10/22/15, please note: A highly prejudicial and biased email about me circulated among some of you yesterday in which the writer characterized me as a conspiracy theorist who makes false accusations. Nothing could be further from the truth. I go where the facts lead me, without any preconceptions. In the case of the Southern Shores town government, the facts lead to an agenda that has been implemented without being subject to adequate public opinion, much less public approval. I am running for office to put “We, the people”—all of the people—back in our town government. Thank you.
Since September 2014, I have made a point of becoming more informed about Town of Southern Shores (TOSS) practices and policies and participating in town meetings and hearings.
I have attended and spoken at many town council meetings. The TOSS Town Council regularly meets on the first Tuesday evening and the third Tuesday morning of the month, unless it cancels a meeting. There has not been a second meeting of the month since June 2015. That’s four cancellations.
I also have attended meetings of the TOSS Planning Board; TOSS standing committees, such as the Capital Improvement Projects Committee; and the Dare County Board of Commissioners, including its January 2015 Town Hall, during which I spoke about traffic problems in Southern Shores.
I attended and spoke at two big public forums about the traffic: the Oct. 2, 2014 mediated workshop in Southern Shores and the Dec. 15, 2014 joint meeting of the N.C. Dept. of Transportation (N.C. DOT) and the Currituck County commissioners in Currituck, which Mayor Bennett and the TOSS Town Council also attended. Dare county commissioners would have liked to have attended the Currituck meeting, but it conflicted with the board’s regularly scheduled third-Monday meeting of the month. Several Dare County commissioners, including Jack Shea (at-large), who lives in Southern Shores, are keenly interested in TOSS’s traffic problems.
During the past year, I have met with Mayor Tom Bennett, Councilwoman Jodi Hess, Town Manager Peter Rascoe, and Financial Officer Bonnie Swain, in my capacity as a concerned citizen and a representative of a town preservation group. Some of you may have heard my remarks at the League of Women Voters’ candidates forum in Southern Shores on Oct. 14, 2015.
I’ve done my homework and reached across the table to the TOSS mayor and town council to encourage compromise on various issues. What I’ve learned is that compromise is not forthcoming, and Southern Shores voters don’t always know the facts, because they’re not readily available. Here are some for you to consider:
TOWN VISION STATEMENT
FACT: The current town vision statement was adopted March 5, 2013 by former Mayor Hal Denny after Denny and the town council decided at their annual 2013 retreat to move toward a more “public-friendly” town. They seek to open the town to the general public. There was no citizen hearing on this major revision.
CLICK HERE for Resolution 2013-03-01, the current vision statement, which establishes TOSS’s policy on using and acquiring properties for public purposes. (Please note the typo: March 19, 2013 should read Feb. 19, 2013.)
FACT: The vision statement set forth in TOSS’s current Land-Use Plan (2012), which the “general public” statement superseded, was developed after a thorough consideration of resident/property owner opinion.
DISCUSSION: According to the minutes of the Feb. 19, 2013 retreat, Mayor Denny and each council member discussed his or her “vision for the future of the Town regarding planning for future land use, acquisition, and development,” before unanimously approving a new vision and policy statement. The then-Town Council members were Jodi Hess, Larry Lawhon, David Sanders, and George Kowalski. They directed Mr. Rascoe to draft Resolution 2013-03-01, which Mayor Denny later signed. Mr. Rascoe informed me that the only member of the public present at the 2013 retreat was Leo Holland, who now sits on the town council in the seat once held by Mr. Kowalski.
I asked Mrs. Hess at a Jan. 7, 2015 Town Hall meeting with her, Mayor Bennett, and another citizen, what the intent of the revised “general public” vision statement was. She replied: “I don’t remember.” I then asked her to make a motion during a council session to rescind the revised statement and to restore the 2012 Land-Use Plan statement. She said she would look into the matter. To my knowledge, she never did.
It was my intention to bring up the 2013 vision statement at the town council’s Feb. 17, 2015 annual retreat. I am most concerned about the town’s commitment to acquiring land for public uses by “gift, donation, negotiated sale, or eminent domain proceeding.” I was unable to attend the retreat, however, because an ice storm the previous night prevented my mother’s daytime caregiver from arriving at her home, and I had to care for her. The treacherous road, sidewalk, and parking lot conditions discouraged many residents from attending the retreat. In fact, Southern Shores was the only town on the entire Outer Banks to hold a meeting that day, and it decided to do so mere minutes before 9 a.m. The TOSS Town Hall was closed.
This retreat should have been postponed. People acting in good faith would have done so. A meeting is not truly “open” if it is unsafe for people to attend and/or if confirmation of the meeting occurs just minutes before its commencement.
FACT: The FY 2015-16 TOSS budget, adopted June 2, 2015, has total general-fund appropriations (expenses) of $6,692,258, and total general-fund revenues of the same amount.
FACT: Estimated ad valorem property tax revenues constitute 44 percent of all projected 2015-16 revenues.
FACT: The FY 2015-16 TOSS budget has an undesignated fund balance of more than $3 million above the $6.7 million appropriated.
FACT: The capital reserve fund, established in 2007 for the purpose of accumulating monies for capital projects, no longer exists.
FACT: On Oct. 29, 2015, TOSS reported in its e-bulletin that the town received $985,073.00 in occupancy-tax revenue in FY 2013-14. The town only budgeted an estimated $900,000.00 in occupancy-tax revenue that fiscal year, giving it a surplus of $85,073.00.
DISCUSSION: At the League of Women Voters’ forum, Mrs. Hess incorrectly implied that property owners did not attend the town’s budget workshop on April 21, 2015, and offer comment. I was there, as well as other residents, who questioned the need and necessity for certain line items and asked for more detail on others. One resident submitted a list of questions to Mr. Rascoe before the budget workshop, to which the town manager responded publicly.
I addressed the undesignated fund balance, the existence of which seems to render a strict accounting of general-fund appropriations unnecessary. If the town can vote long after a budget has been approved and enacted to move, for example, $205,000 from the ufb to the general fund in order to purchase a house on Skyline Road behind the Pitts Center—as it did this year—why should the town manager/budget officer bother to identify specific appropriations? Discretionary spending would seem to be the trump card.
According to Mr. Rascoe’s report on the proposed operating budget: “The Town maintains a healthy undesignated fund balance (ufb), equal to 45% of [the] projected operating budget [$6.7 million] for the upcoming year.”
After the April budget workshop, I met with Mr. Rascoe and Financial Officer Bonnie Swain to ask more questions about the FY 2015-16 budget and previous budgets. I was particularly interested in the undesignated funds balance and in what had become of the capital reserve fund. Former Mayor Don Smith established the capital reserve fund, with council approval, for the purpose of accumulating revenues for street maintenance and improvements and other capital projects, and former Mayor Hal Denny extended it in 2012.
Ms. Swain advised me that TOSS has an existing policy to maintain a minimum of $1.75 million in the undesignated funds balance, which is to be applied to recovery efforts from a hurricane or other major storm. (FEMA reimbursements can take years, she explained.) She also said that this fund accumulates with excess revenues over expenditures. Recent TOSS budget ordinances only show balanced budgets, however, without any excess revenues. Ms. Swain confirmed that the money over the $1.75 million minimum is a cushion that TOSS has used to balance the budget and could use to offset any shortfall in sales-tax receipts instead of a property-tax increase.
The capital reserve fund, to which Mrs. Hess referred during the Oct. 14 forum, has been de-funded. In the 2015-16 budget, the town directly appropriated $516,000 to the public works department for streets, bridges, and canals. According to Mr. Rascoe, this amount represents the sum of taking 4.04 cents from every 22-cent tax levied on $100 of taxable property value.
The town council rubberstamped the 2015-16 budget that the town manager proposed. The so-called budget hearing in June 2015 was strictly pro forma.
FACT: The TOSS Town Council has raised property tax rates three times in the past six years: from 0.0975 to 0.14 (2009 to 2010); 0.14 to 0.16 (2011 to 2012); and 0.16 to 0.22 (2012 to 2013).
DISCUSSION: The tax rate increase from 2009 to 2010 enabled a near-doubling of the budget, from $3,409,150 in FY 2009-10 to $6,404,650, and an increase of capital reserve fund revenues to $1 million. Former Mayor Denny accomplished this by asking for Town Manager Charles B. Read Jr.’s resignation in February 2010 and installing Police Chief David Kole as interim town manager. Chief Kole ostensibly prepared the FY 2010-11 budget, but did not actually submit it to the town council in June 2010; newly hired Town Manager Peter Rascoe handled that task. Jodi Hess was on the town council at this time.
That the 2012-13 rate increase was “revenue neutral” after the general property value reappraisal, which resulted in many properties being devalued, does not alter the fact that the rate went up, and some residents paid (and continue to pay) more total town tax. The town was not required by state law to raise the rate; in fact, it could have lowered it.
FACT: The mid-Currituck County Bridge is scheduled to be funded in North Carolina’s FY 2019 budget. Construction is estimated to take four years.
DISCUSSION: The proposed 7-mile-long toll bridge connecting the Currituck mainland (in Aydlett) with Corolla is one of many projects in development under the 2016-2025 State Transportation Improvement Program (STIP). At the December 2014 meeting in Currituck County, Jerry Jennings, the N.C. DOT engineer for our division, estimated that the bridge would be constructed within the next seven to 10 years (between 2022-2025). Most current estimates call for a construction time of four years. Until construction is under way, however, there are no guarantees that the bridge will be built.
FACT: The cut-through traffic problem in Southern Shores, along South Dogwood Trail to East Dogwood Trail to Hickory Trail and into the dunes, did not exist in the late 1990s. The problem emerged in 2003-2005 and markedly escalated with the advent of Global Positioning Systems in vehicles.
DISCUSSION: I never would have bought my house on Hickory Trail if there had been a known cut-through traffic problem. I lived on South Dogwood Trail in 1996-97 and bought my house in summer 1998. The traffic vexing TOSS in the late 1990s was only on Hwy. 12. In early 1998, when I spoke at a public hearing in Aydlett about northern Outer Banks traffic and the need for a mid-Currituck County bridge, I keyed on the suffocating traffic on Hwy. 12. I was the only person to testify in support of the bridge.
Online traffic directors such as MapQuest, along with word of mouth, may have created the cut-through problem, but GPS devices have elevated it to crisis status. Residents surveyed during preparation of the 2012 Land-Use Plan asked for a prohibition of cut-through traffic. In the years since their request, town officials either have not tried or have not figured out how to enlist the help of N.C. DOT, Dare and Currituck counties, and neighboring towns in alleviating this crisis.
FACT: With the exception of Highway 12 and private roads in Mallard Cove and on Fairway Drive, the roads in Southern Shores are owned by the town.
FACT: Because TOSS owns the roads, it is not required to adhere to N.C. DOT construction standards in its street maintenance and improvements. Its application of such standards/requirements is strictly voluntary.
FACT: Every year TOSS applies for, and receives, Powell Bill money from the N.C. DOT’s Highway Fund for local road maintenance and construction, traffic-control devices, and other specific local purposes. This money is distributed statewide to qualifying municipalities, as specified in N.C. General Statutes 136-41.1 et seq.
DISCUSSION: The Powell Bill allocation given to each qualifying municipality is based on the town’s relative population (75 percent) and relative non-state system local street mileage (25 percent). TOSS reported an estimated population of 2846 residents in 2014 and 2864 residents in 2015, with local street mileage of 37.36. In 2014, its Powell grant was $119,877.52; in 2015, it was $119,567.24. The grant is distributed in two checks of equal amounts; one is sent out in January and the other in October.
FACT: Construction of multi-use paths in town has never been a “priority” of residents.
DISCUSSION: In the town’s two land-use plans of the 1980s, policy 37, out of 39 policies, was: “The town will study the feasibility of constructing bicycle, walking, jogging paths.” Such a study was never done.
In subsequent land-use plans, the town continued to bring up sidewalks and multi-use paths, as one of many subjects that it could develop into policy. Residents never assigned high priority to them. In the most recent land-use plan (2012), property owners who participated in a public workshop rated the expansion of sidewalks seventh in priority behind:
- Maintain NC 12 as a two-lane highway and do not widen neighborhood streets.
- Formalize, budget and fund a Town Road Maintenance Plan and program.
- Prohibit new neighborhood cut-through roads and limit tourist cut through with no left turns and other controls.
- Build new bridge as soon as possible.
- Prevent access through the residential area to the commercial area at Skyline Road.
- Underground utilities.
BICYCLE AND PEDESTRIAN PLAN
FACTS: TOSS did not survey town residents and property owners about their interest in having a multi-use path system before it applied for a grant from N.C. DOT to develop a comprehensive bicycle and pedestrian plan. In 2013, TOSS received a $28,000 matching grant from N.C. DOT for this purpose. National consultant Alta Planning + Design submitted the plan to TOSS in October 2014. It appears from Alta’s data that about 6 percent of Southern Shores residents participated in the public-comment period.
DISCUSSION: TOSS did not hold a public hearing, nor did it otherwise survey town citizens, about a bicycle and pedestrian plan before applying for the N.C. DOT grant. Alta Planning + Design’s plan for Southern Shores is one-size-fits-all: None of the safety, community access, physical activity, and health-impact data cited in support of the plan pertain to Southern Shores. Alta showed little regard for, or understanding of, the Southern Shores ecosystem, its balance and fragility, and the town’s unique character.
Alta Planning held two public workshops at the Pitts Center and set up a website, for the purpose of informing residents/property owners about the multi-use system plan and collecting “public input on existing conditions.” Participants responded to results-oriented questions such as “How do you most often use trails?” and “What should be the most important goals and outcomes of this plan?” About 25 people attended the February 2014 workshop and only a handful went to the daytime August workshop. The website questionnaire clearly relied on self-reporting by people interested in multi-use paths. Alta claimed that 300 local “residents, property owners, employees, and visitors contributed” to “public input.” One of the graphs in its plan shows, however, that only about 175 of them were alleged Southern Shores residents. This would be about 6 percent of the town population.
Alta’s methodology for soliciting public opinion regarding the desirability and need for a connected multi-use path system in Southern Shores was grossly inadequate.
DARE COUNTY TRANSPORTATION PLAN
FACT: The Dare County Comprehensive Transportation Plan (CTP) recommended multi-use paths on South and East Dogwood Trails. These streets were not the subject of any questions asked of the 2,000 people who participated in a public survey about the plan.
DISCUSSION: According to Project Engineer Kerry Morrow, the CTP “is a long-range, multi-modal transportation plan that covers transportation needs through 2040.” The plan is only a “vision” for the future, but it is a strongly suggestive one.
No Southern Shores residents or property owners were surveyed about the desirability of multi-use trails on South and East Dogwood Trails before these trail routes were included in the CTP. They became part of the plan at the suggestion of the TOSS Planning Director. Much public protest occurred after TOSS citizens learned about the multi-use path recommendations. Nonetheless, TOSS approved the CTP, as it pertained to Southern Shores, on Nov. 18, 2014.
FACT: Ever since the first land-use plan, the town has sought to preserve the character and natural environment of Southern Shores, especially the maritime forest areas. In furtherance of this goal, it has expressed an interest in “minimizing” clear-cutting.
DISCUSSION: The town has long had on its radar the enactment of an anti-clear-cutting policy or ordinance. The No. 1 “visioning” of the 2012 Land-Use Plan workshop participants was: “Establish a plan for maintaining and enhancing natural vegetation and fauna and retain[ing] habitat, and a policy that prohibits clear-cutting.”
There is ample precedent in the United States for a clear-cutting ordinance that would protect the tree canopy and preserve the character and aesthetic appeal of the town’s wooded areas. Southern Shores’ property values and quality of life also depend largely on preservation of trees and other vegetation.
On Oct. 19, 2015, the TOSS Planning Board voted, 3-2, to disapprove a clear-cutting ordinance proposed by the Southern Shores Civic Assn. because it lacked specificity and clarity. Three of the board members, including the chairman, expressed an interest in working with the SSCA to draft a workable ordinance.
Posted Oct. 20, 2015