Behind the scenes, Rogallo Foundation scrambled for legislative support for ill-fated museum at Jockey’s Ridge

The sand dunes at Jockey’s Ridge State Park in Dare County are 80 to 100 feet tall. (Photo: State Parks)

Republican State Sen. Norm Sanderson was reportedly working on a bill that would have teed up a long-term agreement for the  Rogallo Museum. a private entity, to lease public land at Jockey’s Ridge State Park, for as long as 99 years – for free.  

On July 28, John Harris, president of the Rogallo Foundation, wrote to Brian Strong, deputy director of planning and natural resources for the Parks Division, saying that “my understanding from Sen. Sanderson is that legislation is in place to put together a long-term lease for the Rogallo Museum.”

A five-term senator, Sanderson represents three coastal counties: Carteret, Craven and Pamlico. He is also co-chair of the Appropriations committee for Agriculture, Natural and Economic Resources.

Jockey’s Ridge State Park is in Dare County.

Sanderson didn’t respond to an email from Policy Watch asking for more details. Harris contributed $500 to his campaign in May, according to recent campaign finance reports.

Sen. Norm Sanderson (Photo: NCGA)

The next day, Sen. Bobby Hanig, who represents a swath of coastal counties, including Dare, also wrote to Harris: “Let me know how I can help throughout the process.”

Hanig told Policy Watch in email that Harris approached him “as a constituent.”

“As I would any other proposal from a constituent, I told him I would look in to it and offered to assist if needed,” Hanig wrote. “Preserving our history of flight in all capacities is very important, as you can imagine. I understand the issues with having it at Jockey’s Ridge. I appreciate the input from the citizens and also appreciate the folks at Cultural Resources taking the time to look in to it.”

The Parks Division is under the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.

The Rogallo Foundation, headed by individuals active in real estate and the kite-surfing and hang-gliding business, had asked the state for permission to construct the museum to honor Francis and Gertrude Rogallo, inventors of the flexible wing – the same type of wing used in kite-surfing and hang gliding.

After Francis Rogallo retired from NASA, he and his wife, Gertrude, settled in Kitty Hawk.

The Rogallo Foundation has few assets, just $100,000, which have come from donations, according to Harris. Nonetheless, it had planned to raise money to build a $7 million, 12,000-square-foot museum on environmentally fragile park land.

On Oct. 28, state parks officials rejected the proposal, citing environmental concerns and the “appropriateness of leasing land to a private entity whose mission and objectives may vary from the parks division.”

Until then, emails and letters show that behind the scenes Harris was scrambling to gather support for his project. He successfully petitioned Dare County Commissioners to pass a symbolic resolution in support of the museum. However, he was stymied by the Towns of Nags Head and the nonprofit Friends of Jockey’s Ridge, which opposed it.

Sen. Bobby Hanig

Sen. Bobby Hanig

Friends of Jockey’s Ridge members spoke against the proposal at an Oct. 5 Nags Head Commissioners meeting. Shortly afterward, Harris again wrote to Strong, and copied nine other state and local government officials: “Not presenting the concept to the Friends of Jockey’s Ridge earlier was an oversight on my part, and I apologize.”

Harris also said the plan was “at the concept phase,” and that the issues of “environmental impact, tree removal and sand movement would have to be worked through as the plan develops.”

Jockey’s Ridge State Park is known for its breathtaking 100-foot sand dunes The US Department of the Interior has designated the park as a National Natural Area. The Parks Division wrote in 2017 that Jockey’s Ridge “provides an important and increasingly limited habitat for native plants and animals,” including dune grass, maritime evergreen forests and brackish marshes.

A state agency can’t unilaterally lease state land. A lease agreement would have to go through the state property office, and from there to the Council of State for a vote. Ultimately, the lease could become valid only with the governor’s signature.

Harris also noted that concerns about a commercial development on state park land were misplaced. “The Rogallo Foundation is a nonprofit,” Harris wrote. “The museum will be educational and inspirational.”

Nonprofit organizations can still earn money, though. And the draft Memorandum of Agreement showed how the project would have favored the museum and the foundation at the expense of taxpayer dollars. For example, the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources would have paid for the museum’s utilities, costs of building maintenance, and any major facility improvements. Donations, admission fees and gift shop revenue would have stayed with the foundation to operate the museum, which presumably would include staff salaries.

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Behind the scenes, Rogallo Foundation scrambled for legislative support for ill-fated museum at Jockey’s Ridge