By WILLARD KILLOUGH III
CAROLINA BEACH - The Carolina Beach Town Council discussed making changes to the rules for Freeman Park on the northern end of Pleasure Island during their January 9th, meeting but took no official action. The Council agreed they needed more information before making a final decision.
The Council previously discussed possible changes for rules and camping at Freeman Park during their November 28th, meeting.
Freeman Park, located beyond the end of Canal Drive on the Northern End of Pleasure Island, is largely outside of the Town's jurisdiction. They have 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. There is a separate fee for camping during the summer months.
Town Manager Michael Cramer explained to the Council that, "Over the past four years the Town has significantly improved the family friendly atmosphere on Freeman Park and improved the protection of the environment. Several months ago Town Council and Staff had conducted a workshop to review ways to address several issues on Freeman Park. The issues include camping, trash, restroom facilities and overall beach patron behavior. Recently the Town and CAMA have been approached by a group of property owners about growing the dunes toward the ocean and installing sand fence. These issues are critical to the operations of Freeman Park and we would like to have a follow up conversation with Council."
The Council discussed issues including enforcement of park rules as well as how to possibly limit the number of people at a campsite, the number of vehicles at a campsite and educating people about maintaining a clean environment by further promoting the idea of "pack it in, pack it out."
One recommendation considered on January 9th, is to set a limit of eight people per campsite and a limit of two vehicles.
Cramer said hiring people to patrol the area was a problem last year and he's working on a way to increase manpower within the park in addition to existing police patrols, lifeguards and employees that handle trash and maintaining portable toilets.
Another recommendation is to increase the number of signs that display the rules in Spanish and hiring people that can speak Spanish and English.
Camping is only permitted at designated campsites within the park. Reservations can be made online on a first come, first serve basis for $20 per night.
One proposal would require arm bands for people staying at a campsite. Anyone can walk into the park for free, but overnight camping can only occur at a designated campsite. Arm bands would serve as an means of identification. Cramer said when talking to campers officials could say, "Yes, you do have the appropriate number in here and you are not overloading the campsite with 12, 14 or 15 people." One recommendation is to limit that number to eight.
Cramer said another recommendation is to limit the hours of operation. He explained, "We have a couple of recommendations that are there. Either closing the park to vehicle entry after 9pm or saying that all day-trippers that are on the ocean side have to leave the park by 11pm. The issue with that becomes enforcement and how do you handle it. Do you literally take the police trucks and drive down the beach and start corralling people ad pushing them off. Yeah you would probably have to. That's going to be manpower and labor intensive. But it would go and send a message and start changing the atmosphere there."
Cramer said, "We are going to start selling season passes with the early bird special... we start December 1st and go through the 15th, with those so that anybody that is a local or can get access here, can purchase them here" at a discount.
He explained, "That's for the vehicle and not for the campsites. Some of those regulations we can implement later on.... If we were to change hours and things of that nature, I think that would probably be best that we change that before we started selling those season passes."
Council member Leann Pierce said, "My concern on that is there are a lot of people that like to go out there and fish all night and they are not the people causing a problem. They want to fish all night and I have a problem with asking them to leave. We can leave the exit available then you can not allow entry after a certain time... but I'm really concerned about that because that's been a long tradition on the North End."
Council discussed eliminating campsites past the "pinch point" where the beach is very narrow and at certain times of the year and depending on tides and weather conditions, people can become stranded with no way to drive out of that area. That also creates an issue for emergency and police vehicles when an emergency arises.
Another recommendation is to change "Daily Access Pass" to "Day Trip Access Pass" and implement news hour of use from 6am to 11pm with sales of those passes stopping daily at 9pm. Currently the park is open 24 hours a day.
During the Council's January 9th, meeting the Council held a lengthy public hearing and received input from a number of residents in both in favor and in opposition to the proposed changes.
Councilman Steve Shuttleworth asked Cramer how the Town could limit the number of cars and people at a single campsite.
Cramer explained, "The only way we could functionally do it is by license plate for the vehicle. When they register for the campsite they would have to put down each one of the vehicles that are going to be there. That's definitely burdensome for that individual but that would be a way we could collect the information to make sure there were only two vehicles. The eight people, there are various different ways of doing it. The one that I've looked at most is wrist bands. Something where they stop at the entrance. You're camping in site one, two ,three, here's the eight wristbands that you have. They may tell you how many people on the website that are going to be staying there so you are able to give that out. There's ways that you could do it. Is it perfect? No absolutely not."
Shuttleworth said, "When we started making changes at Freeman Park a few years back, my comment was it's not about the money for me. It's about the environment and making sure that we are doing the best we can for stewardship. Whether my opinion on how we are doing that for stewardship matches other people's opinion, that's why we have open forums and have discussions. And I'm willing to take the direction that the community wants to go. And it's not about the money. We make good money out there, Does it help offset taxes? Do we spend it other ways? Yeah. That's fine. But if it's the gist that people want to spend more money, throw the money at it. If you think that's going to solve the issues to protect the environment, you are not going to get resistance from me on spending the money out of the Freeman Park revenues."
He explained, "That's why I made a point to clarify that the $350,000 we capturing out of there is just money set aside. Freeman Park generates a lot of revenue. For me it's not about the revenue. I truly believe the best thing for the environment is to not have the campsites in zones two and three. I don't believe that's healthy for what's going on out there. I believe the amount of trash, and I appreciate all the people wanting to go out there on a regular basis and pick it up, but you already heard we need to do it twice a day with a vehicle and a machine and a can truck. The amount of trash that is generated out there and the amount of intrusion into the sand dunes is substantial."
Shuttlworth said some people questioned how the Fort Fisher State Recreation Area on the south end of the Island handles similar issues. He explained, "There's two things that they do at the South End that we don't do here. One is, all there park rangers carry a gun and the second is, you can't drink. We haven't talked about that. You talk to residents around that say you want to solve the problem, quit the alcohol. I'm not looking to crimp some ones fun, I get that. For me it's about the environment, it's about being a good steward so that my 16 year old, when he has a 16 year old, will have something to go out there besides 150 blue barrels and 16 ash cans and rope everywhere."
He explained erosion on a portion of the beach makes driving in that area dangerous and can strand people camping north of that narrow stretch of beach front for extended periods of time during high tides. He said he's in favor of removing those campsites and other items like port-a-johns in the area beyond the "pinch point".
Cramer added that even if Council doesn't want to close that portion of the beach to camping, he will continue to close it during periods of lunar tides due to safety concerns.
Councilman Tom Bridges said he's been going up to Freeman Park for years and, "It's still a far cry better than it was. And when we are out there at 6am, I see the can truck and there is usually a guy behind him. Unfortunately they fill up before they get to the north end. They have to turn around and get it emptied because there is a lot of trash down there." He said, "You can have a large police force, but unless they are everywhere at the same time which is not possible, people are going to do what they do."
Councilman JoDan Garza said, "Almost sounds like this is something we put on the next few workshops. Doesn't seem like it's going to be an answer on the next one. It seems like the more input we get we can kind of take all of this information and roll it up and bounce it around... It seems like it's going to take a few of these."
Mayor Joe Benson said, "Here's what I want to do. I want to close by saying, Police Advisory Committee, Operations Advisory Committee, some courses of action and menu of options, bring it back to staff and take the time you need to do that and then we can do this again. Don't want to do anything drastic now not the least of which is restrict camping unless we look at incremental approaches first."