Officials should block Sunset Beach development near fragile marshland

A recent aerial view of the west end of Sunset Beach, N.C. shows an undeveloped area of salt marsh and dunes where developers have proposed to build 21 beachfront homes on 15 acres next to a state bird sanctuary.
A recent aerial view of the west end of Sunset Beach, N.C. shows an undeveloped area of salt marsh and dunes where developers have proposed to build 21 beachfront homes on 15 acres next to a state bird sanctuary. rwillett@newsobserver.com

It’s not quite an old enough standoff to be called “ancient,” but the confrontation between developers and full- and part-time residents of Sunset Beach has echoes of stand-offs that have gone on for years along North Carolina’s beautiful — and valuable — coastline.

Basically, developers want to build a large project, with 21 beachfront homes and a bridge, road, dock, pier and walkways, on 15 acres of marshland next to the Bird Island Reserve, a 1,300-acre research area comprised of salt marsh, tidal creeks, dunes and beaches, home to loggerhead sea turtles and other fragile species. Environmentalists and homeowners on the island don’t want it, and the arguments against it are strong and would seem clearly right: the land is so fragile that federal law won’t allow public money to be spent on flood insurance, utilities or disaster assistance. All the homes would have to have individual water wells, septic systems and electricity generators.

Residents and those who own homes on the island, most of them it appears from a News & Observer report, think this is a case of overdevelopment, with an eye toward making a big buck on a choice piece of land at a time when developable property along the coast is diminishing. The developers, including one, Greg Gore, who is the son and grandson of the island’s early developers, make the case all those behind big-money coastal projects have made for years: Those who live full- or part-time on Sunset Beach and claim they want to maintain the environment and its charm just don’t want other people to have beach houses.

There’s something kind of funny in that, because it’s not as if the huddled masses are yearning for shelter for their families here. These doubtless will be elaborate homes available only to the very wealthy.

This sounds like a very risky project, and a marshland is hardly the most stable form of Mother Earth. Next to the Bird Island Reserve? A very bad idea.

Ah, but enter a couple of North Carolina Republican legislators, and it’s easy to see why this confrontation is headed for court. The developers kicked in campaign contributions to GOP Rep. Frank Iler, who represents Brunswick County, and GOP Sen. Bill Rabon of Southport. They drew up a bill that would de-annex the land involved and other property from the town of Sunset Beach and put them on county tax rolls. The bill sailed through the Senate, of course, where Republicans never met a developer they didn’t like, but didn’t pass the House.

It appears it’ll all linger in the courts for a while anyway.

If developers had won the support of townspeople and officials, this project still would be a bad idea, but at least those most impacted would have had their say. But developers clearly decided they needed to bypass townspeople and have influential lawmakers just get the job done in Raleigh. So the local developers have damaged their credibility even more with the people of Sunset Beach.

This project needs to stop. And state environmental officials, who of course issued the necessary permits for the development, need to start being more, not less, conservative with development on the coast. Many of the areas still “eligible” for development, after all, are in the most fragile areas along the coastline — because other areas have already been built out.

Sunset Beach has long been a charming place for families from the Triangle in particular, lying as it does near the South Carolina border. Overdevelopment can ruin the charm, and it could, in the event of a hurricane (not unheard of along the state’s coastline) literally put people in harm’s way. The reward is great for the developers, perhaps, but the risk is far too great for others.