By Kathy Blake
On a warm February morning, a scattering of dog walkers shuffles along an otherwise vacant beach, where pastel bungalows on pilings, the only buildings for miles, sit so close to the surf it’s almost possible to fish from their balconies at high tide. On the horizon, the lighthouse at Fort Caswell and a shrimp boat appear in the mist. In a scene so storybook perfect, it’s difficult to find flaw; but there’s a tacit sense of urgency at work, and the culprit is sea turtles.
Dave Kelly, town manager of Oak Island, one of six barrier-island communities in Brunswick County, is preparing for a meeting with the Federal Emergency Management Agency about sand being shipped to rebuild dunes that didn’t hold when Hurricane Matthew brushed the coastline in October.
“We’ve been working with them to rebuild the first dune,” he says. “We only have until May and we have to stop, because it’s sea turtle season.”
The shoreline habitat of Oak Island, 60 miles north of Myrtle Beach, saw 10,000 sea-turtle hatchlings last summer. Kelly — for whom “beach slope” and “dune construction” are everyday terms — is perfectly content with the laid-back pace of the small beach community. With its two piers, uncluttered beaches and no excessive what-not, Oak Island is a haven of nonchalance.
“There are no high-rises,” Kelly says. “It’s not a Myrtle Beach — we’re not trying to bring in the big-bucks kind of things. We don’t have waterslides, but we do have 67 beach accesses so people can come see the beach. We have old surf shops and burger joints.” Beachfront property is limited to a height of 42 feet.
Tourists bring money — Brunswick County took in $508.9 million from visitors in 2015 — and some bring airplanes. Tiny Cape Fear Regional Jetport on the mainland, with its 5,500-foot runway, is the busiest general-aviation airport in the state, according to the Transportation Security Administration, with more than 72,000 arrivals or departures a year. Multimillion dollar jets, discreetly parked, are not unusual, as celebrities and business barons slip in under the proverbial radar and blend in, unnoticed.
“We know they’re here, but we have a ‘don’t tell’ policy,” Kelly says. Kelly, 58, has lived on this island or in nearby Southport most of his life. Before Yaupon Beach and Long Beach merged to form Oak Island in 1999 during rebuilding after Hurricane Floyd, he worked as a building inspector and zoning administrator in Yaupon.
The island part of Oak Island, about 14 miles long, is a mere 5,180 acres. But with annexations on the mainland, the town has nearly tripled in size to 14,335 acres since 1999. The population was a sparse 6,783 in 2010 but grew more than 10% to 7,507 in 2015. With a median age of 52.7, more than 45% of year-round residents are not considered part of the labor force, according to a town study, but it is the locals who own the restaurants, bait shops, thrift stores, boutiques and a 62-room beachfront hotel adjacent to the Ocean Crest Pier.
“When I’m asked to describe Oak Island, the only word that comes to mind is ‘paradise.’ When you cross that bridge, you just feel a sense of peace,” says Mayor Cin Brochure, who moved to the island from Lenoir County in 2007 and took office in January 2016. “We have all walks of life on Oak Island.”
A waterfront home can sell for upward of $1 million; a mobile home can run $40,000. Median home value is $256,300, higher than the state median of $178,600 but less than half the average sales price of homes on nearby Bald Head Island. Household income is about $50,996, slightly higher than the N.C. median of $46,868.
According to census data, Brunswick County’s population grew 18% from 2010 to July 2016 to nearly 127,000, making it one of the fastest-growing counties in the state. Proximity to Wilmington, in New Hanover County, and the beaches of South Carolina plays a role. While retirees flock to nearby communities such as St. James Plantation, Oak Island remains relatively untouched.
The main east-west street, Oak Island Drive, has a small business district that includes the county’s oldest Dairy Queen (walk-up windows only). Residential streets are void of sidewalks and street lights, and golf carts are street-legal transportation, gliding past houses with names such as Happy Ours, Luna Sea and The Porpoise Driven Life.
From the Swain’s Cut bridge to the western tip at King’s Point, you can go 69 blocks without a store or stoplight. Under the island’s oak-tree canopy, there’s more sand than grass. Come summer, local growers’ vegetable stands dot the sides of Oak Island Drive, and umbrellas sprout on the beach as tourists swell the population to an estimated 38,800 in peak months and 87,100 on the Fourth of July. A three-bedroom, two-bath oceanfront home can rent for $2,800 a week in summer.
“We don’t want the glitz and the glamour,” Brochure says. “Visitors want that old beach feel of their childhood, when there was dancing on the beach and shagging on the boulevard. Except we don’t have a boulevard. … We see the place come to life, then when they leave, it’s back to normal again.”
If there is big business news on Oak Island, it’s that there is no big business. Aside from the Dairy Queen, an Eagles beachwear store, two banks, a Domino’s and a Food Lion, local ownership reigns. That may be changing. On the far side of N.C. 211, 6 miles inland from the bridge, a Lowes Foods shopping center opened in May 2016, and a Holiday Inn Express is across the road.
“We don’t want to see the island commercialized. We want it to stay the way it is now,” Kelly says. “Where the Lowes is, that’s where the commercial development is going to be, and I hope it stays there.”
A Publix-based shopping center is planned for Oak Island Drive, on two sandy blocks of a former campground where the sea is visible from the road. Though some residents and business owners have spoken against it, construction is likely to begin in January 2018.
“A lot of people shop local, and a lot of people do know each other. If you go into a store, they know you by name. We watch over each other,” says Joanne Maurice, owner of Joanne’s Loving Touch Dog Grooming, across from the vacant lot that Publix may occupy. “I can see the ocean from my door, but Publix is a beautiful supermarket, and I think it’s going to bring more jobs here.”
“We welcome smart growth,” Brochure says. “You have everything right here, and you can walk to it. … I don’t think we will ever see the island change in our lifetime. If you want anything other than a laid-back, homey atmosphere, don’t come to Oak Island. That’s what we pride ourselves on, and that’s the way we want to stay.”