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Life through rose-colored sunglasses
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Life through rose-colored sunglasses

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I’ve heard visitors to the Outer Banks often complain that it looks like transplanted Richmond at peak times in the summer. It’s true, Nags Head and areas south have gained enormous popularity in recent years, and it’s the default venue for local family vacations.

For families in the metro area growing up in the 1950s, there was only one beach associated with ocean and sand-filled vacations. Virginia Beach was the go-to location largely due to its small town atmosphere, family-run beachfront guest houses and hotels and a host of seafood restaurants.

In the 1950s, I’m not sure anyone actually knew the road to Nags Head and a trip to the Outer Banks required serious planning and research.

I visited once during those years on a business trip with my father. Although my memory is limited regarding that early visit, I do remember a recent hurricane and the damage it had unleashed on the area, and the large iconic sand dune was reduced.

The extent of my childhood memories of the beach revolve around day trips to Buckroe and family vacations at Virginia Beach. The beach and the crowds were smaller than the throngs that now line the boardwalk, and the oceanfront retained an aura of days gone by.

As new motels were opened on vacant lots along the oceanfront, they took their place among established old-style hotels, complete with large front porches that provided the only activity some guests required: sitting in a rocking chair and enjoying the cool ocean breeze.

Three-story hotels like the Halifax, The Avamere and The Albermale were just a few that lined the boardwalk, all of them serving meals in white linen dining rooms.

Even the smaller establishments like the one we stayed at called The Tides Hotel near 21st Street served delicious meals that made that most anticipated time at the beach seem closer.

It’s hard to believe compared to what that strip along the ocean has become today. For some, the transformation is viewed as progress witnessed by the many large and luxurious accommodations that are now available yards away from the ocean. I can’t help but see it as a lost bit of tranquility never to be regained and it leaves me lamenting the loss of those special days. 

But, maybe, that’s too easy.

Perhaps, we wouldn’t appreciate those non-air conditioned rooms that depended on cool ocean breezes to provide relief from the sun-soaked days. Or maybe we’d miss the convenience of fast food or nearby shopping malls. And, no doubt, those rocking chairs are not everyone’s idea of a summer vacation.

As the new hotels replaced the old familiar ones, I remember their spaces filled with high-rise hotels complete with concierge service.

Soon, there were no more blocks of vacant beachfront land, and the old hotels of the past appeared tiny and almost model-like situated beside the high-rise condos and hotels.

One of the remaining dinosaurs hobbling on the edge of closure proudly advertised on its sign, “We have rockers.”

Sadly, the message didn’t mean much to anyone except old-timers like me, but it did evoke a pleasant memory of days spent on one of those porches and a breeze that seemed much more refreshing in those days.

All of the landmarks from those days are gone. Even at the time, considered futuristic architecture of The Dome met its demise as the city struggled to find space for more lofty commercial sites. The Peppermint Lounge, The Sea Escape, The Avalon and all of those others eventually faced the wrecking ball, and any semblance of a small southern beach town reverted to the pages of Virginia history, leaving only a vivid memory of those past days.

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An effort by a local church to get into the restaurant business is not sitting will with its neighbors, and now it will be up to county supervisors to decide whether or not to allow the project to move forward.

On July 8, Hope Church’s plan to create a café-style eating establishment within their current church building, located at 12445 Patterson Ave., went before county Planning Commissioners. And while the new venture was described by pastor David Dwight as a simple, small-scale project intended to offer coffee and café-style fare with limited cooking, several county residents living near the church say they already feel like they’ve been burned.

As detailed in the church’s request for an amendment to its original Conditional Use Permit (CUP), opening the planned café and coffee shop would require some renovation to the existing structure — and the installation of commercial kitchen equipment--but no modifications to the outside of the church. Kitchen renovations will not be permitted to include the installation of a hood system for ventilation, which will limit the type of cooking that can be done and also prevent any odors from impacting nearby properties.

According to the request, the church will be entering into an agreement with the owners of Toast, who also own other dining establishments in the area and are members of the church, to create and operate the coffee shop and café.

Dwight explained that the café would not be run as a for-profit enterprise, although the church leadership’s goal would be to break even if possible. If necessary, Dwight said, the church would be willing to provide a reasonable amount of support to the café.

According to Dwight, the project would rely on microwaves and small convection ovens to reheat pre-prepared foods, and would not be expected to see numbers even close to the 75 occupants that would be allowed under the CUP. Above all, he insisted, the café would offer “a place for people to gather together, especially after COVID, without the pressure of a commercially driven enterprise.”

But while Dwight described the café as “a ministry that welcomes people in,” those living near the church have made clear the church is already beginning to wear its own welcome thin.

Several residents of the Rivergate neighborhood, which is located directly adjacent to Hope Church, said they are already dealing with significant noise issues stemming from church-related activities, including the use of what they described as bullhorns and “nightclub-style” thumping music.

It has made it impossible to enjoy the tranquility they had been seeking when they moved to the neighborhood, they said, adding that the problem is worse during the fall and winter when there are no leaves on the trees.

“In my opinion the church is more an events space than a church,” said Rob Allen, who lives directly across the street from the church. “They are holding these events in their parking lot. So this restaurant may be serving inside but it may be serving inside while there are events outside that is supporting. So 75 limit? They can count the 1,000 people in the parking lot and say there is only 60 inside and they are still within compliance.”

Allen said he had already called the Sheriff’s Department once, and “I will continue to call them when the noises are too much to bear.”

Ileana Shulman told commissioners that she finds the claim that the church will be selling essentially just “cookies and coffee” difficult to believe, and agreed with several other residents that allowing the café would only exacerbate existing noise issues.

While the ultimate decision on whether to approve the church’s request rests with the Board of Supervisors, Planning Commissioners appeared to hear residents’ concerns loud and clear.

“Obviously there is a great deal of opposition to this,” said District 2 Commissioner Matt Brewer. “I don’t see how we could recommend approval.”

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