Can Duck resolve its beach access battle?
In the wake of the highly publicized May 29 arrest of local businessman Bob Hovey for trespassing on a privately owned beach access — and the ensuing social media frenzy — those in the middle of the controversy over public access in Duck are making some effort to lower the temperature.
What is far from clear is whether a solution can be found that will satisfy the two sides.
Duck Mayor Don Kingston told a crowded room during Town Council’s June 5 meeting that his board is open to discussing the issues surrounding beach access in town once tensions ease.
Reciting from an email response to Hovey earlier that week, Kingston also told the audience at the meeting that staff would “engage interested stakeholders in this dialogue,” as well as develop a plan for discussions. In addition, he said there would be opportunities to provide input regarding state road parking and beach access as the town begins the process of updating its Comprehensive Plan and CAMA Land Use Plan.
“What we will do in the next three to six months is let staff explore options,” Kingston told the Sentinel in a later interview. “There is no easy solution…but we are taking a look. It’s the town’s obligation to look.”
But Kingston, in the interview, also reiterated that 99% of the residents and their guests in Duck do in fact have beach access, with only three or so streets not having access. One of those without beach access is Hovey, who owns property at Osprey Ridge and is owner of Duck Village Outfitters.
Meanwhile, Hovey, after creating a firestorm on social media with the video of his arrest, has extended an olive branch of sorts to the town – apologizing on Facebook last week for “comments I have made in response to people opposed to my objective and my frustration with the [Town of Duck] refusing to acknowledge my efforts over the past 10 years.” He also expressed regret to the town’s police, who he said “acted professionally and as they were instructed.”
But Hovey didn’t back off his battle for public beach access in Duck. He told the Sentinel he will use the more than $13,000 he’s raised in contributions since his arrest to revive legal battles that were dismissed in 2017 that sought to identify Sea Hawk, Sea Breeze and Plover Drive beach access as publicly deeded – regardless of ownership.
“The overwhelming support from the local community has given me a lot more confidence to take it to a jury trial,” said Hovey, who also said he’ll plead not guilty to the second-degree trespassing charge he faces in Dare County District Court on July 5. “There’s absolutely nothing that shows the [HOAs] have exclusive rights.”
Before the town was incorporated in 2002, all the oceanfront property in Duck had been previously platted, town officials have pointed out during the controversy, posting a statement on the municipal website, along with a public beach access FAQ. The plats depict access points for owners, renters and guests in the town’s more than 60 subdivisions. The town doesn’t own or maintain any beach accesses, nor had Dare County before its incorporation in 2002.
For his part, Hovey acknowledges he hasn’t had an issue with accessing the beach at Plover Drive in the 20 or so years he’s owned property. But he said the Sea Breeze access in the Sand Dollar Shores subdivision was closest to his house – and his conviction that it should be public drew him into the conflict with homeowners.
“Why should I have to walk three-fourths of a mile” when the Sea Breeze access was less than a quarter-mile away, he said. “I don’t want anyone to think this lawsuit is that I hate Duck…I don’t want grief with my neighbors, but just want to know if there is legal precedent and whether the homeowners who live on the street have exclusive access – let’s let the court decide it.”
But even as there was strong support for public beach access in the days that followed Hovey’s video of his arrest at Sea Breeze, criticism surfaced from those who disagreed with him — and that included suggestions he was pushing the cause for his own financial gain.
During the June 5 council meeting, Ben Vorndran was among more than a dozen people who spoke during public comment. He noted that Hovey owned property in Osprey Ridge, where there is no public beach assess, and that he owned a business in Duck that benefits from beach access. “So there would be a financial gain for him, adding value to his property there.”
Vorndran said an influx of people and vehicles in Duck would only add to the congestion and tax town services. He added: “Everyone knew who owned property that there wasn’t any public beach access…I like finding a place to put my beach towel down and not have 20 to 30 people around me.”
In an interview with the Sentinel, Hovey called the suggestions that he was fighting for public beach access for his own personal gain “pretty ridiculous.” He said he has advocated for beach rights since opening DVO in 1998.
“Maybe it will make my home value go up, maybe not,” Hovey said, asserting that his love for the ocean drives his motives. “I’ve centered my whole life around the ocean. To say it’s just for money is just ridiculous.”
Matt Pruitt, an editor and writer for Surfline, also spoke at the meeting and warned that the beaches are getting more crowded. ”Having access in Duck," he said, would be “one last refuge, a place where a few of us and our friends can go and catch this great swath of beach.”
One place Hovey, and others who support public beach access, plan to start is working to achieve a public beach access at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers site at Duck Pier. “If we have enough public support behind it, that hopefully will exceed any reason it remains closed,” he said. For the town’s part, it’s approached the federal agency in the past about a public access, but said it hit roadblocks.
Pruitt pushed that idea as well. “I think the first thing on everyone’s mind is to see what we can do with the Army Corps to allow some kind of access and parking. I think that would solve a lot of problems and think you would hear a lot less complaints.”
Whatever the outcome, Kingston voiced confidence that any impact on Duck’s tourist-based economy from the beach access controversy would be minor.
“Visitors and tourists will continue to come to Duck at the same level as before,” he said. “Despite all the social media hype, the impact will be minimal.”