Sunday, February 5, 2023

Inside state’s order to remove popular Carolina Beach wheelchair access mat

The state notified the nonprofit Ocean Cure that it must remove its wheelchair beach access matte because it threatened sea turtles and shorebirds. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy Kevin Murphy)
The state notified the nonprofit Ocean Cure that it must remove its wheelchair beach access mat because it threatened sea turtles and shorebirds. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy Kevin Murphy)

CAROLINA BEACH — For the past three summers, a nonprofit called Ocean Cure has laid down a 3,000-square-foot plastic mat right above the high tide line near the Carolina Beach Boardwalk to provide what few coastal towns in the region can provide: easy beach access for those in wheelchairs.

“You can’t find that in any other beach towns that I’ve noticed to the extent we have it,” Parks and Recreation Director Eric Jelinksi said.

The matting runs parallel to the tide line, connected on either side to two other town-owned mats staked into the ground, each connected to the Boardwalk’s wheelchair ramps. Ocean Cure President Kevin Murphy described the parallel mat as “free-floating and super low impact” — because it is not staked to the beach itself, it is allowed to shift slightly and lies flush with the sand, allowing any animal to pass over it. It is also designed with holes so the sand can pass through it when it rains to prevent flooding, according to Murphy.

RELATED: Facing concerns from N.C. Wildlife, wheelchair-accessible beach mat in Carolina Beach won’t be back for the rest of this season (WECT)

“It’s done an amazing thing, and it’s brought people from all around the world,” Murphy said. “People from all over the country make reservations. And I’ve had calls from people outside of this country who are coming to Carolina Beach because it’s the most accessible beach they can find.”

Murphy said he has discussed the economic benefits of the mat with several town councilmen, and they estimated the mat brings around $1 million in tourism money annually. Although a precise figure is tricky to tabulate, Jelinski said the town is supportive of the mat because it advances the town’s goal of “being one of the most accessible beaches in the Southeast,” and acknowledged the mat has a direct benefit on the number of people who visit Carolina Beach.

But now the town finds itself “stuck between a rock and a hard place.” That’s because the state told Murphy and town officials that the mat must be removed to protect sea turtles and shorebirds, as was first reported by WECT.

In a letter sent late July by Roy Brownlow, a compliance coordinator for the N.C. Division of Coastal Management (DCM), Murphy and Town Manager Bruce Oakley were directed to remove the mat by September 8 or face “civil and/or criminal penalties.” (According to Murphy, the mat was removed by Ocean Cure volunteers because Hurricane Isaias was headed toward the region, five days after he received the letter.)

In the letter, Brownlow cited a “recent example of a ‘false crawl’ by a sea turtle on a different N.C. beach that appears to have been caused by similar beach matting” and “potential sea turtle ‘takes’ that could result from this structure,” concerns raised by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission (WRC).

“Please be assured that the Division fully supports and encourages handicap access to oceanfront beaches, and acknowledges the positive work of Ocean Cure, Inc. to facilitate handicap access in Carolina Beach,” Brownlow wrote. “However, rules of the N.C. Coastal Resources Commission state that no person or entity may undertake any development in a designated AEC [Area of Environmental Concern] without first obtaining a permit in accordance with the N.C. Coastal Area Management Act.”

But he advised them a permit for the mat would be unlikely. The purpose of the letter, according to Brownlow, was to inform Murphy and Oakley that such matting must be no wider than six feet and no further than six feet toward the ocean from the toe of the frontal dune. Although the DCM doesn’t require a CAMA permit for roll-out matting across oceanfront dunes, Brownlow said the town or Ocean Cure may apply for CAMA permits for this kind of structure, although the “permit would likely be denied because the structure is inconsistent with various rules governing oceanfront structures and structural accessways.

DCM Wilmington District Manager Tara MacPherson visited the location with the “purpose to investigate” the matting, according to Brownlow.

According to Murphy, a local DCM employee is “not happy we have it down” and takes pictures of the mat when it rains, complaining that it is underwater; he did not clarify if that employee was MacPherson. He said that’s why he and his group of volunteers, all local teachers, pulled it up before Isaias made landfall.

“I don’t want them to take more pics with another storm, and say, ‘This is another violation.’ And I’ve expressed that to her boss — I told him that I’m not gonna do this until we have your support.”

According to Murphy, Brownlow informed him during a recent phone call that DCM Director Braxton Davis supported the mat, and Brown told him, “We have to figure out a way to make this work.”

He said he has also garnered the support of N.C. Senator Harper Peterson (who did confirm his support) and a local USFWS compliance liaison officer for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the same agency that Brownlow said had raised concerns about the mat’s potential impact on local wildlife. In his Notice of Regulatory Requirements letter, Brownlow also said the most significant concerns of the mat — on top of its potential impacts to sea turtles and shorebirds — is the “lack of a Biological Opinion or Habitat Conservation Plan from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service authorizing any potential ‘takes’ of endangered species under the Endangered Species Act, should one occur.”

Murphy said such broad support for the mat — from the local UNFWS officer, Senator Peterson, the town of Carolina Beach, the DCM chief, the N.C. Aquarium at Fort Fisher, the Pleasure Island Sea Turtle Project, UNCW’s MarineQuest program — shows that “everybody wants this to go through, but we just need to get the law changed correctly — which now states structures must be ‘6 feet by 6 feet from the toe of the dune’ — which is comical, absolutely ridiculous.”

“I mean, everybody’s supportive of it,” Murphy said.

But not everyone is behind the wheelchair mat. Murphy said he spoke to USFWS biologist Kathy Matthews in late August, an official he was told would need to give permission “before I try to push this any further.”

“She wasn’t very positive on us getting the permit for the mat next year,” he said of their conversation.

Murphy said most town officials don’t want Ocean Cure to pull up the mat, but instead urge him to gather more public support for the project to combat any future issues with the DCM.

“I don’t want to have to go back and forth and fight with a government program, because I’m pretty sure they’re just gonna make us lose every time,” Murphy said with a sober laugh.

Correction: This article originally indicated that Murphy had spoken to DCM Director Braxton Davis instead of DCM compliance coordinator Roy Brownlow. It has been updated.

Read the letter from the Division of Coastal Management below:

State letter to Ocean Kure … by Mark Darrough

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