Onslow Weighs Future of Working Waterfront
By Megan V. Williams
Wilmington, NC – When Sneads Ferry fisherman Johnny Wayne Midgett was banned from storing his catch in a residential neighborhood, his story became a watershed moment for a generation of Onslow county watermen watching their livelihood disappearing into high end real estate.
Someday, fishermen like Midgett may be protected by special maritime zoning districts. Or their memory may be reduced to quaint street names in waterfront subdivisions. Which happens rests in part in the hands of the Onslow Board of Commissioners.
Onslow County Commissioners tabled Midgett's case several months ago and instructed their planning department to look into possible solutions to the entire dilemma of working waterfronts turning into private homes. Monday night, they heard those results.
County planner Matthew Stuart says the two public meetings held by his department attracted nearly 70 people, a turnout one county Commissioner called 'tremendous.' After listening to so many residents share their thoughts, Stuart is clear on one thing - the loss of access is an emotional issue for the county's commercial fishermen.
"You know, it's in their family and it's in their blood," Stuart, "and it's something that I believe they wish to be able to continue for a long time to come."
County planners presented a range of strategies to Commissioners Monday night, from creating special zoning districts for commercial fishermen or allowing fishermen to work on vacant properties to asking for state money to purchase waterfront property.
Commissioner Delma Collins said after the meeting that his board needs a full workshop to discuss the options, saying the county needs to balance the desire of people to live by the water with a diversity of uses.
While other parts of North Carolina's coast have struggled with preserving public recreation opportunities along an increasingly private coast, commissioner Paul Buchanan says he's committed to making sure Onslow's shoreline keeps some of its working character as well, through zoning changes if necessary.
Collins says he doesn't feel a rush to digest the proposals. "I don't think there's a sense of urgency," he said, "I think there's a sense of, 'get it right.'"
Stuart says his department looked to regulatory efforts in Maine and Florida when crafting their strategies.
"Not a lot has been done in North Carolina, yet," Stuart said.
North Carolina's General Assembly is awaiting a report from its own Waterfront Access Committee next month before crafting any statewide strategy.
But Collins said that although the county is following what the state is doing, Onslow shouldn't wait for guidance from above, citing the old saying about those who help themselves, leaving the ball in the Onslow County Commissioners' court for now.