EMERALD ISLE — Five of the six candidates vying for three seats on the town commission answered questions on a variety of issues, including traffic, growth and development, ocean safety, taxes and environmental protection Monday night during an election forum.
The event, sponsored by the Carteret County League of Women Voters, was in the commissioners’ meeting room beside the police station on Highway 58.
Joe Flowers was absent. Those who participated in the event, held a few weeks before the Tuesday, Nov. 5 election, were incumbents Steve Finch, Floyd Messer and Jim Normile and challengers Pat Lister and Jordan Madorsky.
Questions from the audience were posed by the Rev. Sally White, a CCLWV member and pastor of the Unitarian Coastal Fellowship in Morehead City.
Candidates each were given one minute to respond to questions.
In response to a question about whether the town should push for a third bridge – somewhere in the middle of Bogue Banks – to alleviate traffic congestion caused by what everyone agrees is the traffic bottleneck in the western part of town near the high-rise bridge, Mr. Finch said the state Department of Transportation had suggested it for years.
But, he said, “the likelihood doesn’t look good. I’m afraid we won’t see it. But I think it could be helpful.”
Mr. Madorsky agreed, in part because property owners elsewhere on the island will oppose it and also because of the nature of an already highly-developed island.
One often mentioned location on the island is Indian Beach, he said, but that part of the island is very narrow and very developed.
Mr. Messer said he had long advocated for a third bridge, but also didn’t expect it to happen. As for changes in Emerald Isle, he said he wouldn’t favor widening the high-rise bridge or widening Highway 58.
Mr. Madorsky said he favored widening the high-rise bridge.
Mr. Normile said he wouldn’t advocate for another bridge, partly because it would almost surely require the state to condemn and take private property.
Mr. Lister said he didn’t think it’s a town board of commissioners issue, although it would alleviate congestion in town.
All the candidates agreed that while Emerald Isle is largely developed, growth will continue.
The key, Mr. Madorsky said, is to plan ahead by continuing to look down the road and take steps to accommodate it as best possible.
Mr. Messer agreed.
The town, he said, must continue to take steps to make sure services and infrastructure are funded well enough to “keep up with the growth.”
Mr. Normile agreed the town will continue to see development, although there are relatively few lots still available, around 900.
But, he said, “supply and demand” largely determines what will happen.
Mr. Finch agreed the growth will continue, but he hopes at a slower pace, and Mr. Lister said he agreed the town needs to think ahead and be prepared for what happens.
All of the candidates said they oppose the town getting involved in a public events center, as it did a couple of years ago until deciding, after resident opposition, to sell the land they had bought on Islander Drive for that purpose.
“We have an events center,” Mr. Madorsky said. “It’s the ocean, and it performs every day.”
Mr. Normile said “the people are not in favor of it.”
Mr. Lister, however, said he would maybe like to see an outdoor event center of some kind, maybe a greenspace where concerts could be held.
The candidates also generally agreed the town has done a good job handling storm water runoff even after Hurricane Florence, which last September flooded many parts of town, especially off Coast Guard Road.
There wasn’t much the town could do about that at the time, Mr. Normile said, because more than 30 inches of rain fell in about 36 hours, overwhelming the drainage system.
But the town learned, he said, and brought in rental pumps and generators early enough to have helped if Hurricane Dorian last month had caused flooding.
Mr. Finch said the town does need to continually examine storm water runoff issues, particularly in relation to water quality impacts.
Officials need to make sure there isn’t too much fill placed on lots, and that too much vegetation isn’t removed, he said.
Several mentioned the town purchased 30 acres of land behind the old town hall, along Archers Creek, to keep it from being developed as condos and to serve as a buffer for the creek, which connects to Bogue Sound.
Mr. Madorsky said he doesn’t want to see that property cleared, so it can fulfill that purpose.
“We need to keep Emerald Isle ‘green around the edges,’” he said. “That’s our identity and our strength.”
The town has said it will leave the land mostly natural, but will maybe put a ballpark in the middle, and a dog park.
All of the candidates also agreed the town should continue to improve public access to the beach.
They also touched, in response to a question, on the somewhat controversial issue of providing parking spaces for golf carts.
Mr. Madorsky, for example, said he thinks the town should work with private property owners to see if some would be willing to lease space for the carts instead of having the town embark on a major program to create them.
They also agreed the town needs to continue its efforts to increase public awareness of the dangers of the ocean in the wake of drownings in recent summers.
Mr. Madorsky supported expanding lifeguard service if possible, but noted that ultimately it is up to ocean-goers to take responsibility for their own safety.
Mr. Normile said continued public education efforts are essential, noting that in essence, the town must change the mindset of many people who come to the beach and head straight into the water without knowing or paying attention to the risks or warning flags.
He didn’t discount the need to improve or expand lifeguard service, but said the town needs to first identify where the problems are and what can be done to affect them.
Mr. Finch noted that education efforts can’t focus solely on Emerald Isle, since visitors come from all over the country.
“We need to get everyone involved,” he said. “I don’t want to see one more drowning in Emerald Isle.”
All also agreed the town needs to keep its tax rate low.
Mr. Messer said the town has managed to do that so far through a rigorous budget process and by sticking to those budgets once they are adopted.
He praised town employees for getting good information about priority needs to the commissioners.
Mr. Finch said that has continued since Matt Zapp earlier this year replaced longtime manager Frank Rush; Mr. Zapp proposed, and commissioners approved, a plan to save hundreds of thousands of dollars by leasing new town vehicles instead of buying them.
Mr. Normile also pointed out that the town will soon cut costs by having town board meeting agendas on laptop computers for commissioners instead of printing hundreds and hundreds of pages each month.
Mr. Lister agreed the town has done a good job and that officials must continue and increase efforts to engage with the public.
In closing statements, candidates pledged to do their best to keep Emerald Isle a great beach town with a family atmosphere and to improve it.
Mr. Normile said he wants to push for broadband internet.
Mr. Messer said past boards – he has served four terms – have done a good job for the people.
“A lot of good things are going to happen in Emerald Isle,” he said.
Mr. Madorsky stressed the importance of the town’s motto, “Nice Matters,” and said he hoped to bring a different perspective to discussions.
Mr. Lister said he got into the race because he wasn’t sure anyone was going to file to run against the three incumbents.
He said he doesn’t think the town necessarily needs to do anything differently, but would support continued efforts for improvements.
Mr. Finch said that if reelected, he’d continue to work with others on the board to accomplish the town’s goals.
He said he has loved the town since he first came it to decades ago, and doesn’t plan to ever leave.
Contact Brad Rich at 252-864-1532; email Brad@thenewstimes.com; or follow on Twitter @brichccnt.