It wasn’t easy to do and there have been some bumps along the way, but long-time residents said the 1999 merger of Yaupon Beach and Long Beach was the right move and made Oak Island the growing, desirable community it is today.
On July 1, Oak Island marks the 20th anniversary of its founding with family friendly contests, activities, music, food and fireworks during Beach Day.
Two decades ago, the need for sanitary sewer service in the growing Long Beach commercial corridor was one of the key forces driving talks of a merger between tiny Yaupon Beach, just one square mile, and Long Beach, which stretched across more than eight miles of the island.
There were numerous details to hammer out, not the least of which was the different tax rates, said Reece Simmons, who served on one of the merger committees. Simmons is also a former fire chief and former member of town council.
At first, members of both councils served and over time, the number was pared down to the current five. Simmons also recalled that Caswell Beach was invited to the merger table, but leaders there declined.
“The towns had worked together in the past, and the combination of the staffs became a point of concern for both groups,” said Town Manager David Kelly, who, back then, worked for Yaupon Beach. “After everything was worked out, each department was combined, and the new town was ready to continue the services which had been one of the main topics during the combination. About 10 of the original employees that were part of the merger still work for the town.
“I can say it was nice being an employee working for 800 citizens in one square mile, but it has also been a learning and memorable experience over the past 20 years to see what the town has grown to and continues to become. I have a special place in my heart for this combined town – my mother Dot Kelly was the mayor of Yaupon Beach and became the first Co-Mayor of Oak Island along with Joan Altman.
“My mother will always be part of the town, and her service was commemorated with the naming of Dot Kelly Butterfly Park. It has been my honor and pleasure to start back in 1998 as a building inspector / public works director and to now serve as the manager for such a great town.”
Long-time resident and former council member Dara Royal was among the facilitators who took questions and input from residents during a series of meetings about the merger.
“It has been a work in progress, like any marriage, and there have been more than a few bumps in the road,” Royal said. “Merging the two towns’ councils, committees, staffs, departments, budgets, development ordinances, land use plans, water and sewer systems, and facilities presented unique opportunities as well as serious challenges along the way. We even considered getting a divorce at one point, but we stayed married.
“As a result, I believe we are a stronger community today. And I think we are in a better position to deal with whatever the future may hold when we are working together,” Royal said.
Betty Wallace served as mayor when Oak Island noted its 10th birthday in 2009.
“I have always seen the first decade of our young town as the planning and coordinating decade, with the second decade as a one of explosive expansion and growth,” she said.
“The ‘new bridge,’ now named the Swain’s Cut Bridge, opened a mere 11 months after I took office. I actually got quite a history lesson of not only the townspeople’s efforts to get that second bridge but of the Swain family’s efforts many years ago to donate land for the construction of a second bridge connecting the island to the mainland. Because of the Swain family’s efforts, the town council decided to name the bridge the Swain’s Cut Bridge, not only to honor the family but to preserve that legacy.
“The benefit of having the bridge as a second exit from the island portion of town was shown during Hurricane Florence, as it eased the burden of all the traffic bottleneck over the G.V. Barbee during the evacuations. The DOT was also just this winter able to perform some much needed major repairs to the G.V. Barbee Bridge.
“Just a short six months into our second decade, our newly installed wastewater system was brought online in stages. The wastewater system, in planning since 2003, I believe was certainly the most monumental issue of the town’s first 20 years. The system was fully online within about 12 months of my first term, with most of the major functions working properly. Of course, with any system of that type there were major issues to be resolved, but council worked closely with staff to resolve those as well as possible,” Wallace said.
“Those property owners who used to be restricted on the size of their properties have had some of those restrictions resolved, while at the same time we know there will be no failures of septic tanks failing and polluting our water systems.
“On the other hand, the explosion of construction on the island portion of town will require planning and attention by council as it drains resources and strains infrastructure. The council has taken steps to limit the size of single family residences, as a good compromise between property rights, environmental atmosphere and natural beauty.”
Wallace also recalled the annexations and growth of the town in the mainland area, which offers Oak Island considerable potential in the future.
She also said she was proud Oak Island was able to help sponsor the Salty Dog Park at Bill Smith Park, an amenity not found in most small towns.
“In the 2013 issue of Dog Fancy magazine, Oak Island was named among the top 10 Dog Friendly beaches in the United States,” she said.
“For a small town of only about 8,000 full-time residents only 20 years old, the people of Oak Island can be proud of their little coastal town,” Wallace said. She mentioned amenities such as Bill Smith Park, the Recreation Center and activities organized by staff, the Par 3 at South Harbour, Friday night concerts, splash pad and more than 65 beach access areas with parking.
Wallace said she was especially proud of the many volunteers who serve the town and good causes.
“It’s the people here who love our town and work so hard to keep it beautiful that make Oak Island so incredibly special,” she said.
“Yes, we will experience growing pains for many years to come. The word is getting out about how family friendly our beaches are. In the summer tourist season, we have now 40,000-50,000 tourists. Managing that influx that only continues to grow will present challenges to our officials, staff and emergency services. But, they have handled it in the past. They can handle it in the future,” Wallace said.
“I have stated innumerable times, and I will say it again; there is nowhere, anywhere in the world, that I would rather live at this point in my life than our little Town of Oak Island, N.C. Happy Anniversary!”
The late Kevin Bell was a council member who’s credited with coming up with the name “Oak Island.” Bell is memorialized today with a town-run skateboard park that bears his name.
“We are so excited to be celebrating 20 years of excellence and we look forward to a future that’s even bigger and brighter,” said Mayor Cin Brochure. “We’ve been in a building boom on the island, and we’re starting to see more development on the mainland too. But, as we grow, we’re still keeping our family friendly island vibe. It’s such an exciting time to live or visit here.”
Brochure said she hoped residents and visitors would take advantage of the new complex at Oak Island Pier and all the games and fun of Beach Day on Monday, July 1.