Sarah’s Internship at the Nags Head Planning Department

My internship this semester has been with the Planning Department in Nags Head. My mentor, Holly White, has made the experience so hands-on, and I have felt like an actual employee every time I go in. Here is where I go to work every Monday and every other Wednesday: the beautiful Nags Head Town Hall!

Nags Head Town Hall

I have attended a few Board of Commissioner Meetings in this building:

The Town of Nags Head Board Room – Home of Board of Commissioners Meetings

I have gotten to see first-hand the struggles that town planners go through during these meetings, as well as how the government-process works in a local scale. One of the meetings got particularly heated, with many town citizens coming to speak against ADUs (Accessory Dwelling Units). These are smaller, independent residential dwelling units located on the same lot as a standalone, detached single-family home. They are designed to allow for expanded/alternative housing options; not to build larger spaces. However, citizens vehemently argued against ADUs, saying that what these add-ons really do is add extra rental space, and more population density. The ordinance did not pass.

My main job at the planning department this semester has been to make a “progress report” or “Toolbox” for the Septic Health Initiative, the Town’s long-term strategy for protecting water quality while allowing the continued use of on-site wastewater systems. The Septic Health Initiative has 4 major program areas; septic tank pumping and inspection, low-interest loans, education, and water quality monitoring. The Town offers free inspections for non-innovative systems, and a $30 credit to property owner’s water bills if they have their systems pumped. Additionally, the town offers lower-interest loans for repair and replacement of septic systems.

This is an info-graphic that the Town of Nags Head has on their Septic Health Initiative website. An example of the education aspect of the program!

I identified knowledge gaps between the Planning Department and the citizens of Nags Head about septic maintenance and operation knowledge using the 2018 Capstone Report. After identifying 3 major knowledge gaps, I did an intensive literature review on how other municipalities around the world are educating their citizens on septic maintenance, and how they are enforcing and incentivizing septic maintenance. The 3 major knowledge gaps that were identified were:

  1. Most property owners are not aware of how septic systems work.
  2. Many participants did not know where to find reliable information about septic systems and health.
  3. Many participants were not aware of the government aid that is available to them.

After the literature review, I determined that the most common methods to educate community members is through workshops and seminars. An annual/semiannual workshop about septic maintenance for homeowners, as well as education on repairs and pumping, could be extremely beneficial to the town. Additionally, a few towns in my literature review conducted surveys/interviews to gauge the current septic health knowledge of their residents. I think this would be a good way to understand the baseline knowledge of the town’s citizens. Other methods for educating the public include media releases, handout materials, fundraisers, creating databases, and encouraging public participation. I believe that the Town could benefit from utilizing a combination of the methods from the literature review to improve the overall septic health of the town.


The library in the Nags Head Town Hall – I did a lot of work here!

Additionally, I looked at the Town of Nags Head Comprehensive Plan (2017), the Vulnerability, Consequences, Adaptation, and Planning Scenarios (VCAPS 2017), and Decentralized Wastewater Management Plan (2005), to centralize the future goals of the town regarding wastewater and ground/surface water management. The centralized location of these goals can save the town time when trying to write new goals and assess their current goals. I also recommended future goals of the water quality monitoring program after meeting with George Wood.

I also did a small side project throughout my time at the Planning Department with the Low Impact Development Manual. My job was to photograph some of the low impact/protective designs that have been utilized in the Outer Banks. See below for some of my photos!

Rain garden at the aquarium in Manteo


Pervious concrete at the Coastal Federation


Overall, I have thoroughly enjoyed my time at the Nags Head Planning Department. They have really welcomed me and made me feel like one of their employees. I was even invited to attend their employee appreciation luncheon next week! I have enjoyed my internship so much, that it played a big role in my decision to get my Masters in Public Administration this coming year.