NC sea-level forecast is a cause for relief this time

Houses stand in the surf at Rodanthe, on North Carolina's Outer Banks, after Hurricane Sandy battered the coast in October 2012.
Houses stand in the surf at Rodanthe, on North Carolina's Outer Banks, after Hurricane Sandy battered the coast in October 2012. Western Carolina University

Coastal residents said Wednesday they don’t want state regulators to tell them how to cope with sea-level rise, and state regulators told them not to worry about that.

There was relief all around as the N.C. Coastal Resources Commission held its first public-comment session on a report from geologists and engineers warning that the Atlantic Ocean is likely to climb roughly 6 to 8 inches higher on the North Carolina coast by 2045.

Those are serious numbers – especially for the northern Outer Banks, where the waters actually will rise 1 to 3 inches more than at Wilmington and Southport on the southern coast. The higher sea level will make itself felt in more frequent flooding and more severe storm-surge damage from hurricanes and nor’easters.

But the underlying message in the meeting room was: We can deal with a few inches over a few decades. Anything is better than the alarms that were set off after a 2010 report from the same science panel, which warned of a 39-inch sea-level rise by the year 2100.

“I totally agree that trying to predict sea-level rise on a 100-year basis was specious at best,” said Wally Overman, a Dare County commissioner. “Certainly a 30-year assessment is clearly a better option.”

Beach developers and politicians had worried a few years ago that the state would respond with sweeping restrictions that could freeze coastal economies. In 2012, the General Assembly ordered state agencies to ignore the 39-inch warning, which sparked late-night-TV jokes that North Carolina was trying to outlaw sea-level rise itself.

“We were the laughing stock of the nation,” Larry Baldwin, a Coastal Resources Commission member from Harkers Island, said Wednesday. “We’ve come a long way. I really hope that Stephen Colbert cannot get any new material from this.”

The legislature directed the commission to come up with a new official state forecast, and also to study the environmental and economic pros and cons of implementing state policies on sea-level rise. But commission chairman Frank Gorham of Figure Eight Island said it wouldn’t be right to make such rules at the state level, and commission members endorsed his decision to forgo that economic impact study.

“I think we’re all pretty much in unison,” said commission member Greg Lewis of Morehead City. “Since there is no proposal (for regulations), there is no economic evaluation that we could possibly do.”

After holding public comment sessions up and down the coast and considering possible revisions to the sea-level forecast, the coastal commission will present it to the legislature next March. It will be legal, under the 2012 legislation, for state agencies to adopt sea-level policies starting in July 2016.

Heather Jarman, speaking for Wilmington-area builders and developers who had lobbied against the old forecast, praised the new one for reflecting “just plain common sense that is applicable in today’s development world.”

Mattie Lawton, a retired engineer from Kill Devil Hills, said local governments should “look at sea-level rise and make their own analysis” rather than be subjected to state regulations. Overman echoed her sentiment, and thanked Gorham for letting locals take the lead.

Dare and other coastal counties are requiring higher elevations to keep new buildings above the 100-year flood mark, and making other regulations that he said would take sea-level rise into account.

“What we’re trying to do is stay ahead of the curve, try to make changes that don’t break the bank for people who are builders,” Overman said in an interview. “A regulation that might suffice for Wilmington might not suffice for Dare County or Currituck County. Responding on a local basis is better than somebody in Raleigh making a decision for you.”