Friday, July 19, 2024

Funding for Wilmington-area beach nourishment disappears at last minute; local leaders shocked

Despite being closed in portions, plenty of people can be seen out on the beach observing the beach nourishment process (Port City Daily/Michael Praats)
A shoreline nourishment project is underway at Carolina Beach in 2019, with Wrightsville Beach seen in the distance. Funds for upcoming nourishment projects approved for area beaches has been directed elsewhere. (Port City Daily/Michael Praats)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — The end-of-year federal spending packages signed in Washington left the beach towns in New Hanover County with the impression that major funding was on its way, with shoreline nourishment projects run by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers poised to begin at all three towns. 

But when the Corps released its work plan — a guiding document outlining where the funds would go — the county’s beach towns were no longer mentioned.

Related: Federal spending bill makes way for local beach projects

Wrightsville Beach is on a four-year beach nourishment cycle, while Carolina and Kure beaches have the work done every three years. Every 12 years the cycles coincide and Corps-backed projects happen simultaneously in all three. The upcoming window, with permit acquisition slated for this year and work set for 2022, falls in one of the alignment years.  

The federal government previously agreed to contribute 65% of the costs for the upcoming Wrightsville Beach and Kure Beach projects. For Carolina Beach, the cost split would have been 50/50 between federal and non-federal funding, according to Layton Bedsole, New Hanover County shoreline protection coordinator.

The beach is closed in some parts of Carolina Beach while work continues (Port City Daily/Michael Praats)
A closed Carolina Beach in March 2019 during shoreline-nourishment work. The next cycle was planned to for fall 2021/spring 2022, but Corps of Engineers funds are being redirected elsewhere. (Port City Daily/Michael Praats)

Although appropriations were made for the projects in the spending packages, those federal funds will no longer be available for the next beach nourishment cycle.

“The county is currently exploring all options, including working with state and federal partners on funding solutions, to protect our coastal infrastructure,” a New Hanover County spokesperson wrote in an email. 

These projects involve pumping sand from off-site locations onto the shoreline, helping to buttress the land against storms and keeping it in good shape for summer tourists, a major driver of the local economy. 

On Jan. 19 the Corps announced how its $7.3 billion would be spent, mentioning only a handful of beach towns nationwide.

“We were all shocked,” said Carolina Beach Mayor LeAnn Pierce. “We were really believing all along that we were going to be funded, until we got this news last week, which was very shocking to us.” 

Allen Oliver, a member of the Kure Beach Town Council, said local leaders are reacting to the bad news on the fly, trying to drum up an alternative source of funding that could keep the work on schedule. 

“We don’t have a plan yet,” Oliver said. “We’re trying to get the federal money reinstated first. But we’re going to have some hard decisions to make on what we’re going to do going forward.” 

The Corps is divided into divisions that span the United States. The headquarters for the South Atlantic Division — New Hanover County’s division — is in Atlanta. The Corps doesn’t do the work; it designs the project specifics and guides the bidding process for contractors. 

“As far as we know, our projects were in the work plan that left Atlanta and went to Washington to the budget office,” Oliver said.  “We do not know what happened, or how it didn’t get included in the budget.”

Pierce said the Corps’ local office appeared just as shocked as the beach town politicians. 

“The Wilmington District is investigating all other funding opportunities within administrative policies and guidelines,” a spokesperson wrote in an email.

The spokesperson added that if funding existed, work was scheduled to take place between Nov. 2021 and April 2022.

“We will be proceeding with a scheduled beach renourishment solicitation for the Ocean Isle Beach, N.C. [Coastal Storm Risk Management] Project,” the spokesperson wrote. 

U.S. Rep. David Rouzer (R-NC) made a push to secure funding for the beach towns while the spending bills were being written last year.

Read More: Top Wilmington supporters remain faithful to Rouzer, as state corporations drop him from donor list

“While we’re disappointed the work plan put forward by the Army Corps’ national office did not include funding for these beaches, in an effort to find other federal dollars we are working with the Army Corps’ Wilmington District office to reallocate funds unused from other projects where and if possible,” a Rouzer spokesperson wrote in a statement. 

Tim Owens, Wrightsville Beach town manager, said the Corps’ decision leaves the beach towns with three options. Ideally, there is potential federal money out there that could be unlocked, he said. If that doesn’t work out, the beach communities could work alongside the county and state to brainstorm a solution. The third option, he said, is to wait a year and try to get included in the Corps’ work plan next year. 

Pierce, the Carolina Beach mayor, said she made calls to her counterparts in the other towns and talked to Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo about the situation. 

“We’re all very disappointed because putting sand on the beach is something we’ve worked hard on,” she said. “To be defunded from it is quite a surprise.” 

She added that as tourism hubs, the beach towns needed support to protect their shores and to pay for the coastal management projects. 

“They are North Carolina beaches that have visitors from all over the country and they should be funded by the feds and state,” she said. “You can’t look at those taxpayers who live on those islands to fund such a huge bill.”

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