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Letting nature have its way with the developed coast–versus investing in beach nourishment projects and inlet maintenance–would have dire economic consequences, a roomful of coastal managers and local elected officials heard Monday.
It’s not just about protecting beachfront property, coastal engineer Johnny Martin told them, but about towns and industries, which amount to a word the current legislature buzzes all over: jobs.
It wasn’t news to most in the room; paying attention to coastal policy means awareness of the challenges populated coastlines are facing. The gathering Monday was day one of the N.C. Beach, Inlet and Waterway Association’s (NCBIWA) annual conference, held at the Blockade Runner hotel in Wrightsville Beach.
But it was the streamlined message the collective has been trying to communicate to the lawmakers who may determine how well funded, and subsequently protected, the North Carolina coast becomes as the federal government may be relaxing its role in such aid. North Carolina and local governments expect to inherit greater responsibility for their beaches and inlets going forward.
“What will happen if we do nothing?” Martin, who works for the Moffatt and Nichol firm of coastal infrastructure specialists, posed on Monday.
He put the answer this way: A 50-percent loss of North Carolina’s beach width would equal annual losses of $428 million and 5,600 jobs. Fifty percent inlet shoaling at shallow draft inlets would cause a $40 million annual loss in addition to 780 jobs gone.
Beach and inlet jobs include those related to fisheries, tourism and boating.
Martin said North Carolina’s current beach-nourishment and inlet maintenance needs annually are as much as $40 million.
“Is it worth the investment?” he asked. Considering the aspects of beach recreation, for-hire fisheries, boat building and other points at stake, “I would say yes,” said Martin.
‘Rich people’ mentality
Frequently noted Monday was the perception that beaches are lined with wealthy property owners whose choices and lifestyles are undeserving of such public subsidies.
Brunswick County Commissioner Marty Cooke said he recently spoke with an inland official who said building on the storm-risky coast is foolish when that money could be invested in better places, like the stock market.
That’s just the wrong mentality, said Cooke. “These are towns. This is tourism.”
Figures on investment returns for each dollar spent on beach nourishment range from $60 to $320, the former pulled from a Moffatt and Nichol study and the latter often expressed by U.S. Rep. Mike McIntyre.
Harry Simmons, mayor of Caswell Beach and executive director of NCBIWA, terms coastal areas as “donor communities” on the view that beach towns generate more money for the greater government than they get back.
“It’s a perception that it’s a bunch of rich people” living unwisely by the shore and unworthy of financial aid or sympathy at all, Oak Island Town Manager Steve Foster opined Monday on the lack of support. That’s a perception that has to change, he said.
“We might have to find other ways to get at it, rather than just saying it all the time,” Simmons said before mentioning increasing popularity for the idea of coastal communities partnering for a unified message. Rep. Pat McElraft, a Republican from Carteret County, for one is pushing the formation of a coastal caucus.
Disagreements, funding ideas
But how to best manage the coast continues to be a controversy.
When the N.C. General Assembly decided in 2011 to modify its ban on hardened coastal structures and allow up to four terminal groins, environmental groups were up in arms. The N.C. Coastal Federation along with coastal geologists like Orrin Pilkey argued the groins–short, rocky walls that serve to maintain beach shape at inlets–can exacerbate erosion along neighboring beaches by essentially robbing the sand that would otherwise drift down to them. (Proponents of terminal groins say that, designed properly, they will not bear adverse impacts.)
Bald Head Island, Ocean Isle Beach, Holden Beach and Figure Eight Island are all trying to speak for the four terminal groins the new law allows. The law does not allow state funds to play a part in their construction.
New ways to raise money for beach management in general haven’t come easy, either. The General Assembly in its last session ordered a report from the state to explore the worth of generating funding for inlet dredging by charging the people who use the state’s inlets. Initial ideas included increasing the fees on coastal fishing licenses and boat registrations, but the report determined that might actually worsen the situation by influencing a reduction in the number of people buying those licenses or paying those fees.
“If you raise it too much, it will break,” said Dee Lupton, the deputy director of the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries, which co-authored the report. Ultimately it suggested establishing coastal districts to meet project costs.
For example, Lupton pointed out that property owners at northern Wrightsville Beach and on Figure Eight Island are set to cover the costs–to be determined–for the dredging of Mason Inlet, which runs between the islands. The project, scheduled for this winter, is set to pull up 300,000 cubic yards of sand that will renourish those beaches.
Citing a 2006 study, Lupton said that if Oregon Inlet closed per lack of maintenance, the economic hit would be nearly $700 million. The study also noted roughly 10,000 jobs ride on it. Oregon Inlet is considered one of the state’s most vital to commercial fishing among other money-making uses.
The General Assembly is supposed to consider the new report’s findings in its upcoming 2013 session.
Lobbyist Connie Wilson on Monday noted the coast has nine lawmakers in the N.C. House and five in the Senate–7.5 percent and 10 percent of the respective chambers.
She added that coastal project-needs in the legislative session starting in January will compete for attention with the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services budget as well as with education, which too has seen reduced federal support.
Beach projects are facilitated through the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, whose share of the overall state budget is only two percent.
Wilson said the beach renourishment cause may fare better in the legislature when lobbyists drop the term “beach renourishment” altogether and instead push “inlet dredging,” which is arguably far less stigmatized.
Contact Ben Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org or (910) 772-6335. On Twitter: @benbrownmedia