This Labor Day weekend, tens of thousands will take to their boats to enjoy their holiday on the water. Recreational boaters will anchor up, raft up, tie up anywhere there is pretty water and sand and get overboard to play.
Making use of the abundant water this county is surrounded by, besides recreational fishing, and the pure enjoyment of riding in a moving boat, boaters traditionally congregate to socialize in large numbers around the sand spits that accrete at the mouth of New Hanover County’s three ocean inlets from north to south: Masons, Masonboro and Carolina Beach inlets.
Surprisingly, no figure exists as to the revenue generated by recreational boating in New Hanover County, but it is a significant number. Keeping these inlets from shoaling closed by recurring dredging is essential.
The move of Masons Inlet to its present location was completed in March 2002. To keep the wantonly migrating inlet in its designated channel, location maintenance dredging of Masons Inlet is mandated, with the cost paid by a select group of Figure Eight residents and north-enders on Wrightsville Beach through periodic assessments. This group of 1,044 property owners banded together for one voice as the Mason Inlet Preservation Group (MIPG).
It is noteworthy that as a property owner on the north end of Wrightsville island, the town itself (aka tax payers) also pays assessments for the inlet location maintenance. $156,000 has been paid by the town over a 10 year period.
As a shallow draft inlet, Carolina Beach Inlet hasn’t had budgeted presidential funding since 2005; a scramble has ensued ever since over funds to keep this recreational inlet open. In the meantime, dredging was funded through a variety of hodgepodge measures including contributions from state and the local municipalities, including Wrightsville.
In what looked like a brilliant move at the time, during the 2014 short legislative session, Rep. Ted Davis Jr. introduced a bill to appropriate funding from a pot of county money sitting idle for navigation maintenance dredging at Carolina Beach Inlet.
Passed into law in late July, the measure targets a portion of the room occupancy tax collected from short-term rentals, sometimes called vacation rentals, in the unincorporated areas of the county. For this purpose, known as District U, the unincorporated areas of the county include Figure Eight Island, Porters Neck, Wrightsville’s uninhabited extreme north end and the Monkey Junction area. Room occupancy tax collected on any short-term rentals of hotels, motels and homes in these areas (mostly Figure Eight Island) has been accumulating over the past decade. This attractive pot of money holds approximately $1.2 million.
The logical choice to administer these funds for inlet dredging would have been the Wilmington-New Hanover Port, Waterway and Beach Commission.
In 1974, the New Hanover County Commissioners created the Port, Waterway and Beach Commission and assigned it the responsibility of studying and preparing recommendations for the best use of the Room Occupancy Tax Funds to be presented to them for approval. The Wilmington-New Hanover Port, Waterway and Beach Commission’s purpose was as stated: “To investigate, initiate, and support general water resource development projects that will serve industry; encourage tourism; commercial/charter fishing; recreational boating and mitigate the threats of storms and flooding.”
Still, the port waterway group was bypassed in Davis’ legislation, which grants the county the ability to release funds from this pot of collections from the U District to the New Hanover County Tourism Development Authority (TDA) and allowed the TDA approval in the distribution of the funds.
Davis’ legislation catapulted the TDA into the decision over how to spend $1.2 million on dredging and how future collections will be spent on dredging.
An agreement has not yet been reached as to this distribution, but the proposal before the TDA from Lisa Wurtzbacher, the county finance director heard late Wednesday, Guidelines for Distribution of District U 2nd 3 percent Room Occupancy Tax (ROT), was to divvy the pot of money with an unequal split of the collections between two of the three inlets with Carolina Beach receiving the lion’s share, 75 percent, even though none of the ROT collected in this pot of gold actually comes from Carolina Beach ROT collections.
The first draft had all the funds going to CBeach, but in an apparent attempt to placate the MIPG, the new plan allocated 25 percent to Masons inlet, but included an odd caveat that WB had to pony up a $12,500 match for remaining project costs after annual distribution of District U ROT.
The fastest growing areas of the county are the unincorporated areas, especially the northern part.
It has been loosely estimated that as much as 90 percent of collections in the U District come from rentals on Figure Eight Island. This figure is estimated because representatives from the MIPG and Wrightsville Mayor Bill Blair said requests to the county for documentation on District U collections had been refused.
Three inlets, one pot of money distributed in a 75-25 percent split, Masonbro Inlet receiving zero doesn’t seem equitable.
Blair said on Wednesday it is time to put the brakes on this push to action until all the facts can be examined and a more equitable distribution is proposed.
Everyone wants to see the Carolina Beach Inlet remain open. But this plan has the allocation for that inlet to be dredged every year coming from the room tax collections from outside Carolina Beach.
Masonboro Inlet, by far the busiest of the three inlets, has zero provision in this plan being pushed. What is to prevent Masonboro Inlet from losing federal funding like Carolina Beach?
Ted Davis’ legislation was rushed through the chaotic legislative short session without enough time to carefully plan for the future of all three inlets. Let’s hope wiser heads prevail and this initiative is slowed down to do it right — to do it equitably for all.