Emerald Isle's Visitors Seek Beach Access

Day visitors will face a long walk to enjoy parts of Emerald Isle's wider beach this spring. Pathways to the shore are plentiful, but parking isn't.

EMERALD ISLE, N.C. — Day visitors will face a long walk to enjoy parts of Emerald Isle's wider beach this spring. Pathways to the shore are plentiful, but parking isn't.

That has some beachgoers and policymakers upset, because state taxpayers are spending $3.8 million to renourish that beach. And state-funded beach projects are supposed to have "adequate" public access. But state rules don't define "adequate." Critics say it's time to write specific rules.

"Emerald Isle makes all the noise about having public access," said Don Morris, 69, who retired to Carteret County to pursue his passion for surf fishing. "What they don't tell you is there is no parking. What they do is herd you into large lots. You have these stretches that are quasi-private, because you have no way to get there unless you walk."

A dredge is pumping sand from Bogue Inlet onto the strand as part of an $11 million project to redirect the channel from the island's eroding point and to renourish 4 1/2 miles of western beach. Gated subdivisions front about a mile of that stretch, restricting access. The dredging is due to be finished in March. The aim is to widen the beach and prevent eight houses from slipping into the sea. Emerald Isle's town manager, Frank Rush, downplays the criticism. He says the town offers plenty of beach access and state standards aren't rigid.

"Quite often, I feel like the town is unfairly criticized for public access issues," he said. "From the town's vantage point, we try to do everything we can to enhance public access and parking." Rush counts 20 public accesses in the 4 1/2-mile stretch of beach being widened. The town has a 250-space oceanfront lot in the middle of that stretch, and last year it opened 15 parking spaces a fifth of a mile from the beach. Roadside parking is prohibited near most of the boardwalks and sand paths to the beach.

An estimated 500,000 tourists a year visit Emerald Isle, and the town's population of 3,600 swells to about 50,000 during peak season. When state officials allowed the beach project, they expected Emerald Isle to pay the full cost, said Charles Jones, director of the Division of Coastal Management. And state rules say nothing about beach access for local projects.

But the town sought state help after the only bid on the project topped the $5.5 million budgeted for it.

Jones said the state negotiated to make sure the town would provide public access to the point.

"We did not decide that what Emerald Isle was providing was adequate," he said. "The town knows they need to do a better job of providing access." Jones said it might be time to rewrite North Carolina's access rules. Although state standards are vague, federally funded projects must provide a set number of parking spaces and walkovers for each mile of shore. Cutbacks in federal funding for beach nourishment and dredging are expected to prompt more requests for state aid, intensifying the debate over clear access guidelines.

"Access is certainly an important historic tradition along North Carolina beaches," Jones said. "A lot of places where 20 years ago you used to be able to park alongside the road aren't there today; a house is there. Those places where people used to walk across and get access to the beach are quickly disappearing."

Not everyone sees that as a problem. Tom Walker, 49, an engineer in Burlington who owns a house at Emerald Isle, said property owners -- especially those on the oceanfront -- had agreed to property tax increases to pay for beach renourishment.

"Folks who have paid want their privacy," he said. "The folks that really have a problem are the day excursion folks. ... To try to find a place to put your car and get on the beach is a little tough." The project eventually will reopen public land on Emerald Isle's western point, which erosion has made inaccessible to beachcombers. Plans call for relocating the main channel in anticipation that the shoreline there will fill in with sand in coming years.

Using state money on a local beach project is unusual, but it made sense in this case, said John Morris, director of state Water Resources, who found surplus funds for the work.

"It is fully within the laws and rules we have," he said. "It seemed to us the project had quite a few benefits." In a letter to Morris' office, Andy Coburn, associate director of the Duke University Program for the Study of Developed Shoreline, called access to the widened beach "woefully inadequate," citing the number of parking spaces and their locations.

"The state is willing to accept the definition of adequate as something we and a lot of people view as inadequate," Coburn wrote. In 2002, Emerald Isle's elected leaders considered adding up to 10 roadside parking spaces every half-mile, but tabled the idea while the Army Corps of Engineers studies the town's eligibility for federal aid.

Dick Eckhart, a retired computer system analyst who lives at the beach full time, said the town needs to take action. "We call it a public beach," Eckhart said. "The Catch-22 is we have accesses all along the beach, but no parking. I think that is wrong."

To see more of The News & Observer, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.newsobserver.com. (c) 2005, The News & Observer, Raleigh, N.C. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.