Environmentalists and local residents will be able to challenge a resort-like project proposed on undisturbed marshlands and dunes on the barrier island of Sunset Beach.
In a ruling made public Monday, N.C. Coastal Resources Commission Vice Chairwoman Renee Cahoon on Friday night granted the request by the Sunset Beach Taxpayers Association and the N.C. Coastal Federation to challenge the state permit for the Sunset Beach West coastal development project.
The dispute will be heard by an administrative law judge.
The developers say environmentalists, local homeowners and the town council have unreasonably tried to block the project, which has been reviewed by numerous state and local agencies. Earlier this year the General Assembly considered but didn’t pass a bill that would have de-annexed the land for the project and two others to snatch them from town control.
Sunset Beach West would be built on 15 acres of a 25-acre property. It would have 21 eight-bedroom houses with individual septic systems, wells and power generators next to a state nature preserve in an area with a fragile dunes system and the potential for flooding. The area is so unstable that federal regulations prohibit public utility connections. The project calls for a private bridge, which has been approved by the U.S. Coast Guard, a gazebo, a kayak dock, boardwalk and dune crossings.
A number of regulators have expressed concerns about the environmental impact of the development. The N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission said it could have impact on sea turtles and shore birds. The state Division of Coastal Management raised questions about pollution from electricity generators and the potential for septic systems to leak effluent into the coastal wetlands during floods.
The N.C. Coastal Reserve program raised concerns about the island’s interconnected dunes system. Cahoon found that there are questions about whether the developers have done enough to minimize damage to dunes.
In June, following review by about a dozen agencies, Division of Coastal Management staff issued the permit.
In her ruling, Cahoon said the developers have acknowledged a state finding that it is an “area of environmental concern” because the shoreline could move up to 440 feet landward in a major storm, when flood waters could be 17 to 20 feet deep where the houses are built.
Developers also say they understand that, by issuing permits, the Coastal Resources Commission won’t be responsible for the costs of any damage that might occur. If the buildings become “imminently threatened” by the changing shoreline, then the developers have agreed to move or dismantle them within two years, the commissioner noted.
Cahoon’s decision allows the challengers to contest whether the state permit is consistent with state estuary and oceanfront rules and the town’s land use plan. She did not allow them to challenge the ownership of the land, since that issue is the subject of a pending lawsuit that the town brought against the developer and is outside the commission’s authority.
Cahoon wrote that her findings do not address the validity of the challengers’ claims, only that they meet the requirements in state law allowing the challenges to go forward. Challengers must allege that a permit is contrary to a rule or law, claim that they are directly affected, and assert that they are not making a frivolous claim.
The Coastal Resources Commission allows its chairman to determine whether a third-party challenge can proceed. In this case, the chairman, Frank Gorham of Wilmington, recused himself because he is involved with a jetty project on Figure Eight Island that the Coastal Federation and its law firm, the Southern Environmental Law Center, oppose.
Gorham is in a slot on the commission that represents expertise in development and land ownership. Cahoon’s expertise is in local government; she lives in Nags Head.
If Cahoon had denied its request, the environmental law center would have taken the matter to superior court.