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Friday, June 21, 2024

Wrightsville Beach board candidates use forum to push traffic, water, commercial development positions – AUDIO

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The candidates at Monday’s forum on the upcoming election for two open seats on the Wrightsville Beach Board of Aldermen gave those running an opportunity to introduce themselves to votes, while the audience at the Blockade Runner Beach Resort got a thorough review of pertinent issues facing the town, along with a series of solutions.

Often, candidates found themselves in general agreement, though the hour-and-a-half discussion gave them opportunities to distinguish themselves from their opponents in both policy and background.

In addition to the five candidates for two open seats on the board, the forum sponsored by the Wrightsville Beach Chamber of Commerce also included discussion from incumbent Mayor Bill Blair, who is unopposed in his re-election bid for the second consecutive cycle.

Some candidates touted an extensive background with the town, with the only incumbent alderman of the group, Henry “Hank” Miller, III, recalling early memories of being a toddler in Wrightsville Beach, while commercial builder Ken Dull, publisher Pat Bradford and former legislative aide Pat Prince also touted their decades of experience in the area.

But realtor Sounia Nejad Chaney, in Wrightsville Beach for only a few years, took a different approach, acknowledging that she was a fresh face to many, while describing a background that provided a different perspective, including a childhood in Iran that gave her a unique appreciation of democracy.

“I don’t miss a chance to vote,” Chaney said.

The forum, moderated by WECT anchor Jon Evans, quizzed the candidates on the town’s water system, parking, traffic, commercial development, beach renourishment funding and bike safety. It started with a “lightning round,” where candidates were asked to only answer yes or no. Questions about whether the town should explore off-island parking options, lobby the county to take over lifeguard funding and improve pedestrian and bicycle pathways all elicited “yes” answers from each candidate.

However, a question about whether food and service vendors should be licensed on the beach strand prompted three distinct answers, with Blair, Miller and Dull rejecting the idea, Prince ad Chaney supporting it, and Bradford replying: “I don’t know.”

Bradford was also the only candidate to answer “no” to a question on whether the town should partner in some way with the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority for water and sewer service delivery.

A question about whether the town should approve a bond to pay for water and sewer infrastructure upgrades prompted some divergent opinions as well. At a recent board of aldermen meeting, engineers said that it would cost the town $2 million to build a redundant sewer line off of the island.

Bradford reminded voters of recent sewage spills in Hewletts Creek, where 3 million gallons of raw sewage closed waters in 2005, followed by a nearly half-million gallon spill in 2013. The town pumps nearly 1.7 million gallons of raw sewage per day off of the island, the engineering report said.

“I’m in favor of a redundant line, I’ve seen boat props take out the water and sewer lines before,” said Bradford, citing the report’s conclusion that the sewer line connecting Wrightsville Beach to the mainland is only a few inches under the surface in some places.

“Most should remember the Hewletts Creek spill. We don’t need that again. If a bond issue is what it takes, I’m all for looking at that.”

Dull, the current chairman of the town’s planning board, Miller, Blair, and Prince all agreed that the town should incorporate repairs and upgrades on an ongoing manner. Blair said that the town could arrange to move funds to building the line without needing to rely on a bond, where the town would borrow money and likely have to raise new funding in the form of higher taxes.

“Bonds can be useful, but I’m against putting the burden on taxpayers if we don’t have to,” Dull said. “Right now, we’re in a good position with our assessment. We do have issues. The way we’re doing it right now, we’re replacing the most critical items that are necessary, that’s less disruptive to the town, rather than the way we’re doing it now.”

Some of the candidates offered unique ideas to improve traffic and parking. While Chaney said she favored new technology options that could let visitors know through a smartphone app whether parking is available.

While other candidates also endorsed the technology upgrade, some spoke to easier and more cost effective solutions that could help in the short term.

Blair said that lengthening the cycles on stop lights at some intersections, like the corner of Waynick Boulevard and Causeway Drive for instance, could help with some congestion problems.

Traffic might be alleviated if drivers towing boats over the Trask Drawbridge were required to turn right to reach the boat launch underneath the overpass, Bradford said, instead of turning left against oncoming traffic, delaying traffic coming off of the island. She also said that she had been “daydreaming” about putting a roundabout at Salisbury Street and Causeway Drive and doesn’t understand some of the local opposition to the traffic interchange.

Miller suggested that after the town concludes its ad-hoc water and sewer committee, it set up an ad-hoc traffic and parking committee to explore solutions. Dull said converting a few streets to one-way direction could also produce traffic reducing benefits.

The candidates mostly agreed that the town’s 40-foot height limit should remain, with several citing the overwhelming backing by town residents.

“I understand some of the concerns of commercials, but I’ve only had two people come up and tell me we need to go over one 40 feet, and one was involved in a project,” said Miller, a commercial real estate agent. “We haven’t had any current property owners say anything about participating. Other than a hotel, I don’t know who’s going onto the second story for a commercial enterprise. The economy drives the market.”

Prince said that she believed each project should be evaluated individually.

“We need to see some sustainable commercial development here so we’re not at the mercy of the bridge,” Prince said.

However, Chaney countered that her experience as a homeowners association president demonstrated that making exceptions for individual projects can lead to “trouble.”

Bradford also reflected the theme when she said that by approving “text amendment” changes to zoning ordinances requested by developers, the town was applying standards unevenly.

Prince said the town should be more proactive with reviewing policies and contracts, pointing out that it’s been eight years since the town had either bid out its parking contract or performed an employee compensation and classification study.

“You draw in a better qualified candidate to begin with and you have a better retention rate because employees could see where exactly we’re going,” Prince said.

Referencing her interest in surfing and other water sports, Chaney said water quality would be an issue she closely follows.

“I want the water quality to be great, I don’t want to worry about getting in the water and hearing about some bad tests by the pier,” Chaney said.

Election day is scheduled for Nov. 7, while early voting in now open at the county offices at 230 Government Center Dr., Suite 34. See early voting schedule here: https://elections.nhcgov.com/voting-registration/one-stop/

Wrightsville Beach Chamber of Commerce president Sue Bulluck said that, of the town’s 2,500 residents, if 700 voters turned out to the polls, “I will be proud.”

Listen to the forum here:

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