Some say ‘second class citizen’ complaint no longer applies
Hatteras Island residents, or at least some of them, have been making their voices heard loud and clear lately.
Earlier this year, they launched a passionate, but unsuccessful, campaign to retain the old Bonner Bridge name for the new Oregon Inlet bridge, which was ultimately named after former State Senator Marc Basnight. In that case, a “KEEP it Bonner” petition drive netted well over 1,000 signatures.
They had more success this month, when opposition to a text amendment to pave the way for construction of a six-story hotel with a rooftop amenity on Hatteras led SAGA Realty to withdraw its proposal. While not everyone on Hatteras opposed the project, a petition to stop it has more than 6,000 signatures.
In both cases, some familiar Hatteras themes came into play. One refers to the perception that the area lacks political clout. Hatteras residents “are treated like the poor stepchildren,” said one resident when addressing the county commissioners on the Bonner Bridge issue. It is “a travesty that we are being ignored.”
Another theme is that Hatteras has a unique charm and character and grittiness that should not be despoiled. “Hatteras is special because it doesn’t have 7 story hotels,” wrote one online commenter in regard to the SAGA hotel issue. “Don’t try and sell her soul.”
On a 50-mile stretch of sand where it is not unusual to be cut off from the rest of the county because of a washed-out roadway or flooded villages after a hurricane or nor’easter, Hatteras Islanders are known to be strong-willed, but welcoming. Because of their isolation, it’s also not uncommon on the island to hear the sentiment of being a “second-class citizen” or “the forgotten stepchild.”
There are seven villages nestled among miles of national wildlife refuge and federal park service land. And residents, as they have for generations, continue to pride themselves on taking care of their own and enduring everything the island throws at them in terms of weather.
Still, there seem to be signs of a shift as islanders become more strategic – and perhaps savvy – when it comes to getting the attention of the outside world, such as with the SAGA project. And some say the old “second class citizen” lament has become outdated.
Mary Ellon Ballance represents Hatteras Island on the Dare County Board of Education and said one of the reasons she ran in 2016 was to navigate the challenges that go along with being on an island so isolated: “We always have to fight a little harder and scream a little louder.”
But now she believes the island has some newfound clout. “Hatteras is getting more attention than we have,” Ballance asserted. “The new [Dare County Schools] administration is sensitive” to the concerns that Hatteras is too often ignored. “There’s been a whole cultural shift. We don’t necessarily have to scream and yell, just ask a few questions. We just need to sit down and have a discussion.”
She points to improvements at the Cape Hatteras Secondary School athletic field, which she said was traditionally considered a low priority in school budget planning. But there’s been a ticket booth installed, new sidewalks and additional handicap accessibility at the athletic facility. And the fieldhouse is slated to be remodeled in the upcoming budget year.
Jayson Collier is the organizer of “KEEP It Bonner,” the movement that tried to retain the existing name for the new Oregon Inlet bridge. Even though that battle was lost, he said that islanders are increasingly finding their voice on public issues.
“What I’ve seen is that there used to be a lot of complaining and not voicing of opinions,” Collier asserted. “But people are starting to catch on as to how to amplify their voice…that we have opinions and are a very important part of Outer Banks tourism.”
Dare County Commissioner Danny Couch, who represents Hatteras, acknowledged that “It’s not convenient living out here. Walmart is sixty-two miles away from the [Cape Hatteras] lighthouse.”
But Couch dismisses the mentality of the island being treated as an afterthought in Dare County, noting that’s also a common complaint in communities such as Manteo and Stumpy Point. And, while he says there may be some long-time locals who feel Hatteras’ needs and desires are often ignored, he believes it’s a small segment.
“It’s always puzzled me, this intentionally wanting to be the last tribe in the Amazonian rainforest,” he said. “It’s frustrating to me.”
Some observers also speak of what they see as shifting demographics on Hatteras Island. While Collier has vacationed on Hatteras Island for years, he’s only owned property there since 2015, a fact he acknowledges sets him apart from those who have been there considerably longer. But he also has observed more young college-educated couples with families relocating to Hatteras or moving back after having grown up there.
Couch, who was a supporter of the Hatteras Hotel project, said one reason for that support is that young millennial professionals vacationing on Hatteras from areas like Northern Virginia are more interested in a hotel stay than a longer term house rental.
“These guys today are not wanting to spend all week, much less in a rental house,” he said. “You see it is changing and you either get on board or it will run you over. I just think people are fearful of change.”
Natalie Kavanaugh, a Hatteras native and small business owner, moved back to the island after getting a college degree and working in another region of the country. “I moved back home because I wanted to be here, and back in the community,” she explained.
“Some people feel like we get forgotten when it comes to hurricanes,” she noted. “But I see [Dare County] commissioners down here the next day.”
Kavanaugh, who helped spearhead Bridge Moms, an advocacy group pushing for the advancement of the new Oregon Inlet bridge, also worked on the Outer Banks Preservation Association and is now on the Dare County Waterways Commission. She encourages fellow islanders to become involved as a way to advocate for Hatteras.
And while she admits that islanders don’t like to see a lot of change, she describes her vision for the island. “I’d like to see enough balance economically that we can have a life here and be economically stable,” she offered. “But we don’t want to get so big we see an island full of chains and outside corporations.”