The Green Way

Carolina Beach’s path to the future

Story and Photographs By Virginia Holman

If there’s a hidden gem in the Cape Fear region, it’s Pleasure Island, the tiny barrier island that comprises Carolina Beach, Kure Beach, and Fort Fisher. Each area is unique, but it is Carolina Beach that sets the pace of life on the island. That’s in large part because it is where the vast majority of visitors first arrive, after crossing Snow’s Cut Bridge with its wide angle view from the ocean to the river. In the last five years, Carolina Beach has undergone some notable changes: there’s a new scenic boardwalk dotted with large porch swings that runs from the Marriott hotel and exits across the street from Nollie’s Tacos and a revitalized pedestrian business district awash in retro-1950s charm. Unlike some overdeveloped coastal towns, the beach isn’t shaded by a long wall of high-rise hotels and condos. That’s because Carolina Beach knows it isn’t just a tourist town, it’s home to over 6,000 year-round residents. The challenge in such a community, one whose population more than quadruples each summer, is to serve both its visitors and its residents. At times, that can get complicated. Fortunately, the thing that draws families to vacation at Carolina Beach is the same thing that makes most people want to raise their families here — a laid-back coastal town with lots of ways to enjoy the outdoors.

Ethan Crouch moved to Carolina Beach in 2009 and fell in love with island life. He says that the bike and pedestrian capabilities drew him to the town. He and his fiancée Meg find that they have everything they need nearby. “I come over the bridge on Friday, park the car in the driveway, and it often doesn’t move until it’s time to go back to work in Wilmington on Monday,” he says. “We like to bike or walk everywhere: to the beach, restaurants, the hardware store, to see friends. That really sets Carolina Beach apart. It has certainly changed our lives for the better.” Sometimes, he admits, connectivity is an issue. Not everyone is comfortable cycling on the busier streets. But Crouch is quick to praise the town’s extensive efforts in that direction, and says Carolina Beach’s new Island Greenway, a brand new pedestrian and cycling path that affords residents a safer and more pleasant route from Mike Chappell Park to Kure Beach, is “a tremendous leap forward.”

This path is part of what many island residents hope will eventually be an outer greenway loop of the entire island, one that will connect Carolina Beach State Park, Mike Chappell Park, the elementary school, the beach and boardwalk, and the town of Kure Beach and run down to the Fort Fisher ferry area. The realization of such a grand vision will require a tremendous spirit of collaboration between municipalities, property owners, the NC Department of Transportation, and the federal government, which owns and controls the use of the land in the “buffer zone” of the Military Ocean Terminal at Sunny Point — one of the largest munitions depots in the world. Unbeknownst to many, Dow Road, Mike Chappell Park, and a town storage facility are also located on this buffer-zone land, used courtesy of the federal government.

Mayor Joe Benson, who served as a colonel in the Air Force, says that he enjoys working with the officials at Sunny Point and that the town currently enjoys one of the strongest relationships it has had in years. He is quick to laud officials at MOTSU for granting permission for the pathway, and to the community members who stepped up to engage in the often-thorny process of collaboration. Benson encourages concerned residents to come to town council meetings to participate in the process. “It’s one thing to deliver your opinions over social media, it’s quite another thing to show up and participate,” he says. It’s also a method that yields results. When Carolina Sands residents were concerned about the proximity of the path to the neighborhood, the town invited officials at MOTSU, residents spoke at council meetings and proposed several well-thought-out options. Eventually, the pathway route was altered to run between a lovely wooded area and a large retention pond. MOTSU also requires tall fencing along the path. When residents balked at military-style fencing, more aesthetically pleasing black chain-link fence was installed.

The town also sent out a survey to residents a few months ago asking them about their priorities as the town develops its land use plan. Benson says that “the top-ranking priority residents noted was storm water, understandable with Hurricane Florence fresh in our minds. The second was bike and pedestrian options.”

In addition to the Greenway, the town is creating more multi-use paths and sidewalks throughout the town to increase accessibility and reduce overall traffic. Council member LeeAnn Pierce started and serves as the council liaison to the town’s bike and pedestrian committee. Pierce points out that she has lived in Carolina Beach for 27 years and that “it has changed dramatically in the last few years. We want to be a bikeable, walkable, accessible community.” She says it took about six years to bring the Greenway to fruition. “We got an 80/20 grant to fund the project. That means that 80 percent of the project was funded by the North Carolina Department of Transportation, and 20 percent by the town.” Pierce also points out that the town has a master plan for increased connectivity with multi-use paths. We have a multi-use path on Cape Fear Boulevard, we just got grant funding for a multi-use path on Clarendon Boulevard, and we plan to have one on Harper Avenue.” The paths will connect visitors to the Island Greenway and the local park.

Fifteen years ago, Carolina Beach was a veritable ghost town in the off-season; now locally owned niche businesses that cater to both residents and tourists — businesses like Shore Break Bikes, Salty Dog Yoga, Island Wellness, the Veggie Wagon, Island Massage, and Pet Bazaar — are thriving year round. In large part, that’s due to the island’s year-round residents — folks who send their children to the local elementary school and walk their dogs on warm summer evenings, stopping here and there to catch up with neighbors. The Island Greenway allows us to stop and chat in a serene, lovely, and safe environment.

Author and creative writing instructor Virginia Holman lives and writes in Carolina Beach.

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