Candidates for elected office stood before a crowded Oak Island Town Hall recently to address the public during a forum organized and run by the Lower Cape Fear League of Women Voters and moderated by Jon Evans of WECT-TV6.
On November 5, voters will elect a mayor to a two-year term and three Town Council members to four-year terms. Starting with the 2021 election, the mayor’s term will switch to four years.
Ken Thomas is challenging incumbent Cin Brochure for mayor. Brochure is seeking her third term.
Three council seats open this fall are held by incumbents Sheila Mansfield Bell, Charlie Blalock and Jeff Winecoff who have all filed for re-election. Also running are Mike Defeo, Dara Royal and Niki Cutler. Seats held by council members John Bach and Loman Scott are not up for election until 2021.
Mayor Brochure began by saying she valued consensus building, keeping a level head and keeping meetings orderly and productive. She listed town priorities as improvements to streets, especially side streets. The town should also remain focused on improving beaches, finding sand and, at some point, improving the recreation center.
Brochure said she had dealt with three hurricanes in the past four years and believed it was important to be available to staff and the public. Town employees, she said, have performed well during emergencies and start preparations a week before a storm hits.
Brochure, Thomas and every council candidate stated opposition to paid beach parking, although Blalock said he could support it if someone “would show me the money.” One issue is that some visitors are willing to pay the $50 fine if they are caught parking in “resident only” beach spaces, Brochure said. The mayor praised the town’s staff for adding more parking spaces and making existing ones more orderly.
Oak Island will make the last payments on the Town Hall, Police Department and a fire station next year, amounting to about $1.6-million annually. Brochure said the council had no definite plans for that money and would approach the question of finances conservatively. Rebuilding the recreation center could be an option, she said.
Brochure said the town is “picking its battles” with code enforcement in street rights of way, and taking a slow approach. She said she has heard complaints that staff was being too tough on some homeowners. The mayor said it was a tough battle to obtain grants for rebuilding the Oak Island Pier but the results are self-evident and the location is popular.
Thomas spoke and said the mayor should be a leader with transparency. His idea of the job includes getting the message out, interacting with residents and making sure they understand the issues.
Thomas also said that, if elected, he would initiate monthly meetings where residents could ask anything of the mayor or town staff.
He said the town was in pretty good shape as far as projects but he’d like to see more work on the recreation center, stormwater and street radiuses.
Thomas said the town failed some residents after Hurricane Florence by not allowing them to return to retrieve medicines, food and toiletries.
On parking, Thomas called for the town to build an additional 400 spaces and he repeated the drumbeat against paid beach parking. Once the building debt is paid off, Thomas said he wanted the town to pay more attention to other debts. He said Oak Island’s per capita debt was higher than any other N.C. beach community.
Thomas said he was in favor of the pier but not in favor of the town running it and the events center, which he called “money pits.” He also does not favor town employees selling beer, due to potential liability.
Thomas and Brochure agreed that solving the problem of affordable housing would be difficult because of the relatively high value of land, even on the mainland side of town.
Bell listed her top priorities as repairing side streets, continuing services such as yard debris collection, and paying for beach renourishment. She said the town has a plan for infrastructure improvements, but acknowledged that situations can change. She noted that she did not want to see residents of the mainland side driving decisions about what to do on the island. She called for better parking but reiterated opposition to paid parking. She also said she’d like to see more handicap access parking.
Bell said there were good reasons for restricting access to the island after Hurricane Florence, in part because roads were blocked and every business was closed, and said all storms are different.
Bell stated she would support working on the recreation center but beach improvements were the top of her spending list. The town may need to establish assessment districts to pay for some beach work. The fees would be higher closer to the ocean.
Bell noted the town passed a stronger tree protection ordinance recently. She said the tree canopy was important, but so are the rights of property owners to build a home. She said she was thoroughly familiar with the town budget and wanted to keep the tax rate low and affordable.
Blalock spoke next. His top priorities are to improve communications between council and the town, help people find answers to questions, enforce restrictions in the right of way and find ways to pay for beach renourishment.
On growth, he agreed that the town has a plan but added he would like to see better cooperation between the town and the state and federal governments.
Blalock said the town had to put public safety first during storms and said he wanted people to come back when it was safe, but there needed to be controls.
Like the other candidates, Blalock said he opposed paid beach parking, in part because it’s a “logistical nightmare,” with small lots at street ends.
Stormwater is a big capital need, Blalock stated. Portions of the old system that functioned were damaged during construction of the sewer expansion. These should be repaired, he said.
Blalock said he loved oak trees and did not care for palms. The town’s tree requirements sometimes conflict with the
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state’s requirements for stormwater infiltration systems. Owners who replant should use native species, he stated.
The town’s budget is “a good road map,” said Blalock, adding that he takes guidance from his wife who is an accountant, as well as the town manager, staff and Winecoff.
Cutler said she wanted to see the town focus more on residents than tourists. Public Works needs better equipment and the roads need fixing. She also said she opposed the town running a restaurant and a bar, which should be leased to private interests.
On growth, Cutler said she would follow the plan the town has, keep the rules consistent and work to be a leader among coastal N.C. towns.
Cutler said that e-entry after Florence wasn’t handled well, that Council should have a plan that works, and people should not feel they have to ride out a storm because they won’t be able to return quickly.
Cutler said the parking decal system for residents and property owners could be a part of the re-entry system. She called for the town to create additional resident-only spaces.
Yard debris collection and better equipment for Public Works are needed, Cutler stated. The town should also repair and rebuild the rec center. She said the town should re-examine any rules - such as for driveways - that would harm tree protection.
Cutler said she wasn’t afraid to ask questions to learn more about the budget, which appeared good from what she understands. Town staff has done a good job answering questions, she said.
Defeo said he liked to distinguish between issues and projects. Growth is the biggest issue facing Oak Island, which could have 20,000 people by 2035. He agreed that the town has a plan for the future, but said he’d like to see additional planning for future infrastructure.
Emergency planning should include viable, up to date policies, Defeo stated. It is important that public safety come first.
Defeo said there had been enough discussion about paid parking, which would not work without more spaces. He said the decal system was functioning.
He also said Oak Island needs to work on its side streets and that the town’s three-year paving plan was addressing that.
Defeo agreed that state stormwater requirements can clash with the town’s rules for trees. He said the town needed to have the will and the resources to enforce the rules, even after someone has moved into a home.
Defeo said he was most familiar with information technology portions of the town’s budget and that the document was a sound one.
Royal listed priorities as providing basic services such as streets, stormwater control, collecting yard debris and code enforcement. She called for a conservative approach to beach renourishment. The town should eliminate its “sand tax,” and hold a referendum on a financing plan which could include assessments.
The comprehensive land use plan is the document to help guide growth, Royal said. Residents should pay attention to it and growth should pay for itself.
Royal said it was council’s job to set storm policies and budget for them. The town has learned from the incidents during Florence and should make sure citizens understand the rules. Re-entry decals are a possibility.
Oak Island’s unique parking system if part of the way of life here, Royal stated. She started the decal system in 2008, hoping to see it grow to nearly half of the spaces. The town also needs more and better handicap access, she added.
Royal said that street maintenance is a big need, stating that a 2018 study identified $2.6-million worth of high-priority needs; council funded about 40-percent of that with state money. Oak Island should supplement Powell Bill funds with local fund balance to get the work done before the streets get worse. She called on the town the clear ditches and repair broken stormwater pipes. It’s also not too soon to start planning for rebuilding the rec center.
Royal said she believed there was a way to meet the state’s stormwater rules and protect trees and the town had to try harder.
Royal said she was familiar with the budget and the town could do a better job summarizing it and explaining where the money comes from and where it goes.
Winecoff said the town had been playing catch-up for years. The current priorities include better roads and an evaluation of the yard debris collection. Beach renourishment is a priority and he said he’d like to see improvements to the rec center without borrowing money.
The town has been planning to ensure its utilities are adequate, Winecoff commented. He pointed to Pine Forest as a unique development attracted by Oak Island.
During storms, the town must clearly communicate with residents. Winecoff stated the re-entry policy has been simplified; anyone with an Oak Island address or property can bring with him or her family members or contractors, if needed.
Winecoff stated he was done with paid parking and that there should be more spaces for residents. The town is doing a good job managing the right of way for safety.
Roads need to be really fixed, not just repaved, Winecoff said. The town now has the staff and equipment to do so. Oak Island should repair damaged stormwater lines and seek grants for the rec center.
Winecoff said the town should work with state officials on more appropriate rules that would make it easier to save trees.
He said he challenged staff to cut the budget four years ago and they did. He said he’s managed multi-million-dollar projects and understands budget oversight. He added that he favors paying off debt early, if possible.
To learn more about the candidates, visit the League of Women Voters of the Lower Cape Fear at www.vote411.org.
The forum is being aired on Spectrum’s community channel 8. It is also on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t1Nr5BJDcGw&t=23s.