News: CJ Exclusives

Basnight Seeks Coast’s Longest Pier

Ferry solution would result in 1,800-foot pier, longest on East Coast

A deal brokered by Sen. Marc Basnight to get the Currituck-to-Corolla passenger ferry up and running would result in the construction of an 1,800-foot docking pier extending into the Currituck Sound, which, if approved by the federal government, would be the longest pier on the East Coast.

The pier proposal, the result of a recent meeting between Basnight and several state and local officials, would be twice as long as the 900-foot Apache Pier near Myrtle Beach. However, several federal agencies would have to approve the project before it could be built.

“All this is just conceptual right now,” Wildlife Resources Commission Director Dick Hamilton told Carolina Journal this week. The ferry service was scheduled to be in operation by May 2004, but has been plagued with problems from the start. Hamilton said the proposed solution for the ferry issue came from a recent meeting with Basnight. “[He] called us into his office to see if there was a fresh approach.”

Hamilton said the National Marine Fisheries, the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the U. S. Coast Guard will all have to approve the project. Justin McCorcle, an attorney with the Corps’ Wilmington office confirmed the project would require a permit from his agency. “We will look at alternative locations and the need for the project,” he told CJ.

The meeting, held last week in Basnight’s office, included Currituck County Manager Dan Scanlon, Hamilton, and the heads of three other Easley Administration agencies — the Coastal Resource Commission, the Division of Marine Fisheries, and the Department of Transportation’s Ferry Division. The Daily Advance of Elizabeth City first reported the deal last week.

Even though detailed plans have not been prepared, Hamilton said he envisions a 10-foot wide structure sitting six feet above the mean water level so sunlight can reach the environmentally sensitive sound bottom.

“There is no question federal agencies will have to approve this,” Coastal Management Division Director Charles Jones told CJ. When CJ informed Jones the pier would be twice as long as the longest pier on the East Coast, he laughed and said, “I didn’t realize it. It is a long pier.”

He said that 1,800 feet is an estimate and that surveys must be conducted to determine the actual water depth. The big issue, Jones said, is “the potential danger boats can cause to submerged aquatic vegetation in shallow water.”

Currituck County officials said the ferry service was necessary because students living on the Currituck County section of the Outer Banks would no longer be able to attend Dare County schools because of crowding. School officials initially said about 40 students would be involved, but that number now is about 10 students.

They said the bus ride to the mainland, entirely by land, would be too long. With State Senate President Pro Tem Marc Basnight of Dare County as the driving force, the N.C. General Assembly appropriated $834,000 in June 2003 for the ferry project. Annual operating costs are estimated to be more than $400,000.

A feasibility study prepared by Ferry Division Director Jerry Gaskill stated that dredging a channel on the Corolla side would be necessary, but failed to mention that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had denied permits on two previous occasions. In June 2004 the state Division of Coastal Management issued a notice of violation to DOT after a Ferry Division boat and crew dug an illegal channel near Corolla. The Ferry Division has since repaired the damage.

In August 2004 the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Criminal Investigation Division, armed with search warrants and in search of information about the dredging incident, led a raid on Ferry Division offices. No criminal charges have been filed.

CJ has also reported that a new Dare County elementary school opening this summer should eliminate the school overcrowding that was the original stated justification for the project. Also reported was that representatives of the Sanderling Resort and Spa, who were looking for alternative ways for employees to get to work, had met with DOT officials and approved the ferry route.

Most recently CJ and other news organizations revealed the 49-passenger pontoon boat purchased by the Ferry Division does not meet the requirement that it be able to operate in 18 inches of water and may require as much as 42 inches of water to operate. The boat has been sitting at the State Shipyard at Manns Harbor since last August.

Don Carrington is executive editor of Carolina Journal.