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The Coastal Area Management Act (CAMA) does not permit hardened structures along the ocean shoreline, including the oceanfront beaches and frontal dunes, with the exception of terminal groins in specified locations (see discussion below). The North Carolina Administrative Code Title 15A also prohibits the use of shoreline structures in North Carolina’s ocean hazard system of AECs, including areas classified as erodible areas, high hazard flood areas, and unvegetated beach area. Exceptions (T15A NCAC 7H .0308(a)) are made on a case-by-case basis as long as the structure:
State Senator R.C. Soles introduced legislation (Senate Bill 599, Inlet Stabilization Program) that passed the state Senate in May 2007 that would have allowed the N.C. Coastal Resources Commission to permit the construction of a groin as a "pilot project" to evaluate the effectiveness of such a structure to stabilize coastal areas suffering chronic erosion problems. Locations discussed as being candidates for such a pilot project (or for a permanent installation) include Figure Eight Island, Ocean Isle Beach, North Topsail Beach, and Bald Head Island. This would represent a significant departure from state policy against the use of hardened structures that has been in place for more than 20 years. The consideration of this legislation resumed in May 2008 but never got out of House committee. In March 2009 a newspaper article stated that a "less restrictive" (more groins) bill was likely to be introduced in N.C. General Assembly in 2009. In fact, Senate Bill 832 was introduced and was approved by the state senate in late April 2009. In August 2009 the N.C. House approved a Senate bill that required the Coastal Resources Commission (CRC) to study the "feasibility and advisability" of using terminal groins to protect threatened beachfront property around inlets. This bill apparently was a compromise between the "pro" and "anti" terminal groin forces. The DCM published its terminal groin study and recommendations on its website. The report contains summary findings on site studies of five existing terminal groins (including Oregon Inlet and Fort Macon), a geologic assessment of these sites, their environmental impact, various engineering techniques for terminal groins and initial costs and maintenance. Here's some additional discussion of this subject (November 2009) from Carteret County's Shore Protection Office.
The CRC approved in late March 2010 in an 8-5 vote a report that states the CRC’s terminal groin study found no conclusive evidence for whether new terminal groins should or shouldn’t be allowed. That report was presented April 1, 2010 to the General Assembly. If the General Assembly were to choose to lift the ban on terminal groins, the CRC recommended the following requirements to be met by those proposing to build a terminal groin:
North Carolina Coastal Scientists Statement Regarding Senate Bill 832:
The following statement represents the opinions of the vast majority of North Carolina's coastal geologists: Dr. Rob Young (WCU), Dr Len Pietrafesa (NCSU), Dr Stan Riggs (ECU), Dr. J.P. Walsh (ECU), Dr. Steve Culver (ECU), Dr. Dave Mallinson (ECU), Dr. Pete Peterson (UNC-CH), Dr. Tony Rodriguez (UNC-CH), Dr. Matt Stutz (Meredith), Dr. Duncan Heron (Duke).
In February 2011 Senate Bill 110 – co-sponsored by Sen. Thom Goolsby, R-New Hanover, and Sen. Bill Rabon, R-Brunswick – was introduced. It would have allowed the permitting and construction of terminal groins at inlets under certain conditions. The Senate approved this legislation in mid-March. In late April 2011 the NC House approved legislation that would permit the construction of three terminal groins (two publicly financed, one privately financed) at inlets on the coast under strict conditions regarding their permitting, financing and maintenance. The bill then went back to the Senate to consider changes to the bill made by the House.
On June 9, 2011 an article in StarNewsonline stated that a tentative compromise had been reached that would allow the construction of four terminal groins. From the article:
The deal was approved by the full House and Senate on June 14, 2011. In late June, Governor Beverly Perdue announced she would neither sign nor veto the controversial terminal groin bill approved by the General Assembly and therefore allow it to become law.
The August 2011 Newsletter from the Carteret County Shore Protection Office provides a primer on terminal groins, regulatory and statutory history regarding hard structures in North Carolina and a discussion of how the terminal groin legislation may be implemented.
In February 2012 it was announced that four beach towns (Ocean Isle Beach, Holden Beach, Bald Head Island and Figure Eight Island) had begun the steps necessary to receive a permit to construct a terminal groin, a process that includes – among other things – preparing an environmental impact statement proving that other methods of erosion prevention aren't feasible as long-term solutions. North Topsail Beach considered a terminal groin but then decided against it. A draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the terminal groin project at Figure Eight Island has been released but has been widely criticized as being inadequate by federal and state agencies and environmental groups. The North Carolina Coastal Federation held a press conference on Figure Eight Island in July 2014 about the concerns over a potential terminal groin for the north end of the island. They believe the proposed terminal groin will destroy a sand spit adjacent to Rich Inlet where a half-dozen species of shorebirds come to nest. More on this. In late 2014 it was announced that construction work on a terminal groin in Bald Head Island would begin in 2015 and it's progressing. In January 2015 the Wilmington District, Corps of Engineers (Corps) received an application from the Town of Ocean Isle Beach seeking Department of the Army authorization to to discharge fill material into waters of the United States, associated with the construction of a 750 ft terminal groin with a 300 ft shore anchorage system and associated beach nourishment component, in order to address erosion and protect infrastructure, roads, homes, beaches, dunes and wildlife habitat in Ocean Isle Beach, Brunswick County, North Carolina. More on this. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has expressed their opposition to Ocean Isle's project.
A study has indicated that a terminal groin at Bogue Inlet would not be cost effective.
The NC Coastal Area Management Act provides for the use of sandbags as an alternative to coastal armoring. Specifically, NCGS 113A-115.1 (b) states: “No person shall construct a permanent erosion control structure in an ocean shoreline. The Commission shall not permit the construction of a temporary erosion control structure that consists of anything other than sandbags in an ocean shoreline.” There are several exceptions on a case-by-case basis as cited above. Sandbag structures are regulated under NCAC 7H .0308(a)(2) Temporary Erosion Control Structures which dictates the composition, size, location, use and timeframes that the structures are allowed on ocean beaches.
As an example of how long these "temporary" sandbag structures can be allowed to exist, The Riggings condo development in Kure Beach obtained permission to install a wall of sandbags in 1985. They were still there in 2013. Read more details of this long-running "sandbag saga" below.
In further updates, the N.C. Division of Coastal Management then gave the Riggings an ultimatum. Homeowners at the Kure Beach condominium complex were told that the sandbags had to come out by mid-August 2006. The move came three months after a majority of the complex's 48 homeowners rejected a $3.6 million federal grant that would have helped them relocate their oceanfront condominiums across U.S. 421. Since the latest extension approved by the N.C. Coastal Resources Commission in April 2005 was tied to the Federal Emergency Management Agency grant, which was to expire June 30, 2007, the Riggings' rejection of the grant made the extension void. Legal action and fines could follow if the bags aren't removed, warned a July 10, 2006 letter from Coastal Management.
In July 2006 the homeowners were reportedly in the process of burying and vegetating the sandbags as part of a larger project to spruce up the complex after years of neglect tied to its uncertain future. State law allows sandbags that are completely covered by sand and stable vegetation to remain in the ground, but it's unclear if the current situation is consistent with that definition.
Here's another update, from a January 26, 2007 Wilmington Star article by Gareth McGrath:
"The fate of the sandbags protecting The Riggings in Kure Beach, and possibly the future of the 48-unit condominium complex itself, might soon rest with the courts. Five months after a state deadline to remove the sandbags, the homeowners are still holding out hope that they can keep the fabric bags in place while they work on a long-term solution. The squabble over the bags, several rows of which are exposed along the beach, comes as the N.C. Division of Coastal Management threatens fines against The Riggings and the two sides trade barbs over the facts of the case. Wilmington attorney Gary Shipman said the homeowners intend to seek a contested case hearing before the state Office of Administrative Hearings rather than seek yet another sandbag extension from the N.C. Coastal Resources Commission. The state board, which helps set policy along the coast, has already granted The Riggings four sandbag extensions. When the last variance was granted in 2005, CRC members were adamant that they wouldn't look favorably on yet another extension on what are supposed to be temporary structures until a more permanent solution could be developed. The Riggings has relied on sandbags to hold back the encroaching ocean since 1985. Officials thought they had that final solution three years ago when the Federal Emergency Management Agency agreed to help the homeowners rebuild their condominiums across U.S. 421. The $3.6 million grant would have left the oceanfront land the complex is currently on as a park. But Shipman said the grant wasn't financially feasible for the homeowners, especially considering the recent escalation in oceanfront property prices. The state ordered the sandbags removed after a majority of the homeowners rejected the FEMA grant, which has since been pulled. The Riggings had initially hoped to appeal to the CRC for another sandbag extension. But Shipman said the parties couldn't agree on the "stipulated facts" of the case. They included whether The Riggings was in a "unique" situation because the complex is squeezed between a renourished beach to the north and a rock revetment to protect the Fort Fisher Historic Site to the south. Shipman also said The Riggings is investigating the possibility of rebuilding coquina rock habitat that was destroyed decades ago and potentially using it as mitigation for the rock in front of the condominium complex. Federal and state officials have said the coquina outcroppings are important marine habitats and can't be disturbed, one of the reasons the beach in front of The Riggings isn't part of Kure Beach's nourishment project. As The Riggings gears up for a fight, the state also is pursuing legal action. Coastal Management spokeswoman Michele Walker said the agency next month [Feb 2007] would seek a court order to get The Riggings to remove its sandbags. Financial penalties also could be looming against the homeowners. Spencer Rogers, a coastal engineering specialist with N.C. Sea Grant, said The Riggings wouldn't stand for long if the sandbags were removed. "It's not a question of if it will happen one day, but what day," he said."
Yet another twist in this long-running saga occurred in January 2009 when a New Hanover County Superior Court Judge ordered the N.C. Coastal Resources Commission to reconsider an extension for the sandbags at The Riggings. CRC again denied a variance request at its April 29, 2009 meeting. An article Sandbags: Temporary or Permanent? The Riggings Case Study goes over the history and legal arguments in this long-running case.
The sandbag saga continued in September 2010 when the N.C. Coastal Resources Commission unanimously ordered the N.C. Division of Coastal Management to restart enforcement actions that were temporarily frozen by the General Assembly. Coastal Management's Mike Lopazanski has stated that an estimated 322 sandbag structures stand along the coast, and roughly 150 have expired permits. But the looming unknown factor in this case is the anticipated expensive legal battle that could ensue if regulators move aggressively to get the bags removed.
In another update, StarNews online reported in February 2012 that despite the ending in August 2011 of a moratorium on enforcement of sandbag removal actions, the sandbag saga continues. Lawyers for the homeowners association filed a request for judicial review in December 2011.
In April 2014 the sandbags were (no surprise) still there and were causing problems because damaged/loose bags were frequently littering the surf zone. An Isle of Palms official and a resort official say patrols are made twice per day at low tide to clean up loose bags on the beach.
The sandbags were removed in late 2014 in connection with a beach fill project, but the bags were back in March 2015 following erosion from winds and "King Tides."
Unrelated to The Riggings case, in mid-2007 the Coastal Resources Commission mailed letters to about 375 property owners alerting them to a new deadline of May 1, 2008 for removing sandbag structures located in those communities that had been pursuing large-scale beach nourishment.
The June 2008 issue of Shorelines newsletter from the Carteret County Shore Protection Office is dedicated to a discussion of the sandbag issue. The latest "clarification" of this issue is that sandbags that would otherwise fall under the May 2008 removal clause do not have to be removed if they are covered with sand and natural vegetation.
Continuing use of sandbags has also been a hot issue in South Nags Head, where in August 2006 the Commissioners considered and ultimately voted to take no action on a proposed amendment which would have prohibited the use of new sandbags as well as the repair and maintenance of existing ones in the oceanfront zone. Several speakers at the meeting urged local support and funding for beach fill projects as the only viable alternative to the continued use of sandbags to protect oceanfront property.
The town council in Duck, N.C. unanimously adopted a new law banning sandbags in January 2011 - likely making Duck the first town on the North Carolina coast to prohibit sandbags even as a temporary means of protecting threatened structures.
Currituck County is also considering a ban on sandbags and homemade dunes used to protect beachfront property. A work session on the proposed ordinance to ban sandbags and homemade dunes was scheduled for April 19, 2010.
As mentioned above, the N.C. Coastal Resources Commission had set a May 1, 2008 deadline for the removal of the roughly 150 sandbag structures that had overstayed their permitted time on the beach. But as of late July 2008 the agency hadn't enforced its eviction notice. The state did develop a ranking index to come up with a strategy to prioritize sandbags for removal. Officials envision pursuing 15 or 20 removal efforts at a time and getting those situations sorted out before moving on to the next batch of sandbags. Factors that will be used to rank the bags include their time on the beach, condition of the bags, their impact on the public's use of the beach and whether the beachfront is slated for nourishment. The sandbag locations are also denoted on a Google map, with each location linked to a pop-up window that has photos and characteristics of the site. The online map is also useful in graphically showing the correlation between erosion hotspots, like the northern ends of North Topsail Beach and Figure Eight Island, and their proximity to inlets. All of the 370 or so known sandbags locations along the coast will be documented by the new program. Only exposed sandbags are subject to removal.
The seemingly never-ending sandbag saga has continued well into 2010s. The CRC directed the N.C. Division of Coastal Management (DCM) at a meeting in July 2010 to delay enforcing sandbag regulations until after the commission’s Sept. 16, 2010 meeting. A moratorium on sandbag removal will expire in September and 150 sandbag structures in the state are currently eligible for removal. Bob Emory, CRC chairman, said the commission was told by the state General Assembly not to enforce sandbag removal in September. The CRC’s science panel is currently looking into alternatives to sandbags. Spencer Rogers, a member of the panel, has indicated they’re looking into geo-textile tubes. One idea being floated would be to remove the time limit on sandbags and instead focus enforcement action on oversized sandbag structures that can limit or even prevent public access to a beach.
In May 2012 the N.C. Coastal Resources Commission granted the Topsail Reef Homeowners Association a variance to the size of "temporary" retaining walls being built on the oceanfront, allowing them to build higher, wider protective barriers using larger sandbags. The commission said the HOA could build a sandbag wall up to 12 feet tall with a base of 40 to 45 feet, double the height and width of the former limits. The commission also allowed the HOA to place sandbags as much as 29 feet waterward of the structures, nearly 10 feet farther out. Earlier in May 2012 the HOA asked for an eight-year variance for all eight of Topsail Reef's buildings. The commission granted a five-year variance for buildings one through five, the first of which is closest to New River Inlet. In February 2012, the Division of Coastal Management issued the HOA an emergency permit to install about 1,500 linear feet of sandbag wall along the shoreline in front of the eight buildings. More than 600 linear feet of wall has been placed adjacent to buildings six through eight and part of building five, according to a CRC report. In November 2014 the CRC approved a variance to Topsail Reef's CAMA major permit. The variance gives the town permission to build a “super-sized” wall of sandbags substantially larger than the commission’s rules usually allow. The wall of bags will span 40 to 45 feet wide and 20 feet tall and extend 1,450 feet from an existing sandbag structure in front of a condominium complex. In June 2015 JDNews.com reported that the Town of North Topsail Beach was planning to hire a contractor to monitor and maintain the sandbag revetment constructed at the north end of town to keep it in good condition over the long term.
State regulations allow sandbags to remain in place for two years for structures smaller than 5,000 square feet, which includes most beach homes, and five years for larger buildings. That's because they are supposed to be temporary erosion-control devices until a more permanent solution can be developed, typically relocation of the threatened property or a beach nourishment project. But the CRC had long been loath to force people to remove their sandbags, granting extensions after storms and for towns seeking nourishment projects. The board even allowed some property owners to exceed bag size and height limits. That means the structures have morphed from a supposed interim to a permanent fix in many areas. Knowing there was little pressure to pull their bags out, homeowners also have been slow to look into long-term solutions for their erosion woes.
Here is a history of CRC's sandbag rules from the mid-1980s through 2010.
The N.C. Coastal Resources Commission unanimously approved amended rules for sandbags in early February 2013, sending the measure to the Rules Review Commission. If approved by that board at its meeting in March 2013, the "relaxed" regulations would take effect April 1, 2013. The approved changes include the elimination of a "once-per-structure" provision, allowing coastal communities to re-apply for a sandbag permit if an affected structure was once again facing damage from shoreline erosion. The new rules will also allow officials to apply for extensions to existing sandbag permits, as well as increase initial permit time limits from five to eight years for communities actively pursuing beach nourishment or inlet relocation projects.
Sandtube structures are permitted on a case-by-case basis according to NCGS 113A-115.1 (b) and T15A NCAC 7H .0308(a). In August 2014 the North Topsail Beach Board of Aldermen took action to begin the permitting process to install a sand bag revetment, also known as a geotube, along approximately 1,500 feet of shoreline on the north end of Topsail Island. This was in reaction to severe erosion that has been occurring in the area north of the Topsail Reef condominium complex. Sandbags are permitted under 15A NCAC 7H .0308(a). Sandbag structures are allowed to remain in place from 2-5 years depending on if they are located in a municipality with an approved beach nourishment project or a municipality undergoing a beach nourishment study by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Another area where sandbags have been deployed to protect homes is in north Buxton in Dare County, where a building inspector put up "unsafe structure" notices on six oceanfront houses in April 2015. Septic tanks and drainfields are damaged at four of the six houses, foundation pilings are undermined at some, and all have some degree of damage to steps and handrails. At one house, the back deck has pulled away from the structure. Here is a slide show of photos showing the sandbags and the damaged houses.
According to North Carolina Administrative Code Title 15A, Chapter 7H, section 0.0308 1(B):
Permanent erosion control structures may cause significant adverse impacts on the value and enjoyment of adjacent properties or public access to and use of the ocean beach, and, therefore, are prohibited. Such structures include, but are not limited to: bulkheads; seawalls; revetments; jetties; groins and breakwaters.
North Carolina allows temporary erosion control structures in the form of sandbags only. Rules for these structures can be found in the NCAC Title 15A, Chapter 7H, section 0.0308 2(A)-(N). Rules 2(A)-(C) state that:
Information on the extent of shoreline structures in North Carolina was not readily available, perhaps in part because, with some limited exceptions, North Carolina does not allow the construction of shoreline structures.
An inventory of man-made structures was reportedly conducted by DCM for the oceanfront shoreline in the mid 1990s. The inventory included seawalls, jetties, sandbag structures, 1950s missile test sites and stormdrains. DCM also has a coastal sandbag inventory that is current as of 2005. While the Division of Coastal Management conducted an initial inventory, other agencies such as NCDOT (GIS and Mapping Unit 919-212-6000) and the Division of Environmental Health, Recreational Water Quality Testing Program (Wayne Mobley 252-726-7021) have conducted their own inventories and maintain their own data.
The estuarine shoreline for the 20 coastal North Carolina counties is viewable via Internet Explorer on the North Carolina Shorelines and Oceanfront Setback Map. Featuring data from the best-available aerial imagery collected from 2006 through 2010, the site enables users to combine various data layers for customized and downloadable maps. GIS files can also be used in other maps and analyses. The map provides detailed coastwide and county-level information. For instance, a sampling of searches yields answers on the average width of boat ramps, average length of groins, and total square footage of piers and docks. Facts are also provided on shoreline stabilization structures such as bulkheads and groins. This information can help coastal professionals weigh complex decisions that involve property rights, development, protecting coastal resources, and other concerns.
Information on Masonboro Inlet and other similar case studies regarding "Weirs at Coastal Inlets" can be viewed online at: http://chl.erdc.usace.army.mil/library/publications/chetn/pdf/chetn-iv-54a.pdf
Also see here.
State law recognizes limited exceptions for the use of terminal structures, such as stabilization of commercial navigation channels, erosion-threatened bridges and to protect historical sites. The two terminal structures that now exist in North Carolina - one at Fort Macon and another at Oregon Inlet - fall under those exceptions. There is some push for a new jetty at Oregon Inlet. More on this.
Some structures that were previously installed, such as groins on National Park Service land at Cape Hatteras, are no longer being maintained, since they worsen erosion elsewhere and are against state policy.
Oceanfront Spatial Data & Maps are available on the DCM website including:
A map showing the locations of sandbag "structures" along the NC coast can be found here.
The Fiscal Year 2016 Civil Works Budget for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers provides $4.732 billion in gross discretionary funding for the Civil Works program. This budget lists proposed projects and the associated budget justification by state.
Matt Slagel, Shoreline Management Specialist
Morehead City Office / 252-808-2808 or 1-888-4RCOAST (1-888-472-6278), Ext. 233
As mentioned above, North Carolina does not permit hardened structures along the ocean coastline, with the exception of terminal groins at specified locations.
Spencer Rogers of North Carolina Sea Grant has published a paper Beach Nourishment for Hurricane Protection: North Carolina Project Performance In Hurricanes Dennis and Floyd.
An East Carolina University Website reports the result of a survey that found the number of North Carolina coastal residents who oppose taxes or fees for beach repair and replenishment projects outnumber those who are willing to pay to support such projects. The survey of 563 adult residents in eight coastal counties found that only 36% of the residents were willing to pay an annual fee to fund beach fill. A full 44% said they were unwilling to pay any fee. 20% were unsure. Of the 36% who were willing to help pay for beach fill, 10% supported paying less than $20 a year; 12% supported $20 to $40; 4% favored $40 to $60; 2% selected $60 to $80; 5% chose $80 to $100; and 3% would spend more than $100 per year to put sand on the beaches.
The NCDCM website contains information on What you should know about erosion and oceanfront development, Protecting Oceanfront Property From Erosion, Oceanfront Construction Setback Factors and Erosion Rates and Rebuilding on the Oceanfront After a Storm.
The Dune Book, a publication of North Carolina Sea Grant, contains good information on how beaches work, erosion types, dune vegetation, and dune management practices.
In 2007, DCM conducted workshops on topics including Sea Level Rise, Coastal Development Rule Updates for Marine Contractors and Barrier Island Development Issues.
North Carolina Sea Grant has a web page on Coastal Hazards.
A 2011 publication from North Carolina Sea Grant, N.C. Real Estate Commission and N.C. Division of Coastal Management is a new version of Questions and Answers on: Purchasing Coastal Real Estate in North Carolina. Topics include erosion, good construction features and insurance. This new version has updated information about recent regulations, such as new setbacks for larger buildings.
Twenty-eight of North Carolina’s renowned scientific and public policy beach experts spent two days together in March 2009 working to develop a plan to save N.C. beaches. They concluded that it will take energetic leadership pursuing a highly coordinated set of management actions to safeguard our public trust recreational beaches for future generations. Summit participants released a set of findings and recommendations that call on local, state and federal leaders to move forward together with consistent actions to better protect North Carolina’s oceanfront beaches. Read more in N.C. Coastal Federation's 2009 State of the Coast report.
Living shorelines is an increasingly popular approach to erosion control that uses strategically placed plants, stone and sand to deflect wave action, conserve soil and simultaneously provide critical shoreline habitat. Living shorelines often stand up to wave energy better than solid bulkheads or revetments, which add to the problem by amplifying waves on neighboring shores.
Also see this this article and Maryland DNR brochure on Living Shorelines.
An interesting "natural" solution to help combat beach erosion by stabilizing dunes is the Fort Macon State Park Dune Stabilization Program. For many years Fort Macon has accepted used Christmas trees to stabilize eroding dunes. Placement of the trees stabilizes the sand and allows new vegetation to take hold. The trees also provide nutrients for vegetation when they begin to decompose. The park receives an estimated 1,000 trees annually as part of the program. Similar programs exist at Hammocks Beach State Park in Swansboro and at Camp Lejeune, as part of the Onslow Beach sand dune stabilization.
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