Carolina Journal News Reports
Homeowners in Nags Head and other coastal communities believe the installation of terminal groins would protect their property from the tides.
RALEIGH — More than $1.5 billion worth of coastal real estate could be swallowed by the Atlantic Ocean if North Carolina doesn’t reverse its 25-year ban on terminal groins — erosion control structures similar to jetties that are positioned perpendicular to the shoreline.
Most of the endangered homes, vacation rentals, and resorts rest on the tips of barrier islands, where the dredging of inlets has made beaches unstable.
The owners of these houses built on sand want permission to construct multimillion-dollar permanent structures to hold the islands together, and at least some want taxpayers living on more solid ground to help pay for them.
Sen. Harry Brown, R-Onslow, made it clear to the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Environment and Natural Resources March 1 that his Senate Bill 110, Permit Terminal Groins, did not make available any state funds for the structures. If beach communities wanted groins, he said, they would have to use local tax dollars and/or private funds to build them.
But the bill does not prohibit state or federal dollars from being used, and some lawmakers say the option shouldn’t be ruled out.
Rep. Pat McElraft, R-Carteret, one of the bill’s primary supporters on the House side of the General Assembly, said federal and state dollars have helped cause the erosion problem and federal and state dollars should help fix it.
The problem, she said, is dredging. The state and federal government have helped pick up the cost of dredging many of the state’s inlets. Dredging gives boats safe passage in and out of the Intracoastal Waterway, which stretches 3,000 miles along the Atlantic coast.
Without groins, McElraft said, sand keeps falling into the inlets, where it is again dug out and then returned to the shoreline through renourishment. This process has been underwritten by state and federal taxpayers. The groins, she believes, actually would save taxpayers money by trapping the sand and ending the cycle of dredging and beach renourishment.
The North Carolina Coastal Federation and a group of coastal scientists say McElraft is not seeing the bigger picture. While a groin may save sand and money in one place, it inevitably robs both from another, said the Coastal Federation’s executive director Todd Miller.
He pointed to a study by the North Carolina Coastal Resources Commission concluding that installing groins would create a need for more frequent nourishment on neighboring beaches, which could cost as much as $2 million a year.
In addition to putting state taxpayers on the hook for sand renourishment, the groins could become an additional burden to federal taxpayers. Permanent erosion control structures — like groins, jetties, and sea walls — become eligible for funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency should they get damaged in a hurricane and need repair or rebuilding.
Bonds instead of taxes
Rep. Carolyn Justice, R-New Hanover, said no public money should be used until groins are tested and proved cost-effective.
Although the state now has two groins in place on public land — one at Oregon Inlet and one at Fort Macon — Justice said they are not representative of how groins would work at other inlets.
Justice proposes allowing a pilot groin on Figure 8 Island, where property owners are willing to pay for it themselves. But it should be allowed only on one condition, she said. The property owners would have to put up a bond, with private money, “and if the system doesn’t perform as they anticipated, then they’ll have to make it right.”
If the proponents of groins really believe they are safe, they should be willing to put their money where their mouth is and guarantee it, Justice said.
If the structures end up eroding neighboring beaches, the bond would pay for removal of the structure and renourishing damaged beaches, Justice added. If the groin does not lead to damage nearby, the option of installing groins could then be opened up to other beach towns.
“If seven towns build them all at once and it goes badly, who’s going to make them spend the money on mitigation?” she asked.
Roy Cordato, vice president for research at the John Locke Foundation, said a bonding requirement should accompany all groin projects. “Whoever builds the groins should be prepared to bear the full cost associated with them,” Cordato said. “That’s not just the cost of construction, but also the cost associated with related erosion on islands further down.”
“Those who benefit from the groins should compensate those who lose,” he said. “It’s just a basic principle of economics that if you impose costs on others, you should bear those costs — internalize them.”
In addition to the cost of the groins, the costs of dredging inlets and routine beach nourishment also should be born by the local community, “because those are the people that are going to benefit the most.”
While tourists from all over the state and country are welcome to enjoy the benefits of wider beaches or better fishing and boating in the Intracoastal Waterway, Cordato argues they should pay for those benefits only to the extent they use them. And they will, he said, through higher property values, higher rental rates, and higher occupancy taxes.
Whether it’s through their own use of the beaches and waterways or tourists’ use, the people who benefit most by maintaining them are the locals, Cordato said, “not some taxpayer in Idaho who in all probability will never make it to the coast of North Carolina.”
At Tuesday’s Senate committee meeting, Brown said he was not opposed to an amendment requiring bonds as a condition of a groin permit. The bill passed the committee without one, however, and it is unclear whether such an amendment will be proposed before it gets to the House.
Sara Burrows is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.