Whether working on a tan or walking down the strand, encore readers know that Wrightsville Beach is the place to have a little fun in the sun. For some, the sandy shores are also the perfect place to smoke, but locals felt that too many cigarette butts were ending up on the beach and transforming their idyllic shores into one giant ashtray. This led the town to hold a public hearing to discuss a proposed smoking ban on March 8th. Despite heavy public support, the council voted to extinguish the measure.
There was such a huge turnout of at least 100 people so the hearing was moved to the beach’s Public Safety Building to accommodate everyone. Attendees on both sides of the issue were given equal chance to voice their opinions and concerns.
The overwhelming majority of speakers were supportive of the ban, and many audience members wore blue Surfrider Foundation T-shirts to show solidarity. The Surfrider foundation serves to environmentally protect the enjoyment of oceans, waves and beaches through a powerful activist network. Danielle Richardet, local activist and focus of a film “FilterForGood” produced by Brita about the cigarette butt problem on Wrightsville Beach, spoke about her personal experiences clearing litter from the beach.
“In 122 non-consecutive days, doing only 20-minute beach clean-ups, we have picked 40,827 cigarette butts off the sands of Wrightsville Beach,” she stated. “That’s an average of 17 butts per minute.”
Richardet’s friends and other volunteers have cleaned up another 10,446 butts bringing the total to 51,273 butts total. She worries cigarette butts are more than just a nuisance but a toxic hazard.
“Since the littered filters contain thousands of chemicals, such as cadmium, lead and arsenic that begin to leach into our environment moments after contact with water, they really should be considered hazardous waste,” she noted.
Resident Dan Cameron spoke at the hearing in opposition to the ban. “I enjoy sitting on the beach and enjoying a cigar,” he stated. He also said this shouldn’t be turned into a lifestyle issue. “If you want to talk about lifestyle, obesity is a big issue, but nobody is talking about that.” Cameron emphasized it was a simple littering issue and nothing more.
Local Colin Eagles even described the hearing as “theater of the absurd,” and dismissed the idea that secondhand smoke on the beach was a serious environmental issue. However, there were far more ban-supporters lining up for their turns in front of the board. At one point 12 people waited for a chance to speak, including a group of six passionate high-school students. Before the board made their closing remarks, Mayor David Cignotti asked for a show of hands in support and opposition to the ban. Less than a dozen attendees were against the ban.
Despite such low numbers, the Wrightsville Beach Board of Alderman voted down the measure in a 3-to-2 vote. This isn’t the first time it failed either. In 2010 Mayor Cignotti and Alderman Bill Sisson voted in favor of the measure while Mayor Pro Tem Susan Collins voted against it; Elizabeth King and Darryl Mills were not on the board in 2010. Many local supporters of the ban believed the new board members could push the vote in their favor this time around. Such didn’t go as planned as votes remained the same, with King and Mills swinging it against once again. Had the smoking ban passed, Wrightsville Beach would have been the first in North Carolina and 127th beach community in the nation to ban smoking along the shoreline.
The board members also had the opportunity to publicly express their opinions on the issue before they voted. Supportive of the measure, Sisson said everyone had the right to fresh air on the beach. Collins said enforcement by peer pressure wasn’t the type of image that should be projected in Wrightsville Beach. King worried about enforcement costs and the extra burden it would place on local police, despite the fact that Chief Dan House publicly stated it would not be a heavy burden on his force. Town Manager Robert Simpson reportedly set aside funds in the town’s budget for items such as new signage. Mills sought to remind everyone at the hearing that the beach is public space where locals and tourists alike should enjoy freedom.
“Personally, I’m for it, and I believe most of the residents and even people who don’t live on the island supported it,” Cignotti stated. “When you’re elected to office, you have to put aside your personal beliefs, and support what the majority of the citizens want, but I don’t feel like that happened [tonight].”
Cignotti acknowledges smoking and personal rights a tumultuous debate. “Individual smokers have rights,” he said. “I understand it’s an emotional issue, but the 80 percent of non-smokers have rights, too.”
Despite this setback Richardet and many of the Surfrider Foundation members aren’t ready to back down. “The residents of Wrightsville Beach are so frustrated at their elected officials because they didn’t vote the way we wanted them to vote,” Richardet said. “We had the signatures of 402 Wrightsville Beach residents. But nobody is going to back away from this.”