By WILLARD KILLOUGH III
CAROLINA BEACH - Several property owners have asked the Town of Carolina Beach to remove new campsites established on the beach in Freeman Park due to damage to the sand dunes and impacts causing erosion of their properties.
Freeman Park, located beyond the end of Canal Drive on the Northern End of Pleasure Island, is largely outside of the Town's jurisdiction.
The Town has authority to manage the area as a park. That was granted to them by the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners some years ago. There is a fee charged for vehicle access to drive on the beach front within the park. The Town, by it's own admission, doesn't charge people to walk into the park. They can only charge for four-wheel drive vehicle access.
Elizabethtown, NC based Attorney H. Clifton Hester sent a letter to Carolina Beach Mayor Dan Wilcox dated December 5th, 2016 representing the concerns of his clients, Freeman Beach, LLC, Carolina Freeman, LLC, and B&F Enterprises of Calabash, LLC.
Hester wrote, "I am writing to you as attorney for the above-named entities who own the property located north of the City limits of Carolina Beach and bounded on the east by the mean high water line of the Atlantic Ocean and on the west by the Intracoastal Waterway. These owners have, for many years, appreciated the efforts of the Town to police this area and provide amenities to the public, all of which the owners felt were beneficial to their own interests, including their real property interests. The owners felt and still feel that the tradition and history of this area are to keep it open to those who enjoy the oceanside beauty and the beach."
He explained, "The actions of Carolina Beach in providing police services, trash bins/clean-up services and restrooms has likewise been in keeping with this tradition. However recent developments have caused some concern to the owners. The Town has, in the last couple of years, established campgrounds on the property of the named entities as well as their neighbors. While none of the owners initially objected to this project, the results of this enterprise has been to significantly diminish the viability of the area as a beach resort. "
Hester wrote, "The campgrounds have caused an increasing amount of vehicular traffic on the privately-owned areas of the beach, leading to the destruction of some of the dunes as well as other areas which must be preserved in order to maintain the beauty and viability of the beach as a haven for tourists. The interests of my clients are to preserve the natural beauty and viability of this area. However, when the actions of the members of the public cause destruction to the natural beauty of the area, the owners feel that they have not only a right, but a duty to speak up and request that the Town take action to protect their property interests. Moreover, the actions of the public appear to be promoted by the Town which established the campgrounds on areas that are private property."
He explained, "Because of this, the owners are requesting that the Town take immediate action to close these campgrounds to the extent that they are located above the mean high water mark and to otherwise provide police protection to prevent further use by the public which may accelerate the erosion and diminution of the beach property. The attached copy of the survey map as well as the pictures depicting the damages caused by vehicular use to the area show the reasons for the owners concerns. I will be happy to appear at the Town meeting to answer questions the Board of Commissioners may have about these issues. Otherwise, I request that the Board take immediate action at the next meeting to address these issues and provide me with a copy of any resolution regarding the same. Please give us a response by December 30th. By copy of this letter to Noel Fox. I am advising your attorney of these concerns as well and trust that she will contact me with any questions that may be addressed in advance of your meeting."
Town Attorney Noel Fox responded to Hester on December 22nd, 2016. In a letter to Hester, Fox explained the correspondence wasn't received by the Town or herself until December 13th and, "I attempted to contact you on December 19th to discuss this matter. I have not yet received a return call from you. The purpose of my call was to inform you that there were no pictures depicting the damage caused by vehicular use enclosed in the letter received by the Town or me. I would appreciate receiving those photographs prior to discussing the matter further with the Town."
Fox wrote, "The Town will not be able to meet the December 30, 2016 deadline imposed in your letter due to the approaching holidays. I took forward to receiving the pictures and will contact you again upon receipt to discuss this matter further."
On March 14th, Fox explained that no further letters had been received and there was no litigation filed against the Town.
Town Manager Michael Cramer explained Tuesday afternoon that, "With the recent dune erosion on Freemen Park we have noticed that vehicle tracks have been observed over the dunes. About a month or so ago we installed additional posts and rope to try to keep vehicles out of the area."
According to the Town's budget, Freeman Park generated $1,137,000.00 in revenue for fiscal year 2015-2016.
The properties owned by those parties represented by Hester encompass the largest stretch of the beach front within Freeman Park. The Town owns the first 1,000 feet after the end of Canal Drive. After that point, numerous tracts of land are under private ownership with the largest owned by Freeman Beach LLC of Clarkton, NC at 169.6 acres stretching from the ocean to the waterway including the land and marsh area west of the sand dunes.
The area managed by the Town is east of the sand dunes and are considered "public trust" areas and even though they are part of private property, the State of North Carolina has long upheld the right of the public to access the dry sand beaches.
The Town Council adopted new restrictions for camping within Freeman Park in 2015 as a way to address overcrowding within the park. Prior to the new camping rules, it was estimated that as many as 875 campsites would pop up near the water during busy summer weekends.
The new restrictions limit the number of campsites to 119 and they are positioned along the dune line. No camping is permitted towards the waters edge and the public is not permitted to walk or drive on the dunes.
Visitors planning to stay overnight at Freeman Park must purchase a camping permit for a specific campsite. Those permits are available on a first come first serve basis for $10 between April 1st and September 30th.