ROAD TO RUIN?

posted by / News / August 18, 2003

“No way! If they keep us out of Pea Island I’m gonna go light myself on fire in front of the Manteo courthouse.”

Matt Beacham’s only kidding about his pyro protest to North Carolina’s planned17-mile bridge and its possible repercussions. But his shock is real. That’s because the Department of Transportations’ “ultimate solution” to maintaining the Hwy 12 roadway to Hatteras Island could end up eliminating access to Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, a 13-mile treasure chest of uncrowded surfbreaks, including such favorites as Ferry Signs, Boilers and Tits. Throw in an assortment of perpetually shifting sandbars and you have one of the most rich wave zones on the Outer Banks — no, make that the East Coast. As ESM Editor and former resident Matt Pruett puts it, “I’ve caught the best five barrels of my life at Pea Island.”

First, some background. The Outer Banks of North Carolina consist of a series of barrier islands connected by bridges, and in some cases, ferries. The crown jewel of this system is the Herbert C. Bonner bridge, a three-mile span that soars over the Oregon Inlet, connecting northern towns such as Nags Heads, Kitty Hawk and Kill Devil Hills with the more sleepy Hatteras Island villages like Rodanthe, Buxton, and Frisco. Built in 1965, the Bonner Bridge is ready for retirement, but rather than replace it, the DOT has proposed a 17-mile, $260 million alternative that would terminate in Rodanthe and bypass Pea Island entirely.

There are several reasons for this proposal, one of which is the cost of maintaining Hwyy 12, through the refuge. But the crucial issue involves “hot spots” where the ocean sometimes breaches the dune line after big storms, requiring regular maintenance, usually just clearing the road of sand, but occasionally even moving the road itself. (The famous S-turns earns its bendy name from one such project.) With the 17-mile bridge, the DOT would no longer need to the deal with such issues. However, the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife, who rule over Pea Island, don’t have the budget to maintain the road. So, if the plan goes through, who will make sure that surfers can access their favorite spots?

That’s what Outer Banks locals want to know. And they’re not getting any answers.

Furthermore, there are other alternatives on the table, such as replacing the existing Bonner Bridge or building a more manageable — and ${{{100}}} million-dollar cheaper — six-mile version that terminates past the first hot spot, right at Boilers. But the 17-mile version has the most steam politically, which has local surfers (not to mention, fishermen, birdwatchers and other recreational users) worried.

“If I have to drive to Rodanthe and drive north back to Ferry Signs just to look at it, I’ll do it,” says local pro Jesse Fernandez. “But once they start talking about pulling the road out, it’s like, ‘Wait a minute.’”

That’s why Mike Remige, Alan Saunders, G.W.Meadows and Pit Surf Hangout co-owner Steve Pauls started Save Pea Island. The grassroots organization is already building membership locally. But, unfortunately, the disparity between the Outer Banks local and transient population puts the community at a political disadvantage.

“There are {{{6000}}} residents of Kill Devil Hills,” explains Grave’s partner Ben Sproul, “But three million tourists come here every year. Plus, eighty-five percent of the real estate is owned by people who live out-of-state. So, somewhere back in Ohio is a Pea Island fanatic who has no idea that this resource could become inaccessible.”

With building not scheduled until 2004, now is the time to scream loud and spread the word, making sure that no matter what alternative the state chooses, access to Pea Island remains a part of the plan. Otherwise, surfers like Beacham could see some of their favorite spots go up in smoke. Matt Walker

Coastland Times reporter Noah Garrett contributed to this piece.

Full information on the various alternatives and a petition to keep Pea Island accessible are available at www.savepeaisland.com

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