July 16, 2008

Hampstead Public Boat Ramp Still Lacks Funding

By Gareth McGrath, Star-News, Wilmington, N.C.

Jul. 15--Stars from John Travolta in "Domestic Disturbance" to the cast of the television series "Surface" have graced the private docks at the end of Lewis Road in Hampstead.

But it will take more than Hollywood magic to see the small working waterfront and occasional movie and TV set turned into the first public boat access along Pender County's fast-growing coast.

County officials thought they had the funds in hand when the General Assembly passed a budget that showed $10 million for the project.

But the expected financial windfall has turned out to be as fleeting as a cool Carolina summer day.

"We went from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows in about 48 hours," said David Williams Jr., chairman of the Pender County Commissioners.

Although the budget shows $10 million for the Hampstead project and $6.5 million for another new ramp just up the coast in Sneads Ferry, that doesn't actually mean the money has been earmarked for the projects. In fact, it hasn't.

Gordon Myers, deputy director with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, said a bookkeeping change for the upcoming fiscal year means the commission has to show the General Assembly all the anticipated capital improvement projects that they might be working on during the next 12 months.

"But it doesn't mean we necessarily have the money for the projects right now," he said. "Basically it's a forecast."

State Rep. Carolyn Justice, R-Pender, said she was confused as everyone else about the status of the boat ramp project because most government budgets only list items that are going to be funded.

"But it means we're at least on the list, which is a big step," she said. "It's just now getting the funding."

But Pender still only has the $3 million for the project awarded earlier this year from the Waterfront Access and Marine Industry Fund, a grant program aimed at protecting working waterfronts and increasing public access to the water.

Myers said the commission estimated $10 million for the project because that was the latest estimate they had received from Pender County for the cost of purchasing the 10-acre waterfront property. Wildlife Resources would be in charge of building the ramp facilities.

Williams, more than a little perturbed and frustrated Thursday, said he didn't know what the county would do now.

"I guess we'll just wait and see," he said, adding that an appraisal on the property was expected soon. "But it's very disappointing, because we desperately need that access."

Pender County is one of the fastest-growing counties in the state. Nearly 51,000 residents now call the county home, up 20 percent since 2000, and most of them have settled along the U.S. 17 corridor parallel to the Intracoastal Waterway.

But just as more people move to the area, those with boats are finding fewer places to launch them as more coastal shoreline is developed into subdivisions and private marinas.

"We did a coast-wide boater-need survey, and there were a number of hot spots where public access was needed, and one of those hands down was between Wrightsville Beach and Surf City," Myers said.

Williams echoed the sentiment.

"The land is disappearing, and there's just nowhere for the regular person to put their boat in anymore," he said. "We have Scotts Hill," a private marina that allows the public to launch for a fee. "But we don't know how long that's going to be around."

The lack of a public access on the mainland has sent many boaters over the swing bridge to the public boat ramp in Surf City.

But that access, like the ramp 28 miles away on Wrightsville Beach, is constantly crowded and parking is hard to come by, especially on weekends.

Wayne Crisco, who operates Last Resort Charters in Surf City, said public ramps are so crowded that many boaters don't even try to get on the water anymore. It doesn't help that the Surf City ramp, which is in a town park just across the swing bridge, often closes for events, Crisco said. For example, the ramp closed July 3 to accommodate crowds at Surf City's annual fireworks show.

A ramp is especially needed across the Intracoastal Waterway, where the public is becoming increasingly shut out from the water, Crisco said.

"A lot of the ramps in Hampstead are private, and it costs an arm and a leg to join a marina," he said.

Staff Writer Chris Mazzolini contributed to this story.


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