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Sunday, May 19, 2024

3 days vs. 3 months? Regulatory structure makes it tougher to protect wetlands

Permits to install bulkheads can be turned around by the NCDEQ in days. The agency's goal to issue a marsh sill permit, a "living shoreline" approach to erosion control, is 75 days

A marsh sill made from oysters, installed by North Carolina Coastal Federation, protects the shoreline from erosion. (Port City Daily/Courtesy North Carolina Coastal Federation)

(Author’s note: This is part two of a three-part series examining southeastern North Carolina’s hardened shoreline.)

SOUTHEASTERN, N.C.—When it comes to coastal erosion, it’s easy to install a bulkhead. Maybe not physically, but you can get the permit to install a bulkhead back from the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality in a single day.

“These general permits can be issued within a week or so,” Daniel Govoni, Federal Consistency Coordinator for the NCDEQ, said. “They can actually be issued in a day.”

PART ONE: What does it mean that our shoreline is ‘hardening?’ It’s not good

Two solutions, two very different timelines

The permit to install a bulkhead, a vertical structure designed to prevent property erosion, has been streamlined after decades of review by the NCDEQ.

“We [NCDEQ] have become comfortable with not reviewing as long as they meet certain dimensions and perimeters,” Govoni said. “Everyone has come to a general conclusion that they don’t need to be reviewed.”

Bulkhead and riprap are erosion-control techniques that "harden" the shoreline. (Port City Daily/Courtesy NCDEQ)
Bulkhead and riprap are erosion-control techniques that “harden” the shoreline. (Port City Daily/Courtesy NCDEQ)

If a property owner was inclined to install a marsh sill, the process doesn’t move as quickly. Marsh sills run parallel to the shoreline and are designed to prevent erosion. They are often employed as an alternative to bulkheads or riprap, methods of erosion control that are considered to be more invasive by environmental agencies.

Permits to get a marsh sill installed require the coordination of two regulatory agencies.

“Our goal is 75 days or less,” Govoni said. 

The snag comes from the NCDEQs arrangement with the US Army Corps of Engineers.

“We had to put some language in that general permit to accommodate the Corps of Engineers,” Govoni said. “It wasn’t a true general permit.”

Though the NCDEQ has made efforts to remove the requirement for coordination on a marsh sill permit, Govoni said the regulatory process is not the only answer to protecting the hardening shoreline.

“I think a streamlined general permit process would help but I don’t think it’s the ultimate answer,” he said. “I think a lot of it has to do with what property owners are used to and what marine contractors have seen.”

Level the marsh

For coastal property owners who want to control erosion, bulkheads have become the go-to solution.

“That’s been sort of the traditional method for controlling erosion, it’s what everyone knows, it’s what most marine contractors are most familiar, its just whats been used,” Ted Wilgis, a biologist for North Carolina Coastal Federation, said.

Wilgis said a lack of awareness of alternatives can also contributes to the ease of vertical wall hardening.

“Because of people’s general lack of awareness about the opportunity to do something different and the lack of ease to get a living shoreline built, they’re not as easy to do,” he said.

Through the Coastal Federation’s community outreach initiatives and NCDEQ’s education efforts to target homeowners and professionals, people in the position to prevent the continued hardening of shoreline are catching on.

“The regulatory agencies, the marine contractors are kind of coming around,” Wilgis said. “What we’re trying to do is to help level the playing field by working with regulatory agencies to help streamline these living shoreline projects,” he said.

(Saturday, part three: “A softer approach, living shorelines as an alternative to the hardening shoreline”)

Johanna Ferebee can be reached at or @j__ferebee on Twitter

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