By Michael Praats | June 9, 2021 at 3:01 PM EDT – Updated June 9 at 7:30 PM
WRIGHTSVILLE BEACH, N.C. (WECT) – For years, visitors to Wrightsville Beach have had few places they could park for free but visitors this year have found out that the land they once used free of charge is going to cost them.
The land under the Heidi Trask Drawbridge is technically owned by the N.C. Department of Transportation, but this year the town decided it was time to charge people to park there — and people had questions about that decision.
The biggest questions were, “Why now?” and “Is the town even able to charge for parking on the state’s land?”
When asked the first question, Town Manager Tim Owens said, “We reassess our parking program every year and make changes. This was a change that we made. It is consistent with the other paid parking in the area.”
But when it comes down to the question as to whether or not it is allowed, the answer is not as clear. On the surface, the town, as well as the NCDOT, say that state statute allows municipalities to regulate parking on NCDOT right-of-ways.
Jessi Leonard, traffic engineer for the NCDOT, explained, “There is a general statute that allows municipalities, any municipality, the authority to enforce parking on any roadway within their jurisdiction regardless of it being NCDOT or city roadway.”
That state statute is 160A-301, and it says, “A city may by ordinance regulate, restrict, and prohibit the parking of vehicles on the public streets, alleys, and bridges within the city.”
But, not everyone is convinced that it’s okay and it’s due to a sign posted on the bridge’s pilings.
It says, “Conducting business within NCDOT right of way is prohibited.”
Chris Mangum has rented jet skis in Wrightsville Beach for two decades, and since he has been there, there has been one big rule: do not collect money on state property or conduct business. But he says the town and the company the town uses to charge for parking is doing just that.
“For 20 years, DOT has always told me never to collect money on state property which I never do, but the sign clearly says conducting business is illegal,” Mangum said.
When asked about the sign, Leonard said she did not have any knowledge of it.
“I’m not familiar with those signs. I’d have to look into that more — that’s not a standard sign that we installed or maintained,” she said.
As far as who would install such a sign then, Leonard clarified that it could have been another division with the NCDOT like the one that maintains bridges.
For now, it appears the town is able to charge for parking under the bridge, but not everyone is convinced, or happy, with the decision.
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