SOUTHEASTERN NC — Three beach towns are searching for answers after funding for beach nourishment projects disappeared a month ago.
Every few years, Wrightsville, Carolina and Kure beaches undergo immense sand-moving projects that fortify the land against erosion. The projects, organized by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, protect biodiversity and vitalize the sand dunes, creating a barrier for storms.
After jockeying in Washington last year, Rep. David Rouzer (R-NC) and other politicians succeeded in procuring allocations for these beach nourishment projects. Both Wrightsville Beach and the towns on Pleasure Island initially obtained federal funding for the work decades ago. In both cases, potential expiration dates were creeping up.
Upon the signing of the late-2020 federal spending bills, appropriations of more than $50 million for future nourishment projects were codified. All three beach towns expected sand-moving to begin in early 2022. Sen. Thom Tillis touted the political victory in a press release, noting that Pleasure Island authorizations had been extended for 15 years.
Then the Corps released its Work Plan — an internal guidebook for the upcoming slate of projects. Only a few beach towns nationwide were mentioned; those in New Hanover County were not among them.
“We’d love to know where the ball was dropped, but today I don’t really think we know,” said Layton Bedsole, New Hanover County shoreline protection coordinator. “I am of the opinion it was in the higher echelon of the federal government, and that’s just my opinion.”
A spokesperson for the Corps’ Wilmington District said it was unclear when or why the projects were removed from the work plan. Allen Oliver, a Kure Beach town councilor, said he believed local funding was extricated from the work plan after it left Atlanta — the location of the Corps’ South Atlantic District headquarters, and the intermediary between the local district and federal bosses.
Tim Buckland, New Hanover County intergovernmental affairs manager, has been working to resolve the current dearth of available beach nourishment funding.
“When we saw that the projects were included in Congress’s bill, and approved, it was stunning when we got the news that it wasn’t in the federal final work plan,” Buckland said.
Initially, three options were on the table, Buckland said. The most attractive: unearthing federal funding to complete the projects as scheduled.
To that end, the county has deployed its federal lobbyist Keith Smith, a senior consultant at Prime Policy Group who was once a legislative assistant to Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY). Further, Senators Richard Burr and Tillis, as well as Rouzer, have been fighting for the beach funding, Buckland said.
“We don’t have to convince our members of Congress,” Buckland said. “We don’t have to lobby them. They’re already on our side. This is a case where we have to deal with administrative personnel at the Corps of Engineers and Office of Management and Budget.”
In an email, a Tillis spokesperson said the senator has been actively engaging with the funding issues currently facing Wrightsville Beach and Pleasure Island.
“He has been in touch with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other members of the delegation to coordinate and explore other funding options to ensure these critically important projects can move forward,” the spokesperson said.
Burr’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
Option two involves moving forward with the projects absent of federal funding, handling the matter with state and county dollars. This option will not be pursued.
“The projects are prohibitively expensive for local government to tackle on their own,” Buckland said.
The last remaining option is to wait a year. Delaying the beach nourishment work would allow the three towns a chance to procure federal funding on the next go-round, but would leave all three beaches exposed for an extra year.
“We will experience another year of natural background erosion on all three beaches, and so the hope and the prayer is that we have a mild season of nor’easters and hurricanes,” Bedsole said. “It’s always a roll of the dice.”
In an email to beach town officials last week, board of commissioners chairwoman Julia Olson-Boseman stated that option two was not on the table: either the Corps would be contributing the previously-appropriated funding, or the county would wait a year.
“The county team is continuing to work with our federal partners to recommit the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to pay the federal share of the projects on all three of our beaches,” Olson-Boseman wrote. “Should that not materialize in time for the projects to be done in fiscal year 2022, we are in agreement to delay the projects by one year to try to re-engage the federal government while we continue to work on solutions at the state and local level.”
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 Corps documents, project costs for Wrightsville Beach exceed $50 million.
The Washington office of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Previously, a spokesperson for the Wilmington District said it was policy to not discuss internal, pre-decisional budgetary deliberations.
Update: After publication, a spokesperson for the Corps’ Public Affairs office sent the following statement.
“The development of the annual U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Civil Works appropriations work plans is a collaborative process among administration agencies. While the Fiscal 2021 construction work plan does not include funding for the Wrightsville, Kure and Carolina Beach shore protection projects, USACE recognizes the importance of those and other coastal storm damage reduction projects around the nation. The North Carolina shore protection projects will be considered for funding with future annual appropriations.”
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