Small foundation wants to build museum on fragile public land at Jockey’s Ridge State Park — rent-free

By: - October 14, 2022 6:00 am

Sand dunes at Jockey’s Ridge State Park in Dare County (Photo: NC Parks)

With their wavy ridges, like a vast sandy potato chip, the 100-foot dunes at Jockey’s Ridge State Park on the Outer Banks are a spectacular sight to behold. It is the tallest active natural sand dune system in the eastern US, built over thousands of years by the forces of wind and water, shoals and storms.

Now a fledgling foundation with few assets and scant income is proposing to build a $7 million, 12,000-square-foot museum on environmentally fragile park land.

The Rogallo Foundation, headed by individuals active in real estate and the kite-surfing and hang-gliding business, is asking the state for permission to construct the museum to honor Francis and Gertrude Rogallo, inventors of the flexible wing – the same type of wing used in kite-surfing and hang gliding.

The foundation is proposing that the state lease it the land for free, for as long as 99 years.

A visitors’ educational center, operated by the state, already exists on site.

Although the foundation approached the NC Division of Parks and Recreation five years ago, the pandemic derailed the discussions. Only recently has the public learned, albeit indirectly, about the project. And if the proposal successfully wends its way through state government, a loophole in North Carolina law could exempt the project from an environmental assessment or even a public comment period.

“Public opinion has been shaped by a private foundation,” said a representative of the Friends of Jockey’s Ridge, a nonprofit that helps support the park, at a recent meeting with state officials recorded by the Outer Banks Voice. “We were blindsided.”

Conflicting stories about the deal between state, foundation

John M. Harris (right), president of the Rogallo Foundation, and Billy Vaughn, who is writing a book about the Rogallos, asked the Nags Head Board of Commissioners to support the construction of the museum on public park land. (Screenshot: Town of Nags Head)

Since early September, John M. Harris, president of the foundation board, has been making the rounds to local governments to gin up support. He convinced the Dare County Commissioners to pass a resolution in favor of the project, the Outer Banks Voice reported. Last week, he approached the Nags Head Board of Commissioners, which did took no action.

Harris publicly announced the foundation was scheduled to meet with the Division of Parks and Recreation about the lease on Sept. 30, but then said the meeting would be delayed until Oct. 20.

However, the parks division disputed that claim.

Michele Walker, spokesperson for the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, which oversees the state park system, said there is no lease or signed agreement with the Rogallo Foundation.

“Discussions regarding the possible construction of a Rogallo Museum at Jockey’s Ridge State Park are still in the very early stages, and no decision has been made about this project by either the leadership of the Division of Parks and Recreation or the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources,” Walker wrote in an email to Policy Watch on Wednesday.

George Barnes was the first superintendent of Jockey’s Ridge State Park, established by the state legislature in 1975. He wrote a letter to Nags Head town officials questioning the need and the viability of the project on public lands: “Why is it necessary for it to be in the park? How will it be operated and maintained so it doesn’t become a burden on the state?”

Brian Strong, deputy director of planning and natural resources for the parks division, met with the Friends of Jockey’s Ridge this week, according to audio posted by the Outer Banks Voice. “We are in the initial data gathering phase. We don’t have a lot of information.”

The division can’t unilaterally lease state land, Strong said. A lease agreement would have to go through the state property office, and from there to the Council of State for a vote. Ultimately, the lease could become valid only with the governor’s signature.

It’s unclear if the federal government would have input. The US Department of the Interior has designated Jockey’s Ridge as a National Natural Area. Disturbances of wetlands or waterways would require the US Army Corps of Engineers approval.

Strong said that the museum could meet one of the park’s purposes by educating visitors on the science and evolution of flight. “Does it fit? Yes.” Strong said. “But there? We’re trying to get an answer. A memorandum of agreement would spell that out.”

Harris told Policy Watch he sent a draft memorandum of agreement to the parks division.

There was a widespread computer network outage in state government on Thursday, and that document couldn’t be accessed. After interviewing Harris by phone, Policy Watch asked him via email to share a copy of the MOA; he did not respond.

Some of the sand dunes at Jockey’s Ridge State Park are 100 feet tall. (Photo: NC Parks)

“Any project of this nature undertaken by our department would be thoroughly reviewed and researched, including environmental analysis and consideration of any public input,” Walker of the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources told Policy Watch.

However, since 2015, there have been fewer obstacles to the private development of taxpayer-funded land. That’s when the Republican-led  General Assembly created a legal loophole and allowed state agencies to sidestep key environmental laws.

Until the law changed, the State Environmental Policy Act, also known as SEPA, required state agencies to consider and report on the environmental impacts of all development on public land, including parks. SEPA also required state agencies to conduct an environmental assessment and hold a public comment period on those developments.

But since the law changed, only projects that cost more than $10 million or disturb more than 10 acres of land are subject to SEPA requirements.

A disturbance is defined as one that “results in substantial, permanent changes in the natural cover or topography of those lands (or waters)” or could have a “potential detrimental environmental effect upon natural resources, public health and safety, natural beauty, or historical or cultural elements, of the state’s common inheritance.”

(Projects that require a water quality permit are also exempt from some portions of SEPA. The NC State Fair used this loophole to clear-cut 19 acres of forest last year for a parking lot, Policy Watch reported at the time.)

Even though development of the museum would clearly meet the definition of a “disturbance,” it would be on less than 10 acres, and presumably cost the state no money. The museum project would likely be exempt from SEPA.

Strong confirmed to the Friends of Jockey Ridge that smaller projects like the museum “would no longer fall under the [SEPA] criteria.”

The Division of Parks’ own documents extol the natural wonders of Jockey’s Ridge. “The park provides an important and increasingly limited habitat for native plants and animals,” a 2017 general management plan reads, including dune grass, maritime evergreen forests and brackish marshes.

Former Nags Head Mayor Bob Muller sent a letter to the town board of commissioners asking that they not adopt a resolution of support. “There are many questions about building within state natural area,” Muller wrote. “A museum to Francis Rogallo doesn’t need to be within Jockey’s Ridge State Park. It should be on private land.”

Harris said the foundation did look at other locations but settled on the park.

“Land here is extremely expensive,” Harris said. “There’s over 50 years of flying history at Jockey’s Ridge.”

An architectural rendering of the Rogallo Museum (Screenshot from presentation before Nags Head Town Board of Commissioners)

A small foundation with a hazy past

In his presentation to the Nags Head Town Board of Commissioners on Oct. 5, Harris said the Rogallo Foundation has existed since 1992.

However, from 1994 to 2015, the foundation was effectively defunct, according to NC Secretary of State records, for “revenue suspension.” Even though nonprofit corporations don’t pay income taxes, state law requires these businesses to submit annual reports and pay any required filing fees to the state Department of Revenue.

“Everybody was busy,” Harris told Policy Watch about why the foundation went dormant. “We’ve regrouped and begun fundraising.”

Because the foundation has generated less than $50,000 in income per year, it is not required to file a nonprofit tax return, known as a 990, with the IRS.

Harris said the foundation has $100,000 in assets, which have come through donations. The money is being used for planning, Harris said. The cost of building the museum would be covered through fundraising.The foundation also would be financially responsible for museum maintenance and operations.

The foundation’s phone number connects to Kitty Hawk Kites, a for-profit business that engages in “the business of marketing hang gliding lessons, equipment, kites, toys and merchandise,” according to corporate filings with the NC Secretary of State.

Kitty Hawk Kites is of several recreation-oriented entities that Harris owns or co-owns, according to state records, including Kitty Hawk Surf Company, the watersports resort Waves Village, Good Winds Seafood and Wine Bar, and JL Seagull Campgrounds.

Several other foundation board members, including GW Meadows, work in real estate.

The museum would be dedicated to the science of kite surfing, sport parachuting and hang gliding – the very businesses that Harris runs. Yet, he claimed it would not boost his for-profit ventures.

“My own mistake was not differentiating enough between the business and the foundation,” Harris said. “That’s where a lot of criticism is coming from. I’ll work on that. The foundation is a totally different animal.”

Francis Rogallo, who worked for NASA, and his wife, Gertrude, co-invented the flexible wing in the 1940s. They later settled in Kitty Hawk.

“This is someone who envisioned personal flight and made it a reality” using his wife’s kitchen curtains and a wind tunnel he built at home, Harris said. “Their invention made personal flights inexpensive.”

Harris called the Rogallo story “inspirational.”

Jockey’s Ridge is the home of another inspirational story. In 1973, Carolista Baum – the park visitors’ center is on a road bearing her first name – halted development there. The Division of Parks calls her “the patron saint of Jockey’s Ridge.”

Ann-Cabell Baum is one of Carolista’s three children who, in 1973, saw bulldozers removing sand from the ridge. They ran home and told their mother. Carolista sat in front of the bulldozer and stopped it from removing the sand.

“The bulldozer operator left,” Ann-Cabell Baum told Nags Head town officials. “Mom removed the distributor cap. And with that, began the movement to preserve Jockey’s Ridge as a landmark forever.”

Note: This story originally and incorrectly identified the Rogallo Foundation as a “private foundation.” It is actually considered a “public charity” under federal law.

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Lisa Sorg
Lisa Sorg

Assistant Editor and Environmental Reporter Lisa Sorg helps manage newsroom operations while covering the environment, climate change, agriculture and energy.