By their comments, applause and show of hands, Oak Island residents at Tuesday’s meeting demonstrated they – like town council – are about evenly divided over the question of implementing paid beach parking.

After rescinding a vote to negotiate a paid parking plan March 2, council held an open forum Tuesday. Council members made no decision, but they got an earful from folks on both sides of the issue.

Before opening the floor to comments, Council Member Jeff Winecoff apologized for the way the town handled the previous vote to work with NC Parking Co.

“We dropped the ball,” he said. “We … didn’t take the time to do things right.”

Winecoff said he believed it was too late to establish a system for the upcoming tourist season but insisted there were good reasons to get a better handle on parking. Had the fire at Ocean Crest Motel happened in the summer, for example, improper parking could have hampered access to the scene by multiple fire trucks, he said.

Council members Charlie Blalock and Sheila Bell said they were against paid parking and continued to be. Council Member Loman Scott, addressing opponents of a paid system, said “I heard you. Please don’t call.”

Council Member John Bach said the town’s approach was flawed, but ultimately, some sort of paid parking system needs to and will happen. He said Oak

Island could not “wish away” issues with safety and traffic management. “At some point, we’re going to have to take on the problem.”

Accommodating residents, their guests, contractors and others who park in the right of way is part of the larger equation, Winecoff said. One possibility is to issue guest passes for temporary use if and when the town restricts right of way parking.

Currently, drivers may park in town rights of way for up to 72 hours without the permission of the adjacent property owner.

Council’s chamber was packed, with standing room only. Many speakers reiterated the themes that have dominated the paid parking debate for years: it’s needed for revenue for beach renourishment and safety, or it’s not needed because it’s hostile to a friendly, family atmosphere.

One resident noted that Holden Beach and Sunset Beach offer free parking, and said she feared business would migrate there if Oak Island had paid parking.

A local property owner said he thought some sort of paid system would help recoup money from day trippers from St. James and elsewhere.

Resident Becky Thomas said she believed locals were paying enough in taxes and should not be burdened with parking fees.

Resident Deb Leonard said the town should restrict parking in the right of way and charge for beach parking.

Resident Mike Pratt said he was pleased that council was taking a step back. Paid parking, he suggested, should be seasonal, near the beach, exempt residents from fees, put revenue toward the beach and include signage to that effect, so visitors would understand why they were being charged.

Resident Terry Dunn said he saw no reason not to charge non-residents for beach parking.

Resident Bettie Thorne suggested starting out by charging non-residents to park at certain areas, such as the lots at the pier, town cabana and Eastern Channel at The Point.

Resident Niki Cutler, owner of a trash cart rollout service, asked for the opportunity to submit a proposal for paid parking that she said would “most satisfy the residents, guests and Town of Oak Island.”

At least two speakers called for referendum on the question. Resident Jim Aroner said he’d like to see additional “town decal-only” spaces. Of the town’s roughly 1,100 first and second-row spaces, about 200 are reserved for residents and property owners.

Resident Dara Royal said there were actions the town could take to improve parking and safety, but they should not include a paid system. She suggested making the spaces large enough to accommodate modern vehicles, grading and properly maintaining the lots and properly designing the lots Oak Island already has.

“You can’t assign a dollar value to good will,” she said. The value of the quality of life at Oak Island is priceless and should not be for sale, Royal said.

Other speakers questioned how to handle parking during special events, handicap spaces and allocating spots for town-decal only spots. Town Manager David Kelly noted the town has issued 7,000 town decals, but there are only 200 such spaces.

Winecoff said any plan that did not allow free parking for residents would be a deal-breaker for him. He repeated council’s previous decree that profits should go strictly to beach projects.

Council adjourned without any specific action on the question

Other business

Council was split on a resolution opposing potential changes to the state Alcoholic Beverage Control system. Bills before the Legislature could, in one case, move toward privatization and in another, remove some sales restrictions but force combination of multiple ABC districts where several exist in one county.

Willie Williams of the local ABC Board asked council to support a resolution opposing privatization and supporting the current system of local control of the ABC boards. Scott and Bach said they wanted more information. The motion to support the resolution passed 3-2, with Scott and Bach opposed.

Bell mentioned that Oak Island’s net profits from ABC operations were about $256,000 a year.

Council also approved a contract not to exceed $132,000 for new LED lighting for the softball complex at Middleton Park.