JOHN HOOD COLUMN: Oh, let him build his pirate ship

NORTH TOPSAIL BEACH — It’s still a free country. We all enjoy the right to vacation as we see fit. For my family, summer vacation means a week of sun, sand, and surf in Onslow County. For me, it means staying inside to read, write, and play board games.

John Hood

When I do venture outdoors, for meals or supplies, I make it a practice to buy The Daily News of Jacksonville and any other local newspapers I happen to run across. Reporting on city and county government for community weeklies was my first paying job in journalism. And when I debuted my syndicated column more than three decades ago, the Jacksonville Daily News was one of the first to pick it up.

If you don’t read your local paper, how can you possibly know what’s going on? TV and radio stations will never entirely fill the gap. The healthy ones have such large audiences that they can’t possibly cover any one community in depth. And the rickety stations typically lack the resources to produce high-quality journalism. As for independent websites and social-media feeds, they may track specific issues or provide interesting commentary but few provide in-depth coverage of local governments, schools, businesses and community institutions.

Reading last week’s Daily News, for example, I encountered a fascinating debate about property rights. A Jacksonville business owner wants to renovate his building to look like a pirate ship. The city’s unified development ordinance, adopted in 2014, doesn’t allow it.

When presented with the idea of amending the UDO, Jacksonville officials offered a range of responses. “Our concern is that you can’t control content,” said the city manager, Josh Ray. “There are a lot of things that we could start seeing on glass walls and on sides of buildings that some people may find offensive. Flags that you hang in your front yard, you don’t control content on those as well, and a lot of those are offensive to people. So, it creates challenges, especially on a large item like this. I like the pirate ship concept, but I don’t like it within the UDO and the way that we label the system.”

City Councilman Logan Sosa raised another objection: what if the business fails? That would leave “a big pirate ship that’s just sitting there vacant, falling apart and no one else wants a pirate ship there,” he said. “I think it becomes a liability down the road.”

Another member of the council, Cindy Edwards, expressed regret. “The only sad part of holding the line is that entertainment is one of the things we’re sort of lacking and our community needs entertainment options,” she said. “Many times, entertainment businesses don’t fit in just a square box with square windows. So, having no option is difficult, just like having the barn doors open you don’t want either. It’s just kind of sad that we can’t have some sort of fun and creativity, especially for entertainment venues.”

As it happens, a distinctive building referenced during the council’s discussion is one I know well: the Shark Attack store in nearby Snead’s Ferry. When my children were young, they loved standing in the gaping maw of the giant shark replica out front. Did we often proceed inside the store to shop? Of course.

If I were a Jacksonville resident, I’d go to the next council meeting and take the business owner’s side. Property rights are important to me. It’s another family tradition.

My soon-to-be-89-year-old mother June Hood served for a time on her town’s board of adjustment. She told me that for the most part she followed a simple rule: if you own the property in question, and what you want to do with it poses no physical risk to neighboring property owners or the general public, then the government ought not keep you from doing it.

If there were a pirate-ship building in Jacksonville, I’d stop to check it out. Wouldn’t you? Case closed.

John Hood is a John Locke Foundation board member.