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Cornelius leaders livid over delayed Lake Norman swimming beach

Cornelius Mayor Chuck Travis said he was stunned to learn this month that Mecklenburg County will take until 2016 to open a long-planned swimming beach on Lake Norman.

“I about fell over dead,” Travis told the Observer on Wednesday. “How long does it take to dredge out some stumps and hire lifeguards?”

The county plans to open the swimming beach at Ramsey Creek Park off Nantz Road. It will be the first public swimming beach at a county-run park since the late 1970s, when swimming was banned after several drownings.

Lee Jones, director of capital planning for Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation, updated Travis and Cornelius commissioners on the beach plans on Jan. 6.

Construction of the half-acre beach is scheduled to begin in the first quarter of 2015, with swimming expected the following year, Jones told the elected officials.

Travis said the county still needs to study the potential traffic impact of the beach on two-lane Nantz Road and make sure the park has adequate facilities and security. But even all that can be done relatively quickly and not delay the project another two years, he said.

“It’s really a shame,” Travis said.

The project has taken so long because it first needed money in the county budget, Jones told the Observer on Wednesday.

That finally came last year as part of the $1.7 billion budget Mecklenburg commissioners approved by a 5-4 vote. Ramsey Creek Park received $430,000 to plan and design the beach, apply for permits and build the beach.

As a result, the county was able to put the swimming area in its list of fiscal year 2014 projects, Jones said.

County officials have already discussed the project with Duke Energy officials, Jones said. Duke Energy is licensed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to manage the lake.

The county also has selected Bulla Smith Design Engineering of Charlotte and Houghland Architecture of Charlotte for the project, Jones said. Draft design plans should be complete by the end of February, he said.

The county will begin the FERC phase of the project in April, he said. FERC requires the county to get approvals for the project from nine federal and state agencies and the Lake Norman Marine Commission, Jones said.

Duke Energy will submit the project to FERC for a permit once the county submits its design later this year, Duke Energy spokeswoman Erin Culbert said.

“The finished product will be a terrific and long-awaited amenity for the Lake Norman area,” Culbert said Wednesday.

Mecklenburg County commissioners agreed to lift the ban on swimming in 2009, after a county study showed where swimming areas could be opened and where they shouldn’t.

Ramsey Creek Park proved best, in part because it has enough parking and its restrooms are near the proposed swimming area, officials said.

But local officials have been frustrated by the time it’s taking to open the swimming area. Cornelius commissioner John Bradford said Wednesday he, too, was disappointed when he learned Jan. 6 the beach won’t open sooner.

Bill Russell, president and CEO of the Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce, has pushed for such public access since joining the chamber 18 years ago.

Not having that access to North Carolina’s largest man-made lake is a form of economic discrimination, Russell said. Lake Norman State Park in Troutman has the only public swimming beach on the lake.

Russell on Wednesday praised Mecklenburg County commissioner Karen Bentley and state Sen. Jeff Tarte, R-Cornelius, for their efforts to ensure the Ramsey Creek beach opens.

Bentley, who’s pushed for a swimming beach since she was first elected in 2006, said Wednesday she’s learned FERC’s approval could come several months sooner than anticipated. A FERC spokeswoman in Washington didn’t respond to a request for comment this week.

“We’d all be dancing in the streets if that happened,” Bentley said.

Marusak: 704-358-5067; Twitter: @jmarusak
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