We had a close call with a very scary storm, a hard-fought and pretty colorful election season, another bruising round in the never-ending battle over drilling off our coasts and a grim reminder of the lethal side of the beautiful ocean that gives the Outer Banks its character and appeal. And that’s just a sampling. In our last issue of the year, the Sentinel looks back at some of the people, events and stories— from tragedies to triumphs — that helped define the year 2018.
A dark day on the Outer Banks – the Wesley Belisle tragedy
The summer season got off to an unsettling start when three people drowned in the waters of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore within a four-day period in the first week in June. Those three fatalities alone made 2018 the third deadliest summer season recorded by the National Park Service since 2011.
And, while stories of swimmers losing their lives are, unfortunately, part of a pretty standard summer narrative on the Outer Banks, what happened on April 25 in the waters off Kitty Hawk was not. On that day, four-year-old Wesley Belisle, visiting with his family from New Hampshire, was swept into the Atlantic Ocean, his body recovered a few days later on Carova Beach in Currituck County.
The tragedy struck like a thunderbolt, making national headlines and casting a pall over the Outer Banks in the early days of spring. Everyone seemed stunned, but the Outer Banks community responded, setting up a shrine to the boy and his family on the beach, along with prayers, a tribute and an outpouring of heartfelt sorrow everywhere you turned.
Hopefully, it brought some solace. In a message from Wesley’s grieving family that was read at an April 29 tribute here, they graciously thanked everyone and declared that “your prayers and well wishes are comforting us.”
Affordable housing crunch takes center stage in Dare County
On June 4, OBX Chamber of Commerce Board Chair Bob Peele asked Dare County to consider significant zoning changes as a way to address the county's affordable workforce housing crunch and boost the local economy. Just four months later, in October, the county commissioners approved measures that could potentially create nearly 1,300 new housing units. Talk about moving quickly.
The business-based concern driving this issue — that a shortage of affordable housing is making it difficult for merchants and owners to attract workers and thus damaging the local economy — also dominated the conversation at a crowded Sept. 26 candidate forum in Kill Devil Hills. “The reason we don’t have a workforce in Dare County is we don’t have housing in Dare County,” Commissioner Jim Tobin declared bluntly at that event.
But, as the Chamber of Commerce now looks to take its campaign for more reasonably priced housing to neighboring counties, there is a potential hitch in the push for more affordable units. According to Chamber President Karen Brown, the county will require new legislation granting it the autonomy to create its own standards rather than adhere to “state septic requirements” for construction wastewater permits. A bill to that effect was derailed in 2017.
The 2018 Dare County Elections – A blue ripple?
While there may have been a blue wave in the 2018 midterms nationally, locally it was more like a ripple. Democrat Ervin Bateman, who ran largely as a non-partisan figure, did defeat Republican Anne Petera for the one open seat on the Dare County Board of Commissioners. But that was really the extent of the good news for local Democrats, who saw incumbent Democratic Register of Deeds Vanzolla McMurran lose a close race to newcomer Republican Cheryl House.
In addition, Republican Joe Tauber also defeated Democrat Jen Alexander in the contest for the District 2 Board of Education seat, and appointed incumbent Dare County Commissioner Jim Tobin fended off a challenge from Democrat Rosemarie Doshier in the District 1 Commissioner’s race.
Dare County residents also have two new representatives in the General Assembly. In the race to succeed retiring State Senator Bill Cook, Republican State Rep. Bob Steinburg defeated Democratic challenger D. Cole Phelps in a fairly competitive race. The biggest local upset in the election cycle may have come when Currituck County Commissioner Bobby Hanig defeated incumbent State Representative Beverly Boswell in the GOP primary, outpolling her by about 400 votes in her home Dare County. Hanig then went on to handily defeat Democrat and Dare County resident Tess Judge in the general election.
The big one that just missed us, Hurricane Florence
In North Carolina, Hurricane Florence did $17 billion in damage, took more than three dozen lives and turned parts of the state into a total disaster area when it struck in September. But the fates were smiling on the Outer Banks, which, somehow, managed to duck the brunt of the storm’s punch. It did look scary for a while, though.
On Sept. 10, with Florence bearing down, Dare County declared a State of Emergency, evacuation orders were issued and public schools began closing. One day later, Florence was still a Category 4 storm, but the track had shifted south, leading some residents who were planning to evacuate to instead take a wait-and-see approach. By Sept. 15, when it was clear that disaster had been averted here, re-entry to the northern Outer Banks began, businesses started to re-open, boards came off buildings and the resumption of school was announced.
In Dare County, no storm-related injuries were reported and there were very limited power outages. The initial assessment for the county put the damage from Florence at a modest $502,000, or about one percent of the toll taken by Hurricane Matthew in 2016. As KDH business owner Tommy Overton told the Sentinel: “This was just not our time.”
Kelly’s closes, but whither Lidl?
Back in October 2017, on the same day that the Nags Head Board of Commissioners gave its approval to German grocer Lidl’s proposal to put a store on the site of Kelly’s Outer Banks Restaurant & Tavern, Mike Kelly announced plans to close his iconic 32-year-old establishment at the end of November. True to form, Kelly threw one final big bash at the restaurant to mark the end of an era, one that seemed to be attended by half the population of the Outer Banks.
But more than a year later, the 4.9-acre site that Kelly sold to Lidl for $3.9 million remains empty. And this fall, Lidl’s site plan filed with the town of Nags Head expired. Town officials say they have not heard from the company and, when contacted by the Sentinel, a Lidl spokesman said simply: “We do not have specific updates for this site at this time.”
Some industry analysts have pointed to difficulties with Lidl’s U.S. rollout and an ill-advised decision to open in Nags Head as key reasons for the delay in moving ahead with the 36,000-square-foot store. For his part, Kelly cited some corporate reorganization as a factor, but told the Sentinel, “I don’t interpret [the delay] as they are not going to develop the site.”
A cold case gets re-heated – the Denise Johnson murder
Twenty-one years after she was murdered in her Kill Devil Hills home, the brutal killing of 33-year-old Kill Devil Hills resident Denise Johnson is still an unsolved and frustrating local mystery. But television news reporter and former Roanoke Island native Delia D’Ambra is trying to do something about that.
D’Ambra, a 25-year-old UNC grad and the daughter of former Manteo Police Chief Francis D’Ambra, is producing a “true crime” podcast called “CounterClock,” in which she doggedly revisits the case, searching for new clues or leads by relying on public documents and interviewing people who are — or may be — connected to the case in some way.
D’Ambra doesn’t expect to solve the murder on her own. But she hopes the podcast — which thus far consists of 10 separate episodes — can be a catalyst for finally figuring it out. As she told the Sentinel earlier this year, with improvements in forensic science, “I think the end game for the podcast is…to re-examine every element of this case, to bring it into 2018.”
The brief, but memorable political career of Ed Danko
Those who follow the local political scene may ultimately remember Ed Danko as a storm that quickly blew through Dare County and headed out to warmer waters. Danko, who spent 40 years as a television network newsman, moved to Dare County in November 2016 and entered the 2018 race to succeed retiring Dare County Commissioner Jack Shea. Running as a “the real Trump conservative,” he waged an energetic attack against what he called the county’s “RINOs” (Republicans In Name Only).
That campaign included sharp-elbowed commercials in which Danko attacked the county’s 2017 property tax increase from 0.43 to $0.47, and labeled his GOP primary opponent Anne Petera as “Lyin’ Anne.” At the same time, Danko had a noisy split with the Dare County Republican Party after his dispute with a local veterinarian prompted the party to call an emergency executive committee meeting to discuss Danko’s conduct in the matter.
In the end, Petera routed Danko in that primary battle, winning by a 73-27% margin. A few days later, Danko announced he had moved to Florida and then fired off this parting shot: “We've just moved permanently to our lovely vacation house in Florida! Bye-Bye to all the fake Republicans in Dare County!”
The “Battle of the Atlantic” rejoined
Only a few months after taking office, President Donald Trump signed an executive order restarting the process for drilling for oil in the waters of the Atlantic. The reaction in much of Dare County — where many view the prospect of drilling as an unacceptable risk to the $1 billion tourist economy — was one of vigorous opposition.
In February of this year, a group of Dare County residents cheerfully boarded a bus to head to the “Rally in Raleigh — a Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) meeting at which they lent their voice to the forces fighting offshore drilling. Caught up by the passion of those gathered there, Dare County Commissioners Chairman Bob Woodard declared: "Are you folks fired up? I'm fired up…Together, we are going to win this struggle.”
Then came a Trump Administration decision in late November that paved the way for several companies to move ahead with the controversial practice of seismic testing in the Atlantic — a possible precursor to drilling for offshore energy. That once again galvanized drilling foes. “This is really a call to action,” said Kill Devil Hills Mayor Sheila Davies. “We need to stay informed and stay engaged. Contact your legislators in Raleigh and Washington. We need to fight the fight and not give up."
A new tool in the battle against drugs — murder charges
As law enforcement officials and prosecutors look for new ways to effectively combat drug trafficking, one strategy is to file murder charges against dealers in cases that involve lethal overdoses. In April, Tyrique Lazara Wise of Jarvisburg was charged with felony murder in connection with two apparent heroin overdoses in Wanchese, one of which resulted in death.
Wise’s arrest marked the second time in less than a year that local prosecutors have used a murder charge in lethal drug overdose cases. In June 2017, Manteo resident Gregory Wynn was charged with second-degree murder in the case of an overdose death, also in Wanchese. The charge again Wynn was a first for Dare County and the First Judicial District.
According to Jeff Cruden, Assistant District Attorney for the First Judicial District, Wynn’s case is scheduled for the Jan. 14 Dare County Superior Court session and could potentially be tried at that time. Cruden also told the Sentinel that Wise’s case would likely appear on the February Superior Court administrative calendar. Depending on various factors, his case could go to trial sometime this coming spring.
We are the champions!
One saying about the local sports talent in Dare County is that, for a small beach community, our school athletes “punch above their weight class.” High school athletics are a point of pride in this area, and this past year was no exception.
So kudos to the local high school state champs of 2018. The First Flight women’s soccer team captured the State 2A championship in May with a dominating 6-1 win over Lake Norman Charter. Another team 2A state title went to the Currituck women’s volleyball team, which captured that crown in November.
In May, First Flight’s Skyler Stultz won a 2A State title in the 1600 meters. And six months later, First Flight’s Zach Hughes took the individual State 2A cross country championship. In February, another Nighthawk, Jeremiah Derby, won the second State 2A wrestling championship of his career, this time competing at 126 pounds. And in October, First Flight sophomore Katherine Schuster captured her second straight state title 1A/2A women’s golf title, winning by four strokes and finishing at 5 under par. Look out LPGA!