North Topsail Beach debacle no way for NC to manage its coast

Surf threatens houses on North Topsail

Video from Donald Fridline shows heavy surf threatening houses on the north end of North Topsail Beach, NC during a storm in late September.
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Video from Donald Fridline shows heavy surf threatening houses on the north end of North Topsail Beach, NC during a storm in late September.

Is North Topsail Beach the most poorly managed beach community in the country? If not, it certainly seems to be taking a good shot at it. I have watched in dismay as the town has struggled to preserve a small stretch of oceanfront property at all costs. In doing so, officials have destroyed their beach and created significant access issues along more than a half-mile stretch of shoreline. Perhaps even more disconcerting is that this damage has been done with the permission of the N.C. Division of Coastal Management and the N.C. Coastal Resources Commission.

The problem is that beaches like NTB, located adjacent to inlets, can experience significant fluctuations in shoreline position. That’s why the State of North Carolina has designated special Inlet Hazards areas to regulate development in this highly exposed stretch of coastline.

The most severe problems at North Topsail Beach are happening adjacent to New River Inlet. There are more than 20 structures there that should be in the water. But, within the last year, NTB got permission to build a sandbag seawall in the ocean in order to push the shoreline seaward in front of the oceanfront properties. This wall required a special variance from the Coastal Resources Commission because it is larger than state law allows. North Topsail Beach also asked to install a temporary geotube in front of the sandbags to protect the sandbag wall that is protecting the houses.

The geotube was supposed to be removed upon completion of the wall, but as is usually the case, the town refused because officials were worried about the total collapse of a sandbag wall built literally in the ocean. Lucky for the town, the Coastal Resources Commission was willing to play along with the charade, allowing the geotube to stay until next year (at least).

As a longtime observer of the coast, I am skeptical that the structure will ever be removed. No state regulator or agency will have the courage to order a reduction in protection along a shoreline with a structure already in place.

As a result of all this, the beach has been destroyed along more than a half mile stretch of shoreline. Now, it may seem logical to try to support the property values of a row of oceanfront homes, but this narrow-minded desire neglects the needs and importance of all other properties in that coastal community. All property owners in a barrier island community have a right to expect access to the primary amenity of that community – the recreational beach. If the town destroys that amenity and severely limits access to pedestrians, the town is choosing to support the property values of one small group of homeowners over the property owners of the entire community. I am sure it is just coincidence that the mayor owns a home along that inlet shoreline.

I fear that the story of North Topsail Beach may become the story of coastal management in many North Carolina communities. Lax oversight and a desire to return decision-making to the localities will prove to be economically disastrous and waste public funds. The best example is the most recent. North Topsail Beach was given a Public Beach and Waterfront Access grant to build a parking lot to improve public access to the beach (it’s hard to climb over all those sandbags). The parking lot was constructed this spring. It is already falling into the sea.

It is very difficult to understand that the town, its contractors and the Division of Coastal Management all believed that it was acceptable to spend taxpayer funds to build infrastructure on a shoreline with clear evidence of severe erosion just around the corner.

To make matters even worse, the town intends to request a variance to put sandbags in front of the parking lot it built only a few months ago! It is illegal to protect a parking lot with sandbags. It is time for the CRC and the Division of Coastal Management to assume the responsibilities they were entrusted with and ground North Topsail Beach – no more variances.

Ultimately, it is time for the residents of North Topsail Beach and similar communities to understand that protecting the oceanfront at all costs is not fair to the vast majority of property owners whose homes are in more reasonable locations. How much personnel time and real dollars has the town had to spend to protect a very small part of its tax base? And how has the complete degradation of the public beach (everyone’s economic resource) affected property values, rental income and the visitor experience?

It is also time for the CRC and the DCM to take a hard look at the variances they grant. Protecting the property values of some can seriously degrade the amenity that others expect. Coastal communities are far more than that one line of oceanfront homes.

North Carolina was once the national leader in wise coastal management. Look at the northern end of NTB and decide whether this is the vision we have for the fate of all North Carolina beaches. I surely hope not.

Robert S. Young, Ph.D., is a professor of coastal geology at Western Carolina University.