The Saga of Palm Tree Island

Known to its founders because the Diminishing Republic, and to legend as Palm Tree Island, this sandbar has been a cultural hub for 20 years. (Port City Daily/Preston Lennon)

WRIGHTSVILLE BEACH –– Nancy Faye Craig walks from her townhouse in Wrightsville Beach all the way down to a small shore in her non-public neighborhood that faces the mouth of Lees Cut — Harbor Island’s northern saltwater border — by which small craft can cruise between the Intracoastal Waterway and Banks Channel. 

It’s a Saturday afternoon and the tide is useless low. Families who reside within the townhomes that dot Wrightsville Beach’s edge — close to the general public boat ramp — learn magazines and watch their kids play within the water. 

Craig’s consideration is directed to the totally uncovered sandbar throughout the lower. Marked by an artificial tree, a parking meter and the American flag, the twice-a-day haven domestically often called “Palm Tree Island” has been a cultural hub for twenty years.

With a celebration schedule decided by the tides, Palm Tree Island exists in its full glory for temporary home windows of time, till the water rises as soon as extra and solely the ideas of the palm fronds are seen to passing vessels. 

“Everybody at all times migrates towards a focus,” mentioned William Salling, an unique pioneer of the island. “Once the tree went up, we began noticing small teams, small gatherings that may go on over there. It was very low key and that’s the best way we at all times needed it.”

A lady in her 70s, Craig is a neighborhood watchdog. She serves on the Channel Walk householders board and has rung alarm bells to regulation enforcement companies, calling consideration to what she says is a debaucherous scene that happened in the course of the earlier decade.

According to beach-town lore, a gaggle of locals put in a reside palm tree on the sandbar across the 12 months 2000. Salling, one of these founders, mentioned the official title for the outpost is the Diminishing Republic. 

“We name ourselves Belongers amongst our tribe,” Salling mentioned. “And we’re there to welcome individuals. It didn’t matter the place you’re from. The complete thought was simply to create a gathering house.”

Twenty years later, a brand new crowd of boaters have asserted management over the island’s tradition. The focus is much less kumbaya, extra partying.

Craig calls it a nuisance. Young folks Uber into her neighborhood after which hop on a ship to cross Lees Cut. They return hours later, drunk and rowdy, she mentioned. 

There was one younger lady, Craig recalled, who handed out on the neighborhood’s neighborhood dock: “She refused to be transported to the hospital. What are you able to do with somebody like that?”

Another incident in current reminiscence additionally caught her ire: A partygoer traversed throughout the water into the lawns of her neighbors and requested a pair who have been sitting on their deck permission to make use of their restroom. 

“Now, that’s gall,” Craig commented, whereas peering towards the small group that had gathered that afternoon on the sandbar. Though tidal circumstances have been ripe for a big crowd — with low tide hitting round 3:15 p.m. — it was a relaxed environment: frisbee-throwing, tube-floating, and lightweight music. 

“They tackled Masonboro and bought it beneath management,” Craig mentioned. “Then all these individuals got here right here. So why can’t they deal with this one too?”

Wrightsville Beach police intermittently dock a patrol boat within the marina close to Craig’s neighborhood to discourage loud music and different commotions. But Palm Tree Island itself lies within the jurisdiction of the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office, the place it’s handled like some other unincorporated coastal territory.

“Palm Tree Island is only a sandbar, so it’s technically not an official something,” mentioned NHCSO spokesman Lt. Jerry Brewer. “It’s the equal of being at Masonboro.” 

Two years in the past, the get together tradition grew to become so excessive {that a} crackdown was required, Brewer mentioned, however for the reason that Covid period, the scene has been comparatively tranquil.

“The first time I went on the market, I used to be like, ‘Oh my god.’ The individuals have been mainly being held hostage at their house,” Brewer mentioned. “It was so loud it sounded such as you have been at a live performance.”

For Salling, the Diminishing Republic that he and his compatriots cultivated within the early years of the twenty first century has been subverted by one thing completely different. 

“People have a way now,” Salling mentioned, “that, ‘You can’t mess with me. This is our house. We’re going to do no matter we wish to do, and should you problem us, we’re going to problem you proper again.’”

It’s largely a generational hole, mentioned Salling, who’s now in his higher fifties. 

“I’m not saying I’m dissatisfied in it as a result of all people has a proper. But I at all times attempt to say, should you respect your fellow man over there — the youthful tradition ought to attempt to consider that somewhat extra — it could be a greater place.”

‘It began with only a spindly little tree’

At low tide, an expansive triangular sandbar emerges from the water on the jap mouth of Lees Cut. The artificial palm tree, a parking meter, and the American flag are its defining markers. (Port City Daily/Preston Lennon)

Coastal forces fashioned Palm Tree Island greater than 20 years in the past, the place beforehand there was nothing however a waterway channel abutting a sea of tidal marsh grass.

“As the tides ebb and stream and all that stuff, I assume the sands discovered a candy spot the place there was no present,” Salling mentioned. “And it simply began rising from there.”

He and his buddies purchased a reside palm tree and stationed it on the rising sandbar within the christening of the Diminishing Republic. Once it rotted, they changed it with a synthetic lookalike. Local media initially attributed the out-of-place palm to the work of UNCW fraternity brothers, a false impression that the Diminishing Republic trailblazers allowed to fester, Salling mentioned.

At that point, a household in Channel Walk — close to the place Craig lives — was concurrently grieving their misplaced son, Salling recalled.

“They scattered his ashes the day that we put the palm tree in,” he mentioned. “They didn’t realize it, and so they awakened the subsequent morning and have been trying on the market, and so they mentioned that was their son, reincarnated.”

A number of years later, the Town of Wrightsville Beach entered into its quest to monetize as many parking areas on the island as attainable, a brand new philosophical flip that prompted the Diminishing Republic’s subsequent landscaping addition: the parking meter. 

“An particular person over in Channel Walk put it on the market. And we laughed. We thought it was the funniest factor,” Salling mentioned. “It was a political jab.”

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The remaining addition was the flagpole bearing the Stars and Stripes, put up by one other particular person, finishing the trifecta of symbols that now outline the enclave. 

“It began with only a spindly little tree,” Salling mentioned. “We laid low. We by no means needed to be focal factors.” 

Then got here the cultural tug-of-war. The vitality envisioned by the Diminishing Republic founders was a coastal oasis, a micro-utopia, the place individuals assist associates in want, share provisions and keep an open door. 

“It’s not the identical now,” Salling mentioned. “It’s tougher as a result of there’s completely different views. Whether it’s political, or means of life, or something of that nature.” 

Younger adventurers now lay declare to the sandbar. It’s commonplace for weekend low tides to draw dozens of boats stuffed with keen drinkers. That factor has at all times been there, Salling mentioned, simply not with such drive.

Lt. Brewer mentioned in the course of the wild occasions a number of years in the past, one of the new-generation social ringleaders endured a string of citations, which tampered down the vibe. 

“The main participant who was an issue, we cited him sufficient to the place he’s drained of getting cited for having loud music,” Brewer mentioned. “And it’s just about calmed down.”

Salling thinks the brand new hard-core vitality at Palm Tree Island arose partially because of a migration of boaters away from Masonboro, searching for new haunts. Even although the Diminishing Republic has misplaced its grip on the island’s tradition, he doesn’t have the urge to intervene. It’s not his function, he mentioned. 

“We don’t personal the island, we don’t management it,” he mentioned. “It’s simply there, and that’s what we needed to do, was simply create an area for individuals.”

Symbolizing neighborhood

Palm Tree Island’s symbolism has been emblazoned onto swimwear and different merchandise by Tim Vandenberg, whose garments are carried by Wrightsville Beach surf outlets. (Port City Daily/Courtesy Palm Tree Island – Wrightsville Beach)

Timothy Vandenberg moved to Wilmington a number of years earlier than Salling and his troop put in the primary tree on the newfound sandbar. Vandenberg is a video advertising coordinator at Cape Fear Community College, and mentioned he noticed potential for the Palm Tree Island symbolism to be the defining model of Wrightsville Beach — like South Carolina’s crescent moon and palmetto tree, or California’s bear.

He trademarked Palm Tree Island as a model and produces merchandise adorned with the picture of a palm tree accompanied by a parking meter. 

“We needed to take one thing that had native significance, and tried to provide you with a cool option to symbolize Wrightsville Beach,” Vandenberg mentioned. 

Philanthropic partnerships are intertwined with the model. The firm makes a solar shirt together with Wilmington Dermatology, and sends proceeds to the Skin Cancer Foundation. 

Vandenberg mentioned when formulating his enterprise, he tried to make inroads with the Diminishing Republic crowd. 

“I wish to pay respect to these guys,” he mentioned. “Those guys are just like the stewards of the island.” 

Messages weren’t returned. “I type of took that as, they weren’t essentially cool with it,” Vandenberg mentioned. 

The model loved robust development all through previous years. Just just lately, he made remaining touches on a kiosk at Wilmington International Airport that may carry Palm Tree Island gear. 

His model is now offered at quite a few native surf outlets, together with Surf City Surf Shop. Vandenberg mentioned the shop’s proprietor inquired about his relationship with the Diminishing Republic, and their reception to his industrial enterprise. To make issues smoother, the Surf City proprietor related the 2 events and helped work up a gesture of goodwill, Vandenberg mentioned. Proceeds from the road’s Surf City gross sales are contributed to an repairs fund for the Diminishing Republic, for when the palm fronds want changing or if the parking meter ever makes a haywire escape. 

Sallings mentioned, personally, he’s against commercializing the island. 

“That was by no means our intention,” he mentioned. “That image over there, of the parking meter and the tree and the flag, it represents a neighborhood.” 

Vandenberg added he’s engaged on one other initiative: donating further proceeds to the Wrightsville Beach Museum. 

‘I prefer it when it diminishes’

A Sea Tow boat strikes north on the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, passing Palm Tree island in full swing. (Port City Daily/Mark Darrough)

Craig, carrying a pink visor and carrying a clipboard, surveys the view from her neighborhood shoreline. She tells a youthful man that he wants to maneuver his crab entice someplace else aside from his dock.

“The Diminishing Republic, I like,” she mentioned, acknowledging that the island’s founders are unaffiliated together with her present adversaries, who get together on throughout the water.

“And I prefer it when it diminishes.”

She helped dealer a gathering between residents in her locale and close by regulation enforcement companies, however mentioned she thinks the “sheriff’s palms may very well be tied.” 

Marine brokers police for underage ingesting and overly loud music, however for probably the most half, Palm Tree Island remains to be a good-time frontier, accepting of anybody with boat entry. 

Former Wrightsville Beach Police Chief Dan House instructed the StarNews in 2018, in reference to Palm Tree Island: “If the issue is solely on the island, we actually get right into a grey space if we are able to do one thing or not.” 

Current chief David Squires confirmed to Port City Daily the territory is overseen by the sheriff’s workplace. 

Lt. Brewer mentioned throughout current weeks, the marine unit has been prepping for Independence Day, the one day of the 12 months during which all 5 boats within the sheriff’s fleet are deployed concurrently. 

For Craig, what seems to be a second sandbar forming additional east inside Lees Cut is inflicting much more complications. She continues to vouch for a heavy-handed police presence close to her house to take care of the voyagers who use her neighborhood as a loading dock for sandbar festivities.

“Hopefully, going ahead we received’t have any issues there,” Brewer mentioned. 

Despite dropping the reins of the frontier that he helped set up, Salling mentioned he and his crew proceed to behave as stewards, preserving the sandbar’s distinguished symbols. (The flag is maintained by one other particular person, Salling mentioned.) 

“We begin new each single 12 hours,” Salling mentioned. “It’s coated up. And the one factor that sticks up is that tree. And because the tide begins to stream out, the sand rises out of the water, and it’s type of like she’s exhibiting herself once more. It’s neat to look at.”

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