple with: Who are we going to be and how do we deal with growth (development) and change?

The only government is Hyde County overseen by five elected commissioners, one of whom is from Ocracoke; but it is not his job to manage the island.

Most county offices are in Swan Quarter 23 miles away across the sound.

The island receives periodic visits by county agencies, which have been greatly curtailed due to COVID-19, but the county manager continues to make regular visits to the island.

For the island’s commissioner, Randal Mathew, that is not enough, and he said in a recent interview that he is pressing for a fulltime county liaison for Ocracoke.

Islanders and property owners need recourse other than Facebook when problems arise. 

Ocracoke has no zoning and the Ocracoke Development Ordinance, which barely addresses development issues, years ago enshrined a minimum lot size of 5,000 square feet leading to the declining green space in the village.

Is it time for Ocracoke to become the first incorporated town in all of Hyde County and with all the attendant ramifications, such as having regulatory standards and requirements?

Possibly, but that would require more government and more taxes.

In the meantime, let’s all be respectful to each other.  One of our good human traits is that friendliness and smiles can go a long way to avoid the stressful moments that anger and confrontation inevitably create.

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  1. One thing people need to remember. There is no such thing as a private access to the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. It belongs to everyone so stop trying to move in a claim it as your own!

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