BEAUFORT — Town commissioners on Monday heard arguments from both those who hope to see a new proposal for a bridge crossing over to the Beaufort-Morehead City causeway, and those who want to see the current plan go into effect as soon as possible.
The bridge has been decades in the planning, but the N.C. Department of Transportation was expected to start the construction phase of the Gallants Channel bridge and roadway project. The NCDOT wants to construct a bridge with a height of 65 feet stretching from the causeway to a connector road feeding into Olga Road north of Beaufort. The contract award was schedule for Aug. 1 of this year and work was expected to begin by now.
However, the U.S. Coast Guard has not signed off on a permit related to the navigational opening for marine vessels. The Coast Guard has issued an “informal” opinion that the structure should have a clearance height across the channel of 77 feet – 12 feet more than NCDOT’s design.
It’s that opening that some residents and people connected with boat businesses are concerned with. Some would like to see the height increased or even a drawbridge put in so ships with masts exceeding 65 feet can get to the Harbor of Refuge in Town Creek as well as businesses north of the bridge, including those at the Jarrett Bay Marine Industrial Park north of town on the Intracoastal Waterway. The fixed-span Core Creek bridge stops those tall vessels from traveling any further north on the ICW.
Doug Doubleday, a mariner who also works at Beaufort Docks, was the first to speak on the topic. Mr. Doubleday has gone before the board on several occasions concerning problems he has with the bridge proposal. In October he brought up another marine-related issue – the published clearance of power lines that run adjacent to the Grayden Paul Bridge. The October newsletter listed the clearance at 77 feet, while other documents, including NOAA navigation charts, give an authorized clearance of 87 feet.
He expected to get some feedback from his comments from commissioners, but that never happened. He questioned whether this was because he has pushed for a bridge that would allow more boats through to area businesses.
He said NCDOT’s proposal was not a “done deal” and asked the board to consider the impact of the decision on future generations.
Dew Forbes, a vice president at Jarrett Bay Boatworks, said the company was in no way against a new bridge, but it is against a fixed-span bridge. Mr. Forbes said if the businesses in the marine park, as well as Parker Boats, lose tall-masted ships, they will also see the business from small- and medium-sized jobs go elsewhere.
And losing that business, he said, could have an $8 million impact on the county.
In response to a question from Commissioner Robert Campbell, Mr. Forbes said about 10 percent of business at the park consisted of boats with masts greater than 65 feet. He also said most of those currently in the park would be able to get under a 77-foot bridge.
Capt. Horatio Sinbad also commented on the bridge. “I can’t believe the leaders of this town can’t see the negative impact of that bridge where the DOT wants to put it,” Capt. Sinbad said. He said it would be like a “Great Wall of China” for boat traffic.
He urged for a delay in the project so it could be considered further. “Is Beaufort worth the wait? Well I think it is,” he said.
Bucky Oliver, a town resident and developer, asked the board to continue to urge the Coast Guard to make a decision on the bridge.
In response to questions from Commissioner Charles McDonald, Mr. Oliver said a new bridge would have a tremendous impact on most businesses in the area. “The entire tourism industry will flourish under well-planned growth,” he said.
However, he said, if the project continues to get delayed, funding for the bridge could go elsewhere.
Mr. McDonald said he hadn’t seen anything that would indicate the project would be lost if delayed.
Tom Steepy, a former county commissioner and mayor of Beaufort, said this project has been at the top of the list in this area since 1994. “It still is,” he said.
When he was mayor, he continued, the town proposed bridges with heights of 35 and 45 feet with a draw, but NCDOT now wants fixed bridges on the ICW.
Now, he said, the town is left with a bridge that’s going on 60 years and there are few options left.
Joey McClure, the co-owner of Clawson’s and Aqua restaurant, said the traffic caused by the current bridge is “a nightmare” that causes delays for employees, customers and repair workers. Those delays make it difficult for people to come over to Beaufort quickly for lunch. “I certainly thought by now we would have something built,” he said.
Claire McCune said that as a young Beaufort resident, she would like to see the continued economic viability of the town. The bridge, she said, would be vital to that, and would take the heavy traffic out of the downtown area so it could become more welcoming to visitors.
Dan Kelly, a resident who just joined the town’s planning board, said he could see both sides of the arguments and urged reason. Mr. Kelly said he was a “sense of urgency guy” but understood not taking action until the project was right.
“Don’t say ‘no’ too quickly, don’t say yes too quickly,” he said.
Orange Street resident Dick DeButts said without the bridge, other businesses, such as the marinas and a hotel planned for Cedar Street, would never happen. To solve the tall ships problem, he suggested setting up a remote business site on Radio Island to deal with the boats that couldn’t fit under the 65-foot span.
Commissioners mostly refrained from discussing the bridge during the public comment section, but came back to it during the end of the meeting.
Commissioner Ann Carter said “All is not rosy” with the project, and that its primary purpose is to serve the N.C. Port of Morehead City.
And Commissioner Marianna Hollinshed said she has read “tons of paperwork” over the years from people opposed to the current project, including Mr. Doubleday and Nelson Owens, and has tried to do her own due diligence. However she said she believes a delay will do more harm to the town than good.
If the project is stopped, she said, there’s no guarantee the town will get anything.
But if it moves forward, the town would have less traffic and could work on making improvements. “We might be able to go to a quieter, more village-like town,” she said.
“Trying to tell me Beaufort will be irreparably harmed hasn’t convinced me.”
Mayor Richard Stanley, who called time on some people for talking too long, said he did so to keep the meeting moving. “We’ve got business to do and I hope everyone understands that,” he said.
Contact Ben Hogwood at 252-726-7081, ext. 232; email firstname.lastname@example.org; or follow on Twitter @benccnt.