Change permitting process so NC can create more natural shorelines

A Living Shoreline replaced a failing bulkhead at the N.C. Wildlife Resource Commission’s Edenhouse boat ramp on the Chowan River.
A Living Shoreline replaced a failing bulkhead at the N.C. Wildlife Resource Commission’s Edenhouse boat ramp on the Chowan River. Courtesy the NC Coastal Federation

To live by the sea is to be prepared for slow and sudden erosion of the shoreline, the loss of wetlands and the inland flooding that results. Unfortunately, shoreline protection often takes the shape of the wrong defense. Developers, homeowners and local governments try to fight the water by hardening the shoreline with bulkheads and seawalls that actually increase erosion and can fail in hurricanes.

Now environmental groups are pushing for an alternative called “living shorelines.” These shorelines cope with nature by merging with it. They use plantings and the strategic placement of stone, sand, oyster shells and other materials to create a natural buffer where land meets water.

These shorelines hold up better in heavy storms, cost less to construct and provide a better environment for fish and wildlife, but the red tape of permitting shoreline construction makes the natural alternative the least appealing option. In North Carolina, for instance, a property owner can obtain a permit for a bulkhead in a day. A permit for a living shoreline can require coordination with upward of 14 state and federal review agencies and take an average of 75 to 90 days to complete.

Earlier this month, representatives of the Pew Charitable Trusts and the N.C. Coastal Federation visited Holly Ridge to see how living shorelines and natural bank stabilization methods have revitalized the 52-acre Morris Landing area south of Cape Lookout. The natural techniques have helped the town overcome chronic problems with coastal erosion and flooding and restored oyster habitat.

Pew and the N.C. Coastal Federation want these methods to spread in North Carolina, especially along its estuarine coasts, bays and sheltered shorelines. The federation has installed about 100 living shoreline projects in North Carolina, and the state is a good candidate for adopting the methods. It has thousands of miles of inner shoreline, and less than 20 percent has hardened shorelines.

To encourage living shorelines, the state needs to change its permitting process, says Tracy E. Skrabal, a scientist and manager with the federation. “Permit situation is a disincentive at this point,” she says.

North Carolina should make the living shoreline permit the easier and less expensive permit compared with permits for bulkheads and seawalls. “You need to create a regulatory process that favors what you want to promote,” she says.

The state Division of Coastal Management promotes the construction of living shorelines and has made progress in streamlining the permit process, but it is still trying to coordinate with the state and federal agencies involved to develop a simpler, faster way to get the projects approved.

Maryland, Virginia and Delaware have streamlined their permitting process for living shorelines in part to protect Chesapeake Bay. Alabama’s state legislature recently passed a resolution urging the construction of living shorelines to stabilize a larger share of its Gulf Coast shoreline.

North Carolina and its coastal communities should press the Army Corps of Engineers to establish a new general permit for living shorelines. The Corps is in the midst of its regular five-year review and update of its permit programs, making this a key time for North Carolina to push for the general permit.

To learn more

For more information on living shorelines, go to nccoast.org/protect-the-coast/restore/living-shorelines/ or call the NC Coastal Federation at 252-393-8185