Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

April 12, 2004. At the Ocracoke Planning Board.

At the south end of the Outer Banks is the town of Ocracoke, a square mile at the tail end of a fifteen-mile island, the rest of which is protected national seashore. At one end the island is reached by a forty-minute ferry ride from Hatteras. At the other end it is reached by a two-hour ride ferry to the mainland. Ocracoke is a bustling tourist town even in April, but its isolation is a dominant influence.

Ocracoke began life as a fishing village, settled by the Midgetts, the Howards, and other families whose names are now on streets, businesses, and public buildings. For decades no one has made a living fishing, though, unless you count taking outsiders on well-

equipped boats for a day of deep sea fishing. Everything here depends on the tourists now. Even the non-tourist jobs – at the school, the medical center, or the library – would go if the tourists went.

I spent an afternoon wandering through the town. Visited a craft shop selling truly lovely things that I resisted buying. Paid my respects to the Ocracoke Lighthouse, still operated by the Coast Guard. Wandered into a grocery store to see what they sold and read the notices on the board. One was for a meeting of the Planning Board the next night, with a mile-long agenda on code enforcement, zoning, impervious surface, development controls, and a host of other hot topics, at least to a planning and land use geek like me.

Next night, after a 62-mile bike ride on which I got thoroughly drenched in a sudden downpour, I made my way to the

meeting. Everyone there knew each other. The crowd was mixed – grizzled old geezers with huge bellies hanging out of their jeans and t-shirts, young couples looking angry and determined, a fine-featured grey-haired woman in classic New England garb, recent retirees. Everyone was white. I had seen a few Hispanics working in Ocracoke, but they weren’t at this meeting.

I sat at a small table on the side of the room with Taffy and Herman, a couple who had recently retired to New Bern, North Carolina from Boston. They own a house in Ocracoke that they use in winter and rent out in summer, and have been on and off the island for ten years or so. I introduced myself as an interloper, a tourist curious about what the place is really like. They laughed, and said this meeting would be a great way to find out. Herman filled me in on useful details as the meeting proceeded.

It opened with a salvo fired by one of the board members, Kirby, at the chair, Wayne. Kirby is a big man with a bushy white beard and mutton chop sideburns. He was furious because Wayne had sent a survey to the other board members for comment, but not to him. He accused Wayne of deliberately excluding the three “true locals” from the board’s deliberations by only seeking the input of the others. He didn’t trust Wayne at all and felt he should resign as chair of the board. A few men in the audience, young and old, chimed in with boisterous cries of “hear, hear!”

Wayne, a clean-cut man of fifty or so in a business shirt, defended himself by explaining that he just wanted some feedback on a draft survey that they had decided not to use anyway, and he’d sent it to all the board members with email addresses as a quick way to get

survey. Vince, on Jerry’s other side, snapped that he couldn’t be bothered reading all theinput. Jerry, a hefty man in a t-shirt and baseball cap at Kirby’s left, jumped in to object that he had email and he hadn’t gotten the email he got anyway, he had work to do. Herman whispered to me that Jerry was Jerry Midgett of the Ocracoke Midgetts – clearly one of the “true locals.” Taffy sputtered about Wayne’s exclusive use of email, didn’t he know he could use the postal service to deliver things to those without email, and for only thirty seven cents?

Up in front another board member, a slim woman dressed in “office casual” called B.J., tried to placate Jerry by saying the board members didn't realize he had email. Wayne angrily insisted that Jerry hadn’t put it on the contact list they had circulated, and he could prove it, he had the original list. Members of the public – the audience – repeated the charges that Wayne didn’t care about the true locals, and called again for him to step down. Wayne pounded the gavel,

said this wasn’t the purpose of the meeting, and threatened to adjourn at once. He looked to the two sheriffs at the back to maintain order, but they blandly didn't meet his eyes. How long had their families been in Ocracoke?

The meeting moved on to its agenda, at which the tone cooled down and some of the public interest dried up. On the surface, the issue is the enforcement of the Hyde County development ordinance, which has been lax to non-existent. Underneath this issue, however, are the growing pains of a town that has gone from a remote fishing village whose residents had all been there for as long as anyone could remember, to a tourist destination, a haven for outsiders seeking a quiet life by the sea, a retirement community, and a place to build new “cottages” on the beach with twelve bedrooms, twelve baths, and matching demands for water, septic, and parking. The true locals who once were the community are overwhelmed by the new development, outnumbered by the newcomers, and not versed in the language and tools used to manage the kind of community they have become. They feel shunted aside, left out of their own home.

The tools are standard planning ones – state requirements for septic, county building codes, setback restrictions, impervious surface ratios, parking requirements, height limits. As the meeting progressed, Wayne, B.J., and Leonard, a neatly dressed elderly board member, showed their fluency in the language of land use controls as they spun out options in dialogue with the state planner and county inspectors assisting the board. Kirby, Jerry, and Vince sat in stony-faced silence. Occasionally B.J. encouraged their input, but they limited themselves to “yes” or “that’s okay.”

Herman provided a bit more background. Ocracoke is in Hyde County, whose seat is on the mainland in the town of Swan Quarter. The mainland is a farming area, and very poor. With the new tourist development Ocracoke property values have skyrocketed, so it provides the lion’s share of the county revenue. Ocracoke residents have suggested seceding from Hyde County and joining neighboring Dare County, where they would not be the major source of funds for the local budget. But Hyde County needs Ocracoke’s taxes, without them they would be unable to provide any services to the needy mainland communities. Ocracoke feels poorly represented on the County Commission, and poorly served by the County staff, all of whom are based in Swan Quarter, a five hour round trip just for a simple meeting.

Making matters worse, the county just did a property reassessment, the first in eight years. Ocracoke property taxes shot up as a result – a windfall for Hyde County but a disaster for the town residents, especially the true locals who are not investors in local real

estate. They want their children to be able to live there as their families have for generations, but see themselves unable to keep up with the costs of owning their own homes. They blame the county for waiting eight years to reassess, but that’s just a red herring; if it had reassessed every year their taxes would have risen every one of those eight years and they would have paid more overall. The taxes don’t hurt the newcomers as much; they bought into an expensive community and knew what they were facing, but local incomes have not risen to keep pace.

The newcomers in the town focus on the environmental problems caused by the community’s rapid development – water problems, septic problems, parking problems. They want tighter controls to curb further development, and they want effective enforcement of the controls they already have. The true locals just don’t want change – but if things have to

change, they want to be able to get their share of the benefits. Any talk of improved enforcement means they won’t be able to do in the future what many newcomers already did in the years of lax enforcement. So they see the talk of enforcement and control as an effort to keep the “real” Ocracokers from getting access to what outsiders already have.

Without better controls, everyone will be harmed by the flood of development. With better control, locals will feel they are being treated unfairly and their resentment of the newcomers will grow steadily. Either way, property values will continue to rise, property taxes will continue to rise, and increasingly only the wealthy or speculators gambling on steady increases for years to come will be able to afford Ocracoke. So either way the small fishing village that Ocracoke once was will further erode and the true locals will find their community has disappeared around them.

The meeting had no solutions, of course. They agreed that the county should hire someone with specific responsibility for implementation and enforcement of the development ordinance. And they talked about details. Whether they should tighten the impervious surface limits - no consensus. Whether they should inventory all properties built since the ordinance went into effect to determine exactly who is out of compliance and how - too much work and no one to do it. Whether to set a maximum ratio of home size to lot size – no agreement that this was worth exploring. They couldn’t talk about the underlying problems, no one has solutions to offer. It’s not clear that there are any.

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