NC legislators seek consensus on beach control structures

rchristensen@newsobserver.comJuly 10, 2013 

— The legislature is debating how far to shift a policy that had traditionally banned the kind of hard structures built along shorelines to control sand from being built along North Carolina’s coast – a move that geologists call an effort to stop the New Jersey-fication of the state’s beaches.

The Republican legislature, responding to pressure from beach homeowners and resort communities, ended a 26-year ban on building jetties or groins along the North Carolina coast in 2011, approving the construction of four projects in what was then described as a compromise.

The Senate this year has gone further and passed a bill that would allow unlimited groins to be built along the entire 301-mile coast. But the measure has run into resistance in the House and from the administration of Gov. Pat McCrory. As a result, a compromise has been worked out that would retain the cap.

“Our main focus is to get these four pilots off to show that they do work,” said Rep. Pat McElraft, a Republican from Emerald Isle, who is chair of the House Environment Committee. “They work in other states. We are the only state that prohibits terminal groins. Now I myself do not want sea walls, I do not want jetties, I do not want anything that is going to cause downdraft erosion.”

But she believes the groins, which allow some passage of sand, as opposed to totally blocking it, will nourish beaches without causing erosion elsewhere.

“We think it is pretty palatable to everyone, hopefully,” McElraft said.

The ban was put in place in 1985 by the N.C. Coastal Resources Commission after it concluded that such hard structures would cause irreversible damage to the state’s fragile coastline. Geologists and environmentalists have traditionally opposed them because while they dam up sand on one side they erode beaches far down the shore. This often results in a demand for even larger structures to be built down the beach to prevent their beaches from turning into pebbles. In some states such as New Jersey, there are strings of jetties or groins up and down the coast.

Groins, jetties are different

While the words are often used interchangeably, terminal groins differ from jetties in that they are typically placed at the end of barrier islands and are low-slung barriers made of rock or steel that are perpendicular to shore. Proponents argue they are passive structures that trap some sand but let the rest wash over them, and therefore don’t cause the same sort of down-beach erosion as jetties, which are large structures typically used to stabilize inlet channels.

“It’s pretty clear wherever these things have been built they end up destroying adjacent beaches,” said Frank Tursi, assistant director of the North Carolina Coastal Federation, an environmental group. “They increase erosion downstream. If they work as intended, they rob sand out of the system that is traveling parallel to the beach. What ends up happening is people down the beach start ... clamoring for structures to protect their property.”

But with beach property expensive, and erosion threatening residences, homeowners and towns have put increasing pressure on the legislature to relax the ban, which had been put into law in 2003. After the election of the Republican legislature in 2010, a compromise bill was passed that would allow terminal groins to be build in four pilot projects on Figure Eight Island, Ocean Isle, Bald Head Island and Holden Beach.

The compromise, which then-Gov. Bev Perdue, a Democrat, let become law without signing, required taxpayer safeguards – local funding would have to be approved by a local referendum and state funding would have to approved by the legislature.

Senate lifts the cap

In May, just two years later and before a single pilot project was built, the Senate voted to lift the cap. Senate Bill 151 was sponsored by Sen. Bill Rabon, a Republican from Southport, and supported by Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown of Jacksonville. In addition to allowing an unlimited number of the structures to be built, it also abolished the taxpayer protections.

Brown told the Senate that the legislature was interfering with local communities by prohibiting the structures.

He also argued that the legislature spent millions of dollars over the years on beach nourishment projects and that in the long run building groins would be less expensive because they trap the sand longer.

But the Senate measure met some resistance from House lawmakers who thought it went too far and from the McCrory administration.

The N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources wants a more conservative approach.

“Our feeling was that we wanted to see what these four structures did first before opening it up to the entire coastline,” said Michele Walker, a spokeswoman for the Division of Coastal Management. “… Do they cause adverse impacts? Do they not cause adverse impacts? We just needed more information.”

The Senate measure also drew reservations from John Hood, president of the John Locke Foundation, the Raleigh think tank, who worried that the taxpayer safeguards were being discarded.

McElraft said a compromise was worked out, which among other things allowed the permitting process to go forward without the funding being arranged – as is required under current law.

“It was holding some of these projects up,” McElraft said. The bill is still in a House committee.

Among those anxious to start a groin project is Holden Beach Mayor Alan Holden.

He said the town used sandbags 40 years ago, and they worked until they deteriorated. Now erosion has washed away acres on the island’s east end, damaging houses, causing roads to fall in, and silting the Lockwoods Folly Inlet, which has hurt shellfish beds.

“We want to do it as soon as possible,” Holden said. “We think it will save the taxpayers a lot of money. It will cause a quicker stabilization of our inlet.”

Christensen: 919-829-4532

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