Modified bill would lift cap on terminal groins

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A vessel cuts into Brunswick County’s Lockwood Folly Inlet. Image source: Google Maps.

A new version of a coastal policy reform bill in the N.C. Senate would repeal some of the state’s key limitations with terminal groins, erosion control structures that until 2011 were banned altogether.

Approved by the Senate’s Agriculture, Environment and Natural Resources Committee on Tuesday, the substitute version of the proposed “Coastal Policy Reform Act of 2013” would remove the cap on the legal number of terminal groins–four–that the state is presently allowed to permit.

It would also strike the existing requirement that terminal groins only be used on shorelines where threats are “imminent” and when no other option is more feasible.

While beach town officials have pushed for the freedom to install terminal groins–structures that act like arms reaching from the ends of islands to hold beach sand in place–as a practical way to protect valuable property and beach width, environmental advocates are sounding alarms over the new proposal.

“We have some strong concerns,” said Mike Giles of the N.C. Coastal Federation, which has long stood in opposition to terminal groins. The group says those structures, while holding sand on one shoreline, can actually starve adjacent shorelines of sand that would otherwise drift to them, thus making for erosion relocation. That can have property owners in the downdrift areas up in arms, groin opponents have said.

Officials in favor of terminal groins have argued that the opposition misunderstands how the structures work, and that they can be built responsibly, without bearing any adverse impact. They tout success stories in other states, like Florida, whose Amelia Island has become an example of a well-built, terminal-groin-aided beach restoration site.

In 2011, the N.C. General Assembly passed legislation legalizing up to four terminal groins following a longstanding ban–a ban that generally still exists for all other hard, coastal structures, like jetties and seawalls.

The bill came with a number of catches designed to keep the installation of a terminal groin from being so easy; for instance, a terminal groin has to be the beach’s last resort, meaning the applicant has to demonstrate that other erosion control measures–including relocating threatened structures–are “impractical.”

The substitute that surfaced Tuesday would repeal that prerequisite.

It would also repeal the requirement that the applicant submit information to demonstrate the associated beachfront structures or infrastructure are “imminently” threatened. Per the new bill’s draft, “threatened” generally is just cause.

Giles said he’s confused as to why the existing law permitting terminal groins, being that it only passed in 2011, is slated for such amendment so soon. He said Tuesday that a reason to cap the groin number at four was to see how the structures perform.

While four beach towns have already formally applied for terminal groin permits–Holden Beach, Ocean Isle Beach, Bald Head Island and Figure Eight Island–none has reached the construction stage.

Sen. Bill Rabon (R-Brunswick), who filed the “Coastal Policy Reform Act” and who is a member of the committee, indicated a view Tuesday that it may be because the process to get a terminal groin on the ground is too convoluted, with too many obstacles.

“After legalizing terminal groins in 2011, none have been built due to confusing, arbitrary and overly restrictive requirements in the authorizing statute,” said a related talking-points document Rabon emailed Port City Daily on Tuesday.

On lifting the cap of four permits, it suggests any island beach town should have a shot at a terminal groin if it would help.

The points also note some proposed financial flexibility for the beach towns. Under the existing law, the applicant has to submit to regulators proof of financial assurance as a bond, insurance policy or other means of covering the costs of long-term maintenance and monitoring of the constructed groin as well as any modifications or removal of the groin as needed. And if the groin has an adverse impact, the town’s bond or insurance policy has to be adequate to address the restoration.

The committee’s new proposal would lift all of the above except the financial assurance to cover the costs of the structure’s modification or removal as needed.

It would also allow terminal groins to be paid for with general obligation bonds, without a referendum, a method the current law forbids.

Area beach towns have long argued their need for the often-called “extra tool in the box” to fight erosion around developed inlet beaches. Officials including Harry Simmons, executive director of the N.C. Beach, Inlet & Waterway Association and mayor of Caswell Beach, have noted that without reasonable access to terminal groin construction, the options generally go no further than pricey beach renourishment projects, temporary sandbagging and retreat.

High property value is at stake.

In November 2012, at the annual conference of the N.C. Beach, Inlet & Waterway Association held in Wrightsville Beach, officials working on Holden Beach’s terminal groin application said $27 million in property is at risk on the island west of Lockwood Folly Inlet. On the east side of the inlet is Oak Island, where nearly $110 million in nearby property may be in harm’s way.

While many admit that the placement of a terminal groin to stabilize an inlet would not preclude the need to renourish the beach periodically, supporters say it would reduce the need to do it so often, thus potentially saving vast amounts of money in the long run.

Renourishments can cost millions of dollars each, depending on scope. A 2010 state-ordered report from coastal engineering firm Moffat & Nichol stated that groin projects, including permitting, design and an accompanying sand placement, can range from $3.45 million to $10.85 million.

Giles said the Coastal Federation plans to contact lawmakers about the negatives the group perceives in the bill.

“This bill just says to the four communities that are attempting to acquire permits that if you are having problems meeting the safeguards contained in the original terminal groin bill, just get rid of them, and that is what this proposal does and is an irresponsible way to conduct public business,” he said.

A document of points the Coastal Federation sent out late Tuesday afternoon suggested the proposal could lead to North Carolina’s beaches one day resembling the hardened coast of New Jersey.

Click here to view the complete information about the bill.

Ben Brown is a news reporter at Port City Daily. Reach him at ben.b@hometownwilmington.com or (910) 772-6335. On Twitter: @benbrownmedia