Signs of the Time

Jenny Scarborough

Ocracoke residents continue to search for consensus about regulating signs.

Signs of the Time

The topic has been bounced around community meetings for the last year. The Planning Advisory Board asked Ocracoke Civic and Business Association to address signs. At a meeting hosted at the behest of OCBA, it was decided the hot potato issue would be returned to the Planning Board.

The current sign regulations in the Ocracoke Development Ordinance are impossible to enforce because that section of the ODO was poorly drafted, said Tom Pahl, a former Planning Board member who was appointed by OCBA to chair an informal meeting in January. The turnout of nine residents disappointed Pahl, who wondered if it was the chilly rain, or the topic, that kept people from turning up.

More people would probably participate in the discussion if they could do so anonymously, said Cove B & B owner Fred Westerveldt.

"It's a better conversation if we look longer term and not at specific individuals," said Pahl. "In a small community like ours, it should be possible to have the conversation about what we want the future to look like."

Signs of the Time

"The status quo is that there's an ordinance on the books that's not enforced," said Pahl.

If the existing code were strictly enforced, the majority of island businesses would not be in compliance, and real estate signs would be subject to a permitting process and setback regulations. The VantageSouth sign would not be lit from within.

Chief Code Enforcement Officer Jerry Hardison was instructed years ago to back off of enforcing signs because of the near impossibility of doing so.

"The county has never appropriated money right. It is ridiculous to think that Jerry can do all that," said County Manager Bill Rich, who resigned as chair of the Ocracoke Planning Board to accept his current job, another act of volunteerism.

Setbacks are one problematic area. "No sign shall be permitted within ten feet of a road, street, path, way or other such passageway," reads the ODO. If this is interpreted to mean within 10 feet of the NCDOT right of way, businesses on Highway 12 north of the Pony Island Motel must have their signs well off the road, as the right of way cuts a generous swath through that part of the village. Around the harbor, a right of way does not exist at all, and the road passes within inches of many commercial signs.

DOT claimed a large (100 foot, I've been told – who likes to check facts?) right of way in the northern part of the village in case they decide to add a center turning lane, said Harborside owner Corky Pentz, who currently co-chairs the Planning Board.

A third lane, not unlike the suicide lane up the beach, would be worse than any sign she can imagine, said Ragpicker owner Teresa O'Neal. O'Neal talks with hundreds of tourists, and says she hasn't heard any complaints about the signs. Some visitors do mention specific locales that could look better, she said.

"Ocracoke has a long tradition of creativity. Ocracoke has personality. I wouldn't want strict uniformity," said O'Neal. She also cautioned against inviting outside agencies to regulate Ocracoke. Once they're here, "they don't go away."

Signs of the Time

Business owners need to get behind the idea that a tourist economy is not a zero sum game. Uniformity in signs has proven to improve the bottom line for neighboring businesses across the board, said Pentz. CAMA has strongly suggested that Ocracoke develop a sign ordinance, he said.

Hatteras Island has experienced division over signs as well, especially when Dare County decided to not allow sandwich board signs. Any sign, new or old, that obstructs the view of drivers is annoying and dangerous, several people at the meeting said.

After the meeting at the Community Center, I walked across the street to get some chicken tenders from Ocracoke Station. Manager Sean Death was behind the counter. He wanted to attend the meeting, but staffing issues kept him at his post. Yes, your business did come up, and was praised by Pahl for being revitalized and adding attractive services to guests and residents, I told him.

The controversial flags were not flying that day, and haven't been for a while, pointed out Death, who said their purpose last summer was to let visitors know all the new things on offer at Ocracoke Station. The frank and open discussion at the meeting inspired me to tell Sean I wasn't a fan of the flags, and though I could live with them, I think if everyone had them, the island would look like a used car lot.

Signs of the Time

He listened, nodded, stroked his goatee, and smiled. I want to make this place look great, and I want it to fit the island, he said.

"Look at this," he said, and showed me a mock up of the Ocracoke Station storefront with classic spindled white railings. Robin Payne of Ocracoke Foundation, Inc. had dropped it off with him just that morning. He was inspired by the vision, and liked the idea of working with neighboring businesses to make the whole area more attractive.

Trees help. Businesses in the village benefit from a canopy that provides shade and a respite from the visual noise of signs. A greater density of trees has been proven to improve both the physical and mental health of humans. Perhaps the best use of the wide right of way claimed by NCDOT would be to plant trees.

Manteo employed a similar strategy three decades ago, and now has one of the nicest corridors along the Outer Banks, said Pentz.

"Signs have an impact on how visitors perceive the island as a whole," said O'Neal, who readily admits she is an idealist: "In a reasonable world, we should all want to be responsible and make it look good."


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