More voices are joining those of local beach towns and elected officials in the fight for continuing federal and, more importantly, state funding for coastal storm damage reduction (also known as beach nourishment) projects. This time, it’s a group of area real estate agents.
The Wilmington Regional Association of Realtors is leading the Coalition for North Carolina Beaches, a group whose goal is to get dedicated state funding for future projects. Those projects replenish sand that has been washed away by storms and tidal erosion. Shane Johnson, chief operations officer of the 2,250-member group, said that as the area’s largest professional organization, the WRAR has influence in the region and is always looking to make a positive impact through its widespread network.
“We can secure, for instance, grants and issue mobilization support for important issues,” said Johnson of the group’s connections with the North Carolina Association of Realtors, the North Carolina Homeowners Alliance, the Realtors Political Action Committee and the National Association of Realtors. “We support a strong local economy, a high quality of life, and feel it is our duty to invest in the community and take an active role in local development.”
On Wednesday, the group hosted “Beaches 101,” a day that included a seminar on the geological and technical aspects of beach nourishment as well as a tour of the current project going on in Carolina Beach. Dr. Nicole Elko, a coastal geologist and owner of Elko Coastal Consulting, was brought in to give Realtors and local officials in attendance a run down of the what, how and why of coastal storm damage reduction projects.
“The Association is an advocacy organization, and in order to provide community leadership that is effective, we need to be knowledgeable,” Johnson said. “When developing policy, we the people need to be educated beyond a cursory understanding of issues.”
Layton Bedsole, New Hanover County’s Shore Protection Coordinator who is also known locally as “The Sand Man,” agreed.
“Education is key,” Bedsole said. “The more education you have about how and why we need to protect our shore, the better you understand what we’re doing.”
The Coalition, which is already supported by State Sens. Michael Lee and Bill Rabon, State Representatives Susi Hamilton, Rick Catlin, Chris Millis, Ted Davis Jr. and Representative-elect Holly Grange, is hoping the education of more people will lead to a policy change at the state level.
“These are North Carolina beaches. The state needs to be a part of that equation,” Johnson said. “It’s not really fair to allow local organizations to fly solo.”
Congressman David Rouzer, whose 7th District currently encompasses most of the southeastern part of the state, said he is working to get allies from other states to support coastal funding.
“Beaches’ nourishment and dredging our waterways is crucial to our infrastructure here in this part of the state,” Rouzer said during Tuesday’s gathering. “What I keep telling my colleagues [in Congress] is that our beaches, inlets and waterways here are no different than their roads and bridges there.”
Though Rouzer said he is working on legislation that would help coastal areas, he acknowledged that securing federal funding would be a hard task due to budget deficits. That’s why local officials are pushing harder for state funding, with New Hanover County recently hiring a lobbyist to work specifically in Raleigh on the issue.
Projects are currently paid for with federal dollars that are then matched by state funds. Local municipalities also kick in a share based on room occupancy taxes. After the beach nourishment cycle that is currently underway on Pleasure Island, however, Carolina Beach’s contract with the federal government is up. Local governments fear that state funding will also dry up once the feds pull out, leaving the small towns to pay for the multi-million dollar projects themselves.
“We’re really not looking for new taxes,” said Johnson, who said the annual estimated need for such projects statewide would be between $32 to $70 million (not every beach is nourished every year.)
Carolina Beach and Wrightsville Beach have already started preparing for the worst case scenario by setting up more paid parking areas ahead of the summer tourist season. Parking fees generate millions of dollars in revenue for the towns each year, but Kure Beach, the county’s smallest coastal municipality, does not charge for parking.
Johnson said it’s important for the real estate industry to lead the way because the condition of local beaches directly affects them.
“Nothing impacts the value of property in the Cape Fear Region more than the beaches,” Johnson said. “Without a beach, which is what would occur if we failed to re-nourish, not only would millions of dollars of property be lost, millions of dollars of tax revenue would go away, and the largest regional economic engine – beach tourism – would disappear, causing the economy to tank.”
“Realtors care about our community and we are invested in maintaining a high quality of life,” Johnson added. “If the beaches went away, quality of life would go to the fishes, so to speak.”
Rouzer agreed that the health of the beaches is a vital part of the region’s overall well-being.
“It’s important to commerce, it’s important to the local economy, and it’s important to find a long-term solution for funding,” Rouzer said.
That’s where a large coalition is necessary to affect change, according to Johnson.
“The more voices we have, the stronger and louder we will be,” said Johnson, who said the goal was to get dedicated, reliable state funding. “We cannot let our beaches erode.”