CAROLINA BEACH — The Town of Carolina Beach closed the gates to Freeman Park in a surprising move Wednesday evening citing safety concerns due to private landowners installing posts and ropes along with beach grass on previously public access portions of the beach.
In a letter released to the public, Town Manager Michael Cramer said representatives from Freeman Beach LLC had installed posts, ropes and sea oat plantings on areas of the park.
The plantings are on areas of the beach that have historically been part of the public beach. But what does that mean?
First and foremost, the beach is not closed to visitors Cramer said, what has been closed is the vehicle access to the beach.
The reason he made the decision to close the park to vehicle access is because the owners of the private property installed poles sticking out of the sand that could potentially cause accidents and damages. These posts that were installed were placed in the historic path on which vehicles travelled, Cramer said.
The private landowners were not given permission by the town, or by the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, the state body that issues CAMA (Coastal Area Management Act) permits.
According to Sarah Young public relations manager for the Department of Coastal Management, “The Division of Coastal Management (DCM) has determined that the posts and rope fencing is unauthorized development on the public trust beach and is preparing to issue a Notice of Violation.”
Ownership of the beach, a public right to private land
When it comes to the question of who owns the beach, in North Carolina things can get confusing.
In North Carolina public beach access is seen as a right, the language written in the N.C. General Statutes says, “The public having made frequent, uninterrupted, and unobstructed use of the full width and breadth of the ocean beaches of this State from time immemorial, this section shall not be construed to impair the right of the people to the customary free use and enjoyment of the ocean beaches … These public trust rights in the ocean beaches are established in the common law as interpreted and applied by the courts of this State.”
This means that private property can extend all the way to the mean high-water line, the public still has access to the dry sand beach, think of it as an easement on private property, Cramer said.
In the photo below the labels A,B,C represent different areas of access. C is the current toe of the dune, which marks the end of public beach access. B is the area between C and A where landowners have planted beach grass. If it stands, the toe of the dunes could reach to the end of the sea grass. From A to the ocean could potentially become the new public beach access if the toe of the dune is allowed to grow.
Although private owners can claim land rights to the dry sand beach, the public still has the right to access the beach. In layman terms, this means the public has access to the beach from the foot of the dunes to the ocean, Cramer said.
“The results of this enterprise has been to significantly diminish the viability of the area as a beach resort.” — From A Letter to Carolina Beach Mayor Dan Wilcox
In December 2016 Clifton Hester, a lawyer representing Freeman Beach LLC, Carolina Freeman LLC, and B&F Enterprises of Calabash LLC sent a letter to then Carolina Beach Mayor Dan Wilcox.
The letter expressed concerns from land owners regarding camping on the beach, and the diminishing value the camping has had on the property – including its viability of becoming a “beach resort.”
“While none of the owners initially objected to this project, the results of this enterprise has been to significantly diminish the viability of the area as a beach resort,” Hester wrote.
Hester went on to request the town take action and close the campgrounds since they were located above the mean high-water mark.
What does state law say?
When it comes to development on coastal land, CAMA permits are required for most projects, even the installation of sand fencing and the growing of dunes in a seaward direction.
There are three types of CAMA permits, major, minor, and general. The three permits are defined by N.C. DEQ as:
- Major permits are necessary for activities that require other state or federal permits, for projects that cover more than 20 acres or for construction covering more than 60,000 square feet. Applications for major permits are reviewed by 10 state and four federal agencies before a decision is made.
- General permits are used for routine projects that usually pose little or no threat to the environment. General permits are issued on-site by DCM staff.
- Minor permits are required for projects, such as single-family houses, that don’t require major permits or general permits. They are reviewed, issued and administered to CRC standards by local governments under contract with the Division of Coastal Management. The minor permit program is part of the CRC’s efforts to minimize the burden on permit applicants. Under CAMA regulations, a minor permit is to be issued within 25 days once a complete application is in hand. If the project is simple, the review process often is shorter.
On Jan. 31, a CAMA minor permit was issued for the installation of 1,800 linear feet of sand fencing along the north end of Freeman Park. The area where owners of private property installed the posts, ropes, and beach grass was not included in this permit.
“DCM has rules in place that allow for growing dunes in a seaward direction gradually through the limited use of sand fencing. The development which took place in Freeman Park did not comply with the applicable rules,” Young said.
It is not yet known if the new beach grass will be removed along with the posts and ropes.
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