August 17, 2008

Sandbag Seawalls Do More Harm Than Good



The Coastal Resources Commission, North Carolina's coastal rule- making body, recently denied an appeal by several Outer Banks property owners to postpone indefinitely the removal of sandbag seawalls protecting oceanfront homes. With this decision, the CRC has made it clear: The time has come for sandbags to go.

It may seem strange to deny property owners the right to protect their investments, especially when it means placing buildings at immediate risk from the sea. But it's not.

The sandbags are supposed to be temporary because they destroy the public beach. But many of these sandbag walls have been around for more than 20 years.

The CRC is to be applauded for enforcing state policy and protecting the beaches.

Almost all of the shorelines in the U.S. are in a state of retreat in response to rising sea levels. A natural, undeveloped shoreline may move landward as sea level rises, but it never loses its beach. The beach simply slides inland with the retreating shoreline. So coastal "erosion" is a natural process that does not cause the beach to disappear.

Beaches disappear when buildings (or walls of sandbags) get in the way. With nowhere to go, the beach becomes narrower and narrower until, finally, there's no beach.

In addition, sandbags are ugly, inhibit turtle nesting and make access difficult. They also increase erosion on neighboring properties through a variety of mechanisms.

For all of these reasons, it is perfectly reasonable for the CRC to begin ordering the removal of sandbag seawalls whose permits have long expired.

Not surprisingly, an attorney for some of the property owners has argued that "the economic stakes are high not only for individual property owners but for coastal communities, which depend on the economic stimulus of tourism and a strong property tax base."

Certainly, the stakes are high for the individual property owners, but arguments that negative impacts will be felt by local economies just don't hold water.

If a region such as the Outer Banks has a beautiful, uncluttered beach with good access, the value of everyone's property will go up. On the other hand, a beach littered with bags and buildings teetering on collapse will lower everyone's property values (and hotel room rates).

As North Carolinians begin to grapple with the implications of long-term sea-level rise (projected to increase over the next decades), we must understand that we cannot hold the shoreline in place forever. Beaches were meant to move. Allowing them to do so, where possible, is the best way to preserve them.

Many of the houses currently protected by sandbag seawalls are prime targets for relocation. Large hotels are difficult to move, but single-family dwellings should be moved or abandoned. Holding them in place will eventually prove too costly in both a fiscal and environmental sense.

For these property owners, building on an eroding shoreline was a bad investment. Sometimes, we all make bad investments. But it is not the responsibility of North Carolina taxpayers to sacrifice a beloved public trust resource solely for the protection of private property.

Removing sandbags is a good investment in the future of North Carolina public beaches.

The CRC is to be congratulated for moving forward and not allowing the economic considerations of a scant few get in the way of responsible coastal management for all.

Rob Young is professor of geosciences and natural resource management at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, where he directs the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines. Andy Coburn is a member of the WCU research/graduate faculty and associate director of PSDS. For more information on PSDS, visit the Web site at

Originally published by BY ROB YOUNG & ANDY COBURN.

(c) 2008 Virginian - Pilot. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.