OAK ISLAND — The state is proposing to temporarily change the minimum construction setback requirement along two sections of Oak Island, totaling 2.5 miles and including 191 homes. However, much like the emergency beach push the town is performing, it’s only a temporary solution.
Even before Hurricane Isaias wiped out the island’s dunes, 93% of homes (178 residences) along the Division of Coastal Management’s proposed area of concern were already nonconforming when measured from the last pre-storm vegetation line early last year.
Post-Isaias, all 191 structures would be nonconforming — the DCM’s new designation, if it goes into effect, would buy them some time to make storm-related repairs. Renee Cahoon, chair of the Coastal Resources Commission, explained the proposed temporary rule change gives property owners in the most impacted areas the green light to repair and maintain damaged structures that otherwise would not be permitted to rebuild.
“This designation does not give you a get out of jail free card,” Cahoon said Tuesday. “It’s just a method to go ahead and get people moving.”
Erosion in these areas of Oak Island was so bad, the state could not identify a vegetation line to measure from after Isaias. “The geographic extent of the two affected areas make it impossible to identify a vegetation line by using interpolation from vegetation on adjacent properties,” according to DCM’s assessment. Normally, the state measures waterfront setbacks as 60 feet from the first line of stable vegetation or 30 times the erosion rate, which in Oak Island’s case, has been designated at 2 ft. a year.
These setbacks are required for all oceanfront properties along the North Carolina coast in addition to any local building ordinances in place.
Unvegetated Beach Area
Upon the recommendation of Division of Coastal Management (DCM) staff, the Coastal Resources Commission approved at its Sept. 9 meeting designating two areas of the island as an “Unvegetated Beach Area of Environmental Concern” (AEC): a small section on the western end of the island near Lockwoods Folly Inlet and a 2.2-mile stretch along the middle of the island.
Isaias destroyed an estimated 81 feet of vegetation in the westernmost section and 41 feet in the middle section, according to the DCM.
This designation is reserved for areas where no stable vegetation is present. It’s temporary — but can’t revert to a new measurement line until vegetation has been re-established. Only sections of Surf City and North Topsail Beach are currently considered Unvegetated Beach AECs in N.C., caused by damage during Hurricane Florence in 2018. About a six-block section of Surf City homes are still nonconforming with oceanfront setbacks in this area because of the storm damage.
Before then, DCM’s only Unvegetated Beach AEC was established in Hatteras Village in 2003 after Hurricane Isabel and remained in place for ten years, until vegetation had reestablished.
Christy Simmons, DCM spokesperson, said the new rule will undergo a public hearing and comment period before being formally adopted.
The extent of Isaias’ damage on Oak Island prompted the town to seek an emergency solution to protect oceanfront structures.
This week, crews began work on a $460,000 emergency beach push project along the town’s entire 9-mile shoreline. A beach push project accomplishes exactly what it sounds like: bulldozers push sand from the mean low water line landward to create an emergency dune. It is not a permanent solution to combat erosion.
Oak Island obtained state and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers approvals to modify and renew its previous sand pushing permit, gaining special, one-time permission because of the severity of damage to perform work inside the so-called turtle window.
Because endangered sea turtles nest in the area, disturbing activities are typically banned between April 1 and Nov. 15. The town has promised to avoid known nests by 50 feet on either side and work closely with volunteers each day before crews begin.
The lumps of contaminated sand blocking every other side street will have to wait until after the turtle window to be addressed. Town manager David Kelly told Council at its Sept. 8 meeting he hopes to award a sifting and replacement contract by November so that the washed-away dunes can be placed back where they came from.
The dune push work already underway likely won’t help establish a stable vegetation line necessary to revert back setback requirements but it will provide temporary storm surge protection until hurricane season ends. A more permanent solution may be decided by the town by early next year — and it won’t come without controversy.
At its meeting earlier this month, Council discussed strategies to address the barren beach. Mayor Ken Thomas proposed billing some sections of the island more than others for a big renourishment project, since presumably oceanfront properties would benefit more than inland ones.
Councilman John Bach made a frustrated plea to Council to act, stating the town has already spent $5 million on engineering costs alone. “The reality is, for 7 miles of beach, there are no dunes. We are defenseless. And we need to sober up to that reality,” he said at the meeting.
Though he credited the Council for addressing renourishment incrementally after storms, as a whole, “we failed to act,” he said.
“Either we’re going forward or we’re going to have the beach we have now and the engineering money has been expended. So this is a big decision for council, obviously, nobody likes a tax increase, nobody wants one, but then again we don’t want an economy that’s cratered and we don’t want a beachfront that’s destroyed either. Because we now know what that looks like. You’re getting a preview if we do nothing,” Bach said.
“Doing nothing is not a strategy. Hope is not a strategy,” he said.
Below, view a map of the proposed Unvegetated Beach AEC area in red. In yellow, Oak Island’s approved one-time beach pushing area, which covers the entire span of the town, with the exception of avoiding 50 feet on either side of identified sea turtle nests:
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