Southern Shores: Rematch for mayor, one council seat in play

By on October 19, 2017

Gary McDonald

Tom Bennett

Southern Shores voters will find two races on the ballot for the 2017 municipal election.

Incumbent Mayor Tom Bennett faces Councilman Gary McDonald in a rematch of the 2013 election, which featured four candidates. Bennett came out on top. McDonald finished second.

The lone Town Council race features Jim Conners and Geri Sullivan, who look to replace Leo Holland. Holland chose not to seek re-election.


Our questions to them focused on a new fire station, street improvements, summer traffic cutting through residential areas and beach nourishment.

Early voting started today. Click here for more details »

Biographical information was provided by the League of Women Voters of Dare County.


Tom Bennett
218 Hillcrest Drive

Education: BA Degree, Lynchburg College, Lynchburg, VA; Graduate Studies, University of Maryland, College Park, MD; U.S. Naval Officer Candidate School Graduate, Newport, RI; U.S. Naval Destroyer School Graduate, Newport, RI


Career Experience: 1959-1960, Faculty Resident (Undergrad Counseling), University of Maryland; 1961-1969, U.S. Navy, Commissioned Officer; 1969-1971, Construction, Sales and Rental Management for a Builder/Developer, Northern, VA; 1972-2002, Owner and Operator of Bennett’s Nursery Inc., Vienna, VA; 2003-2007, Sales Consultant, Bennett’s Creek Wholesale Nursery, Suffolk, VA; 2010-2012, Project Manager, Phase 1 Canal Dredge Project, Town of Southern Shores.

Additional experience: President, Southern Shores Civic Association; Commodore, Southern Shores Boat Club; Boat Club Liaison, SSCA Board, Southern Shores; Chairman, Beautification Committee, SSCA Board, Southern Shores; President, Northern Virginia Nurserymen’s Association; Chairman, Certification Committee, VA Nurserymen’s Association; “Caring Hands” Volunteer, Duck United Methodist Church; Board Member, Duck Woods Country Club.

Gary McDonald
74 Trinitie Trail

Education: B.A. History, M.Ed., M.Ed. Administration, Certificate of Advanced Study in Education Administration – UNC-Charlotte. Postgraduate coursework at Duke University, Clemson University, Lynchburg College and University of Virginia

Occupation: School Administrator and Teacher for 39 years including Principal of Kitty Hawk Elementary and First Flight Middle Schools

Additional experience: Past President, Chicahauk Property Owner’s Association; State Superintendent’s Principal Advisory Group; President, North Carolina Principals and Assistant Principals Association; Board of Directors, NC Principal/Assistant Principal Association; NC Quality Teacher Advisory; Committee for Department of Public Instruction; NC Association of School Administrators; Virginia Association of Elementary & Secondary Principals; Board of Directors for Region 1 NC Middle School Association; Board of Directors Outer Banks Babe Ruth; First Flight Booster Club; North Banks Rotary / Paul Harris Fellow; Past President – Noon Optimist Club; US Navy Veteran

Geri Sullivan
Education: Pennsylvania State University, Bachelor of Science, Mathematics; University of Pittsburgh, Executive Masters of Business Administration; University of Pittsburgh, Accounting Certificate Program

Work Experience: Westinghouse Electric Corporation (1967 – 1997),Thirty years of computer systems and financial experience with 24 years at the management and executive level. Assignments included: Financial Manager, Quality and Productivity Center; Director, Corporate Payroll Services; Director, Corporate Financial Systems; Corporate Controller’s Finance Reengineering Team Member; SAP & Independent Consultant (1997-1999), SAP Financial Software

Additional experience: Co-founder and board member of Build the Bridge, Preserve Our Roads Inc. for 14 years, working for a mid-Currituck Bridge and not widening NC 12; Served on the boards of the Southern Shores Civic Association and SSCA Tennis Club; Board member of the Dare League of Women Voters, most recently as Co-President

Jim Conners

Education: Bachelor of Landscape Architecture, University of Georgia, 1985; over 30 years of annual continuing education to maintain professional licensure as a Registered Landscape Architect and to keep current in my profession.

Occupation: Seven years in the United States Marine Corps before attending college; 32 years and counting in the practice of Landscape Architecture, 14 with architectural/engineering firms and now 18 years self-employed as a Landscape Architect, Land Planner, and Environmental Consultant; registered and licensed in North Carolina, with previous registrations in South Carolina, Georgia and Virginia.

Additional Experience: 22 years in Southern Shores; many hours of volunteering (with the Southern Shores Civic Association, Town Capital Improvement Committee, the All Saints Episcopal Church, other groups); My education and professional work allow me to offer expertise in such areas as storm water management, urban forestry, wetland identification and protection, and low impact development; this has been applied in my past and ongoing work within the Town. Enhancements in Southern Shores I’ve worked on, each with many dedicated folks, include improvements to Trinitie Park and Sea Oats Community Park, as well as new facilities such as the Hillcrest Tennis Courts and Loblolly Marina.

1. What is your stance on the recommendations to replace the main fire station and how would you propose paying for it?

Bennett: I support the Southern Shores Volunteer Fire Department (SSVFD) replacing their Station on South Dogwood. It is important to note that that our volunteer fire department is rated among the very best on the Outer Banks. We are most fortunate to have these dedicated volunteers serving our community. I believe the SSVFD’s efforts to move forward with a new station are well conceived and visionary, recognizing that we could be facing the reality of supporting a paid fire service at some point in the future. The SSVFD would, with Town support, arrange the financing of their new fire station.

McDonald: I’m firmly in favor of helping the dedicated men and women of our volunteer fire department to continue doing an outstanding job of protecting our town and our people.
I have toured the existing fire station, talked with our fire chief and many of our volunteer firefighters, and have a good understanding of their needs. Building a new fire station, or even updating the existing one, is costly. Right now, we’re talking about $3 to $5 million to construct a new station. That does not include the costs associated with tearing down the existing station or interim costs for housing vehicles and equipment. It is important to understand that SSVFD is a private non-profit corporation contracted by the town of Southern Shores to provide fire and safety services. To fund a new structure or extensive renovations will be a joint partnership between the Town and fire department because the Town would ultimately be the guarantor of the loan.

It’s unfortunate that we didn’t see this coming. The urgency of knowing that something must be done, but how to do it in a fiscally responsible way could have been avoided if we had a long-range plan that anticipates future needs, such as an updated or new fire station. By having a long-range plan, this would have been an anticipated request and the Town would be in a better position today to address the fire department’s needs.
That is where we need a change in leadership. My goal, as mayor, is to lead us in the direction that plans for the future challenges and needs of our community.

Conners: The current discussion of a possible new fire station is an example of long range planning so that Southern Shores can budget for and continue with the excellent fire protection service we have today. The existing fire station is 30 years old and has seen changes and adaptations to serve Fire Dept. needs, as well as to comply with changing regulations and requirements. There are problems with the site itself, most notably flooding during storm events.

The Southern Shores Volunteer Fire Dept. (SSVFD) is an autonomous organization that owns its own real property, facilities, vehicles and equipment. They employ their own Chief and Deputy Chief. Southern Shores pays for fire protection services under terms of a fire services contract. The current contract expires this year, so in 2018 it is critical for the Town and SSVFD leaders to WORK TOGETHER to initiate a new contract that continues the excellent fire protection services we currently enjoy.

Design plans for a new fire station are currently being developed; prior to their completion, it’s premature to say how it would be paid for. We have reasonable estimates, but they are not based on design drawings. Other costs to be factored in include demolition of the existing facility, site improvements to address flooding, and temporary housing for the SSVFD.

Sullivan: I’ve toured the fire station with Chief Limbacher and I recognize there are a number of issues with the existing facility that need to be addressed, the most serious of which is flooding during major rain events. We need to make sure our firefighters have facilities and equipment that are in good condition.

There’s no question that we must do something. The challenge is that any solution needs to be done in a fiscally responsible way that will not impact our tax rate or put undue pressure on our budget.

Unfortunately, there are a number of expensive projects on the table right now that will be competing for funding. The estimate for a new fire station is about $5 million, and we still haven’t taken into account costs for our other facility on East Dogwood. There are also a capital roads program, estimated at 8 million dollars, which only partially addresses our roads, and a Dogwood Trails walking path, which could run in the millions. And we still have to decide where we stand on beach nourishment.

This pressure of knowing that something must be done, but how to do it in a fiscally responsible way could have been avoided if we had a long-range plan that anticipated future needs, such as an updated or new fire station.

My first priority will be to work with the council on putting together a master plan that includes addressing the Fire Department needs. This planning process should result in a long-term financial forecast and project timetable. The goal will be to minimize any impact on our tax rate for this and any other project. Our citizens should expect this type of fiscal responsibility from the council and town staff.

By the way, a plan should take months not years to come together.  As a financial executive timely planning was part of my normal yearly planning process and was very effective

2. How would you rate the efforts to upgrade town streets while preserving the natural features around them, and what would you do differently?

Bennett: We have made significant progress in addressing the condition of our aging streets. I would like to see us do more each year and we have recently committed additional monies to this effort. I believe the Street Rebuild Standards we have in place are appropriate in that they allow the street improvements to be accomplished with minimal impact on our “natural” features.

McDonald: I would rate these efforts as low. We still have many streets in need of repair or rebuilding. Each year, the town budgets around $575,000 for infrastructure improvements, including streets and bridges. This covers two to four projects annually, and we currently have a list of about 20 street projects in need of repair or upgrades.

The stated reason for setting aside the same amount for road work each year is that only three or four projects can be accomplished within a year. There are funds within the budget to adequately increase the capital improvement infrastructure fund allowing for more repair projects and accelerating the street repair schedule.

Last year, the mayor voted to eliminate all standing committees, one being the Capital Improvement Planning Committee (CIP). The purpose of the CIP was to involve community members, to discuss capital improvment projects, and to make recommendations to the council. This year, I successfully pushed to reinstate the CIP with additional community representatives to discuss and prioritize infrastructure improvements. As mayor, I would use the CIP recommendations to guide us in projecting budget needs to speed up our road repairs. I want to make sure that as we repair/rebuild our streets we build them back better than they were before we started. In all cases, I want to make sure we use low impact development (LID).LID is a set of practices that reduce stormwater runoff as close to the sources as possible by mimicking or preserving the natural drainage and vegetation in the area. If done properly, LID helps to maintain the ambiance of our town while at the same time saving the town money. There are no downsides of using LID: it is the industry standard. Benefits for the town using LID include minimizing stormwater impacts (flooding), protecting habitat, increasing aesthetics, and improving water quality. The town will save money by reducing the amount of pavement, curbs, and gutters needed; eliminating the need for costly runoff basins and pipe delivery systems; reducing landscaping costs, and lowering maintenance costs.

Conners: When I was on the Capital Improvements Committee, we all WORKED TOGETHER to develop standards for both the design and implementation of road repairs/rebuilds, as well as how the roads are prioritized for such work. The current design standards address road repair/rebuild, but also protection of the adjacent natural features. These standards were developed with input from engineers, the Town staff, the police and fire departments, and citizen representatives, including myself. In that role I was able to offer professional expertise as a landscape architect, since I’ve designed and laid out roadways for subdivisions, industrial and commercial developments, large parks and countless other design projects.

Town standards, for example, call for a 4 ft. clear zone from the edge of pavement as a recovery zone for cars that veer off the road for unanticipated reasons. NCDOT standards for a 25 mph road require an 8 ft. clear zone. Our Town standards are more lenient and sensitive to adjacent natural features. Additionally, speaking from experience on highway beautification projects, the NCDOT does not like large hardwood trees in the right-of-ways due to damage their roots can cause to the road. Smaller flowering trees are preferred.

The current design standards have been reviewed by the Coastal Studies Institute on Roanoke Island and deemed to be in compliance with the goal of Low Impact Development (LID). The sole goal of LID is to protect adjacent waters from stormwater pollution. By using infiltration basins, such as the recently completed infiltration pond at the NC 12/E. Dogwood intersection, the Town is currently meeting the LID goal. Everything else about LID is a discussion of tools to use to achieve that basic goal.

One change I would like to see is replacement of trees that are removed. I’d propose small native trees such as Redbud, Dogwood, Serviceberry, or Yaupon Holly. I’d also like to see fewer curbs and gutters when possible, but it should be noted that entirely eliminating them and using all swales would likely increase the number of trees to be removed. A 1 ft. deep swale, for example, would require a minimum clear zone up to 12 ft. from the edge of pavement (3 ft. shoulder, 3:1 slope down, 3 ft. wide bottom of swale, and then another 3:1 slope to return to original grade).

Sullivan: I would not give high marks to our street rebuild effort so far, as the street rebuilds appear unnecessarily expensive, and preserving natural features appears not to have been a priority in the design. The standards we are currently using to rebuild our streets were developed by the Town Staff and Engineer with little to no input from the general public. The standards are based on NCDOT standards, which is not a requirement to receive supplemental funding from our state. Not even NCDOT adheres to these standards in maintaining NC12!

The staff has stated that the current standards incorporate Low Impact Development (LID) standards for stormwater management, but the approach used so far has been, in many cases, to remove trees and natural vegetation, and replace them with swales and piping. The standards have resulted in widening and straightening the roads and adding curbs and gutters. This reduces natural drainage, increases insect breeding ground, is less natural in appearance, and has, in at least one case, created storm water runoff issues, where none existed before. And if we continue down this path, we will no longer be the residential seaside community with meandering streets and a maritime forest- we’ll look like any other development you might see in the suburbs.

I want to put together a team that includes residents and property owners to work with the town staff on new road rebuild standards. These standards would incorporate LID standards that rely more on natural characteristics, like trees, vegetation and natural topography rather than the current approach with manmade swales, curbs and gutters.

I would make sure we consulted with local LID experts with a more natural approach, including arborists, in putting together the standards and designing major road improvements. This approach would not only better protect our environment but should cost less than the current approach. I also expect it would reduce the time to complete projects so we could hopefully accelerate our road rebuild program. And we wouldn’t have to go back and revegetate the road sides a year later.

3. What are your thoughts on solving the cut-through traffic problem in summer?

Bennett: We have discussed the options of street and bridge closures, and many others, as ways to lessen the traffic volume on a number of our streets on summer weekends. Council recently agreed to have our Manager invite a Traffic Engineer to address us as to other options we could or should be considering. I continue to seek viable alternatives that do not place an undo burden on our own residents.

McDonald: Seasonal cut-through traffic is a quality-of-life issue for a significant number of Southern Shores residents. Of the approximately 2,800 residents in Southern Shores, an estimated 1,300 who live along S. and E. Dogwood Trails, Sea Oats, Hickory, Hillcrest, Wax Myrtle, Juniper and Trinitie Trails are adversely affected by seasonal cut-through traffic. These streets carry about 10,000 plus vehicles on weekends during the vacation season, creating traffic jams especially on those streets that intersect Route 12. Cut-through traffic is a safety issue for our residents and impacts the ability of our fire and police departments to respond to emergencies. These residents made Southern Shores their home because it is a residential community with quiet streets, not a major traffic thoroughfare.

We have been discussing this issue for years with no solution. According to our mayor, there were prior discussions with the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NC DOT) about the issue, DOT was not inclined to help us work through solutions. It was only after NCDOT representatives came before the Council last month and discussed options in a public meeting that those NC DOT representatives said they were prepared to work with the town on solving the problem. One of those solutions is prohibiting or limiting left turns from Route 158 onto S. Dogwood. I support a trial run for this option this spring, and if successful, then possibly expanding the period through the rest of next summer. The Council must explore all options for reducing the season cut-through traffic and has scheduled meetings with other transportation firms to generate solutions. We have to try something and the council, the police department, and the residents have to be willing to support these efforts.

Conners: We’ve been talking about cut-through traffic for over 20 years. The obvious solution to this problem is for the State to get the Mid-Currituck Bridge built. Until that happens, we have various options we could implement immediately without jeopardizing State Powell Bill funds, which help us maintain our streets.

One, as suggested by the recent Dogwood Trails Task Force (of which I was a member), would be to close the Dick White Bridge for a period of time during changeover weekends. That would stop it completely and immediately, but with unwelcome consequences for some nearby residents.

Another option, which the Town is currently studying and cost estimating, is stopping left turns from Hwy. 158 onto South Dogwood Trail. But to be truly effective, this option needs to include no right turns for vehicles exiting the beach on Sea Oats, Hickory, East Dogwood and other streets along the NC 12 corridor.

There are various other options, each with pros and cons. No matter what we do, we need to expect consequences that negatively impact other parts of town. The no left turn from 158 onto South Dogwood, for example, may just shift the cut through traffic through the Southern Shores Landing or Chicahauk communities. Closing the Dick White Bridge would severely impact the ability of residents to move through town also, potentially cutting them off from shopping or even getting to churches in Southern Shores and Duck on Sundays.

In a nutshell, we have options – but none are ideal or without tradeoffs. It therefore comes down to a political will on the part of the Town Council and residents. What options do we want to pursue and what level of inconvenience are we willing to endure to decrease cut-through traffic?

Sullivan: Weekend summer traffic has created gridlock across our town, affecting our residents’ and visitors’ quality of life. We need to do something before the next vacation season starts.

I’ve spent years on this issue through the Build the Mid-Currituck Bridge initiative, working with representatives from Southern Shores, Duck, and Dare and Currituck counties. Ultimately, building that bridge would be the best solution, taking up to 65% of the traffic off our roads on a summer weekend. But we can no longer afford to wait.
Recently, the Council brought in two representative of NC DOT, who said they are ready to work with the Town on a solution, specifically prohibiting left turns from 158 onto S. Dogwood and Juniper trails during the summer vacation season on weekends and holidays.

I would support continuing efforts to make sure this solution is a viable one. A major concern of residents in other parts of town is this will only move the cut through traffic to other roads. So we need to be prepared to make adjustments as we work to solve our traffic issues. For example, could we combine this approach with rotating traffic stops in town that would “fool” the shortcut apps that many travelers are using? And since much of the traffic backup is caused by the slow down at the Duck town line, our Council should be working with the town of Duck to see what could be done to improve the flow of traffic from Southern Shores through Duck.

As your council person, I would doggedly pursue alternatives to reduce cut through traffic with NC DOT before the next vacation season starts, and work with Currituck County and Duck to increase the pressure on Raleigh to accelerate the Mid-Currituck Bridge Project.

4. What is your stance on beach nourishment, and are you in it for the long haul if it means continuing to pay for it at the local level?

Bennett: Yes, I support it. I would expect to pay for it at the local level, as we are presently doing, with the Town’s and County sharing the cost. By maintaining our ocean- front we are protecting a significant portion of our Town’s property tax base. We need to keep in mind that our visitors to Dare County contribute almost 30% of the revenues that fund our annual Budget, through occupancy and sales taxes.

McDonald: My concern is that we started beach nourishment without a plan determining what areas of the beach needed sand, where funding for beach nourishment is coming from, getting the necessary permits for the project, and our obligation to future renourishment.

While other nearby towns were meeting and discussing plans for beach nourishment, meetings which were attended by our mayor, we only became involved when the town was approached by the engineering firm working with the other beach nourishment projects. I helped to convince the council to hold a successful town hall meeting on beach nourishment, providing citizens with information from experts on the pros and cons of the issue. It allowed residents to give their input to council. Our mayor wanted to rush ahead without providing the information council needed to make a decision or a plan to implement this project. At the urging of Pelican Watch property owners, we did a small section of our town’s five-mile beach. We were told the cost would be around $700,00. In the end that 2,500-foot stretch in front of the Pelican Watch cost more than a $1 million. In my opinion, the immediate need is to establish a plan to protect the investment we have already made. That means funds need to be designated for renourishment in about 5 years.

If we had to restore our entire beach front, it could cost us more than $25 million. At this time it would be hard to say where we would find funding for such a project because we have nothing in place to address this issue. We could draw from the experiences of our neighboring towns as we develop options for funding future projects. However, before we take that step, I would favor the town holding several public meetings to hear how our residents feel about undertaking an ongoing beach nourishment project. Beach nourishment and renourishment every five years or so, is a costly undertaking and I believe that the residents and property owners should determine whether we continue down that road. It is important to remember that our beautiful beaches benefit our property owners as well as our visitors who find Southern Shores a wonderful place to vacation.

Conners: Philosophically, I’m not an advocate for beach renourishment as a first course of action. The Pelican Watch area and northward has been a recurring problem, however, and a confluence of events made it sensible to proceed with the recent renourishment in conjunction with our sister towns. Payment for it breaks down into 3 major categories:

The first is the oceanfront property owners, who contributed $150,000. The second is Dare County, which paid $500,000, and the third source is the Town of Southern Shores at $350,000. The Town’s total, therefore, was approximately one-third of the total cost.

I believe any discussion of beach renourishment needs to address the obvious need to protect a good portion of the Town’s property tax base. The occupancy, land transfer, and sales taxes make up about 30% of the revenues that fund the Town’s annual budget. Without an attractive, usable, and accessible beach, that revenue percentage would be in serious jeopardy.

I’ve outlined an approach to strengthen and fortify our dune systems on a yearly basis, even when they’re strong and stable. Inexpensive measures like sand fencing and plantings on healthy dunes further strengthen them and capture more sand for the entire sand system. I’ve worked with communities in Southern Shores and Duck using that approach, with results that were immediately helpful and weathered subsequent storms. Another proactive approach could be cost sharing with oceanfront property owners who install sand fencing or beach grass plantings. This has been done successfully in Currituck County. With the proactive steps outlined above, as well as continued funding sources from our local County government, I would support the “long haul” approach of maintaining and enhancing our beaches.

Sullivan: I strongly feel that the residents and property owners should be the ones to determine whether we commit our town to long term beach nourishment- not just 5 people sitting on the Council.
The beach nourishment around the Pelican Watch section was as a result of those owners coming to council meetings and requesting help. As a result, the Council voted to support the community.

This is another example of lack of planning, resulting in one more adhoc project being funded out of our reserves. We were able to “tack it on” to Kitty Hawk’s project, but the dune was not rebuilt because the consultant was told we couldn’t afford it, which could impact the effectiveness of this project. We should be aware of the condition of our beaches and infrastructure and be planning ahead on repairs.

Our beautiful beaches not only benefit our residents, but tourists who find Southern Shores a wonderful place in which to vacation. However, beach nourishment, comes at a high cost of about 5 million dollars a mile. And we were advised by the consultant that the town needs to plan to renourish the beach every 5 years, at a cost of 30 to 60 percent of the original cost. This burden reflects in every town as property tax increases.

The council authorized a project to begin mapping the Southern Shores shoreline and evaluate erosion based on prior mappings by the Army Corps of Engineers. And the town is getting ready to update the CAMA Land Use Plan.

I want to ensure that the CAMA Land Use Plan addresses the issue of beach nourishment based on where our residents and property owners stand. We should provide information to the public on the beach nourishment process, cost and risks, so they can make an informed decision. And we need to provide multiple opportunities for residents and property owners to participate through surveys and workshops as part of the Land Use update process.


  • Gregory Testa

    Per NC State Board of elections results, Gary McDonald came in 2nd in 2013 not third as you state in your opening paragraph. Thanks.
    Choice Votes Percent
    Tom Bennett 398 37.69%
    Susan Dineen 168 15.91%
    George Kowalski 201 19.03%
    Gary McDonald 289 27.37%
    Write-in 0 0.00%
    Total 1,056

    Friday, Oct 20 @ 8:13 am
  • Todd Hagenah

    I have known and been friends with Tom Bennett for over 20 years. For the last four years he has been our Mayor in Southern Shores. In the years that I have known him he has shown himself to be a man of the highest integrity, a crucial quality in a political leader. We have all benefited from his vision for our town. Gary McDonald as a member of the Town Council voted against the recently completed beach nourishment project and against a cola increase for our town employees and police officers. These poor decisions do not well serve a candidate for Mayor of Southern Shores.

    Saturday, Oct 21 @ 10:05 am
  • Matt Thiede

    I have a suggestion, for the cut through traffic. Why can’t we just make it illegal to make a left turn at Hillcrest onto NC12 on Sat. and Sun? If someone wants to cut through they will find out they will have to make a right turn and head back to the end of the line. You could do the same thing for Hickory, Dogwood,etc,… I would be able to get to the Hillcrest parking lot on Sat. and Sun. Have one of our many many police officers sitting at the corner writing tickets when they attempt to turn left. The solution of making no left turn from 158 at Dogwood punishes me and my family and the property owners. If your going to do that then gate the entrance. This is a low cost solution, is a couple of signs. The short cut apps. will update quickly. This solution is simple and cost effective.

    Monday, Oct 23 @ 11:20 am
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