Folly at the beach

Jun. 28, 2014 @ 11:53 AM

This editorial appeared in the News & Record, Greensboro

Since it opened right before World War II, Jennette's Pier in Nags Head has survived nasty nor'easters, full-blown hurricanes and hordes of tourists from New Jersey. But there's a man-made disaster that might finally do it in:

The General Assembly.

Eleven years after Hurricane Isabel ripped away most of this oceanfront landmark and three years after the state rebuilt and reopened the popular tourist attraction, state lawmakers are thinking about selling a perfectly good pier.

Jennette's Pier opened in 1939 on the former site of a New Deal worker's camp. It claims to be the oldest fishing pier on the Outer Banks, and it was built near Whalebone Junction, where the highway crosses Roanoke Sound from Manteo and peels off south to Cape Hatteras.

The Jennette family eventually sold the pier, and N.C. Aquariums -- which runs the aquariums on Roanoke Island and two other N.C. locations -- ended up with the pier in 2003. That fall, Hurricane Isabel roared through the Outer Banks and took most of the pier with her. In 2009, Gov. Bev Perdue and state lawmakers agreed to spend $25 million to replace it.

The new pier opened in 2011, and it's wonderful. It's 1,000 feet long and made of concrete, which means it should withstand the worst storms. There's a two-story pier house with an aquarium, a gift shop and a private reception area that holds 175 guests. It's primarily a year-round fishing pier, so visitors can fish or simply walk out over the ocean. Wind turbines, cisterns and a geothermal HVAC system make the pier a model of green energy.

This might come as a shock to stingy state lawmakers, but the pier appears to support itself. The N.C. Coastal Federation, a nonprofit conservation group, reported this week that the pier covers nearly all of its $1.16 million annual operating budget through rental income, a robust tourist trade and support from the N.C. Aquarium Society.

In the spring, lawmakers in the N.C. House surprised most everyone on the Outer Banks with a provision in its budget plan to sell the pier and put the proceeds in a clean water trust fund. Budget bills filed by the N.C. Senate thankfully contain no such language.

It's a fair question to ask why the state is in the pier business to begin with. The northern section of the Outer Banks already has three other public piers. None is nearly as nice as Jennette's, which gives the state pier a big competitive advantage. But piers are expensive and uninsurable and rickety, which is why most of these creaky old wooden structures are one good storm away from tumbling into the ocean for good.

If North Carolina wants a vibrant tourist economy, it must support it. That's why state workers clear N.C. 12 of sand after every bad storm. That's why the state is planning to spend more than $200 million to rebuild the Bonner Bridge, which is on the verge of crumbling into Oregon Inlet. And that's why state lawmakers agreed -- unanimously -- five years ago to build a better Jennette's Pier.

If state lawmakers think it's a good idea to sell it, there's a not-so-short pier in Nags Head that's a perfectly good place to take a long walk.