July 17, 2008

North Carolina Senate Debates Ban on Hardened Structures Along Coast

By Gareth McGrath, Star-News, Wilmington, N.C.

Jul. 17--With the state budget passed and legislators itching to get out of Raleigh, time appears to be eroding for supporters of legislation that would soften the state's ban on hardened structures along the coast.

Faced with disappearing beaches, valuable oceanfront property teetering on the edge of the Atlantic and few options beyond pulling back threatened homes or expensive beach nourishment projects, some coastal officials have been pushing to add another tool to their toolbox.

State Sen. R.C. Soles, D-Columbus, introduced legislation that would allow a pilot "terminal groin" project near an inlet to help stabilize the adjacent beach area.

But the bill is now bottled up in the House Environment committee. State Rep. Lucy Allen, the committee chairwoman, said she didn't know if it would come up for a vote before the General Assembly adjourns, which could happen this weekend.

Inlets are historically troublesome areas where the dumping of fresh sand often doesn't alleviate disappearing beaches, because it quickly washes away as inlets wag back and forth.

Bill supporters say that makes them perfect places for long-term, permanent solutions like groins.

But environmentalists fear even a small crack in the state's ban on hardened structures, which has been in place for decades, could soon lead to a proliferation of jetties and seawalls lining the state's beaches. That's because hardened structures would work by trapping sand, preventing it from reaching other parts of the beach. That then prompts those areas losing sand to build their own sand-trapping structures.

But supporters of the pilot program said their groin proposal would include a low-slung structure that would be constructed only after an extensive environmental review process, which could take up to two years.

The current bill in the House doesn't mention any specific location for the test project. But it is widely understood to pertain to Figure Eight Island, a private island in New Hanover County that's experiencing severe erosion near Rich Inlet. More than a dozen homes on the island rely on sandbags for protection.

Figure Eight also has the advantage of having deep pockets to pay for the study and construction of the groin itself, and the island's homeowners association has hired a lobbying firm to promote the idea with legislators.

But recently some residents of Figure Eight opposed to the groin proposal have been making their own contacts in Raleigh.

One of those is Richard Bird, who has owned property on the north end of Figure Eight for 22 years.

"A lot of people think the whole island is pushing for this, and that's just not the case," he said.

Bird said many residents are uncomfortable with the idea that their island could be the one to breach state law.

"North Carolina's ban on hardened structures has served us well, and I don't think they want to mess with that ban," he said. "Plus there are other ways."


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