WRIGHTSVILLE BEACH, NC (WWAY) — More than two weeks after New Hanover County leaders voted to close public beach accesses, the Town of Wrightsville Beach is increasing fines for violators.
If you’re caught on the beach, you could face fines of up to $650 plus potential court costs.
After handing out 18 citations to people violating public beach closures over the weekend, the town says they had to make some changes.
“Before this meeting all we had was a criminal charge, a Class II Misdemeanor,” said Wrightsville Beach Mayor Darryl Mills. “The board felt that was a bit steep.”
That misdemeanor carried a $150 fine. Now, town leaders have passed an ordinance allowing police to charge anyone caught on the beach with a $500 civil penalty up to the officer’s discretion.
“The officers can issue both, or one or the other,” Mills said.
That means violators could pay up to $650 for stepping on the beach.
To put that figure in perspective, the 18 citations issued over the weekend could have meant nearly $12,000 in revenue for the town.
Wrightsville Beach resident and former mayoral candidate Greg Buscemi attended the town’s emergency meeting Tuesday night and doesn’t agree with this decision.
“Just a little upset that they’re taking advantage of the situation, to find another way to charge people,” Buscemi said. “I can only think that the reason behind this is the loss of parking revenues.”
Mayor Mills says that is not the case.
“No, it’s really to give the officers some flexibility and an alternative to putting a criminal record on somebody,” Mills said.
However Buscemi, also an attorney, says a civil fine doesn’t give the violator a chance to defend themselves in court. He believes what the town is doing is illegal.
“Section 19.31 is the one that gives them the powers and the violations there state specifically that it should be a misdemeanor if there’s a violation,” he said. “Here, they’re trying to enforce a civil penalty, which does not provide the same protections as a criminal citation.”
Buscemi also argued the discussion of citations didn’t constitute an emergency meeting.
Town Manager Tim Owens responded to both accusations in a statement sent to WWAY, saying: “The ordinance was written by the Town Attorney and I consulted with the Attorney on the statutes governing emergency meetings. It is my opinion that we met the statutory requirements for both items that were questioned.”
Buscemi says he plans to sue the town if they do not reconsider the ordinance.