Pay – To – Park
NORTH TOPSAIL BEACH
The concept of paid parking has been bandied about in North Topsail Beach for a number of years. In a town with little or no industrial or commercial tax base the prospect of activating a dormant revenue source is understandably attractive for a number of reasons.
First and foremost, the year-round residents and non-resident property owners have essentially been operating a free “park” for visitors who choose to visit the town for a day outing to swim, fish, or commune with nature. Maintaining this park, — that is, the beach — is a perpetual responsibility and one which will become costlier as time goes on. Beach nourishment, erosion control, sanitation facilities, trash removal, law enforcement, fire protection, and water rescue are an ongoing expense. Even the parking lots which accommodate these visitors are an expense — the town leases these lots from the property owners.
It is not unreasonable to expect those who enjoy the beaches of North Topsail to pay for these expenses. The year-round residents and non-resident property owners pay their fair share through property taxes, a significant portion of which go directly to the “beach fund.” The many families who choose to visit North Topsail Beach during the summer and who rent one of the many beautiful beach houses also contribute to beach maintenance through the payment of an “Accommodations Tax” levied at 6% of their rental fee. This tax is divided 3% to Onslow County and 3% to the NTB “beach fund”.
Conspicuously absent from the equation — the day visitor. Of the three people who use the beach, the resident, the renter, and the day visitor only the day visitor has a free ride. The equitable distribution of the costs of maintaining the beach is sufficient, in and of itself, to merit a parking fee.
That aside, 2020 brought us the Covid-19 pandemic, and with the pandemic has come a whole new way of life – work from home (home being sometimes a nice rental house at the beach), remote school attendance from elementary to college, with the classroom being any place with an internet connection. Since it became possible to conduct day-to-day life “at the beach” there has been a marked increase in traffic and with it — parking in right-of-ways, under houses, in resident’s yards, etc. We can expect this trend to continue and perhaps worsen in 2021, and the implementation of a paid parking program could have the intentional reduction of day visitors as an objective.
While the issues I’ve presented could easily justify the implementation of a paid parking program, 2020 brought other news to North Topsail Beach and Surf City which, while a blessing for the long-term survival of Topsail Island, presents each town with unprecedented financial challenges — the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Storm Damage Reduction Project. 20 years in the making, this project finally received federal funding to the surprise of not only Surf City and North Topsail, but also the local Corps of Engineers regional staff.
Often misunderstood by the general public, the idea of “federally funded” does not mean FREE! Projects of this type require a cost share between the federal government, the state, and the municipalities which will benefit. The initial portion of this project is estimated to cost:
TOTAL EST COST: $237,000,000
Federal Share (65%) - $154,050,000
State & Local Share (35%) - $82,950,000
Of the State & Local Share:
State (50%) - $41,475,000
Surf City (30%) - $24,885,000
NTB (20%) - $16,590,000
Simply put, North Topsail Beach has to come up with funds to pay down an existing USDA loan for the engineering of “Phase 5” (the lower four miles of town), $16.6 million dollars for the initial federal project, and sufficient ongoing beach funds to pay for periodic renourishment of the project area through 2071.
The staff and Board of Aldermen have reviewed the situation from every angle, and have contracted with the State’s premier municipal finance advisors to guide us in navigating a way forward to meet this challenge. In the end the path forward will be a three-pronged approach:
Property Taxes— They will have to increase. This will likely involve the creation of “Municipal Service Districts” to direct the bulk of costs to the areas likely to see the most benefit.
Accommodations Tax — Meetings are scheduled with our state legislators to discuss the introduction of bills to increase the Accommodations Tax within North Topsail by 1%. Accommodations Tax, regardless of where in town it is collected, will go to the beach fund to reduce the property tax impact.
Paid Parking — Paid parking will be expanded to include all NTB controlled lots and select on street parking areas. The federal project itself requires specific numbers of parking spaces within the project area. It appears that the only areas where we are deficient are in and around 13th Avenue, at Reeves Street, and at Chestnut Street. It is our intent to clearly identify those areas where parking is required, and to prohibit side street parking throughout town, subjecting violators to parking fines.
EXPANSION OF PAID PARKING
The proposal to move ahead with paid parking is just that — an expansion of the paid parking arrangement we currently have in place at the far north end of the town. Here we allow 4-wheel drive vehicles to drive onto the beach in a restricted area for a fee. In June of 2017, the Town entered into a management agreement with Central Parking System Inc., a Tennessee corporation, to operate the paid parking concession at the North End.
This agreement provided for the 4X4 entrance to be staffed weekly from Memorial Day to Labor Day, and on weekends thereafter. The Town would set limits on occupancy and hours. The Operator would provide uniformed, experienced, and qualified personnel responsible for performing the services required by the agreement, as well as supervisory personnel. In turn, the Town would be responsible to pay all operating expenses, rent necessary equipment, and obtain any required permits or licenses.
This agreement would later be modified to change the effective dates from Fiscal Year to Calendar Year and later to address loss of activity following Hurricane Florence. An initial inquiry to the vendor regarding the possibility of moving the parking lots to “paid parking” resulted in the proposed “Third Amendment of Management Agreement. This was never executed.
This proposal called for:
The purchase, by the Town, of six payment kiosks at a cost of $47,218. The Town would be responsible for repairs and maintenance of this equipment which could be financed by the vendor for 8% over three years.
Parking enforcement in the designated lots would be included as part of the deal, with the town to provide a vehicle for personnel to use.
This was not terribly attractive since our objective is to generate incremental revenue with a minimum of cost. The installation of any electronic or mechanical equipment in proximity to the salty air of the Atlantic could be expected to be a maintenance headache, and the term remaining on our parking lot leases is insufficient to recover the investment.
Concurrently with opening talks with our existing vendor, the parking committee – consisting of Aldermen Grant and Leonard, myself, and at times Ms. Hill, Mr. Anders, and Chief Younginer, began seeking an alternative vendor that might offer a solution which would not require capital investment or kiosks.
Headquartered in Surf City, NC, the company “OTTO Connect” is offering a parking program called Surfcast which can suit our needs. The committee required a number of things:
The elimination of kiosks and equipment maintenance costs.
Enforcement of any failure to pay parking violations within the designated parking lots
The enforcement of parking violations on side streets and in rights-of-way not located within parking lots.
Flexibility in the assignment of enforcement individuals
A re-worked plan for the enforcement of parking at the north end 4X4 lot.
Access to senior management to make decisions on-the-fly should unexpected circumstances occur
Coordinated rollout with neighboring beach towns if possible.
The Surfcast approach requires that the visitor to the beach have a “smartphone” and download an “app” to register and pay for parking (information we’d like to get out well in advance of a March 1, 2021 rollout). With the exception of the use of 21st Century technology to handle parking, there will be only a few minor changes to the way we conduct the parking operation:
Paid parking was NEVER intended to burden the year-round resident or non-resident property owner with additional fees. The app will provide for those people to register their vehicle as “owner”, and they will not incur parking fees.
The exemption for persons displaying a “handicap” placard or license plate at the 4X4 lot is being rescinded due to widespread abuse of the privilege.
Except in those few areas where the Federal Project may require, we add some street parking and parking on side streets will be prohibited throughout town.
Parking at the two Onslow County Beach Accesses will remain free unless they choose to make a change themselves.
It should be noted that our existing vendor did agree to meet with the parking committee and flew some senior management up from Atlanta just prior to Christmas. Following a discussion of what we were looking for, which did not dwell on some unsatisfactory past performance issues, the vendor returned with a modified “Third Amendment” proposal which reduced the number of payment kiosks to four, increased the term of the agreement, increased the management fee to a fixed dollar figure rather than a % of revenue.
The Board voted unanimously to authorize the Town Manager to proceed as outlined:
Terminate our agreements with Central Parking System Inc.
Execute an agreement with Otto Connect (pending approval of the Town Attorney)
Continue working with the committee to firm up the details of the program, communicate it within our service area, and bring it online with a March 1st target date.