Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Beach towns gear up for ambitious state and federal lobbying effort, firm on $9K monthly retainer

The Topsail Island Shoreline Protection Commission discussed federal and state lobbying initiatives in a meeting last week.(Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)

TOPSAIL ISLAND — Three coastal municipalities in the Cape Fear region are aiming for big shoreline preservation goals in 2024.

READ MORE: More dredging needed for Topsail inlets, price could increase by $3.5M

The Topsail Island Shoreline Protection Commission — consisting of representatives from the towns of Topsail Beach, North Topsail Beach, and Surf City, as well as Pender and Onslow counties — put forward state and federal legislative goals for the new year at a meeting last week. They agreed to employ a new lobbyist for their state agenda and bumped pay for their federal lobbyist — Ward & Smith P.A. — to aid them with the campaign.

Chair Steve Smith — the mayor of Topsail Beach — told Port City Daily the commission’s budget is around $130,000 per year, funded through matching 33% contributions from the three coastal towns. Smith said the vast majority of TISPC’s resources are used to pay lobbyists, with some funds covering related fees, such as transportation.

TISPC’s original charter was established in 2005. In addition to lobbying for state and federal policies to benefit the coastal towns, the organization provides information to county and town governments it serves. Smith said this allows other coastal communities to stay up to date with federal and state policies related to beach management and water quality.

The commission agreed to a contract amendment with Ward & Smith — which the group has worked with since 2016 — to increase the law firm’s retainer by $250 per month for a new rate of $9,225.

Smith described Mike McIntyre — who served as representative for North Carolina’s 7th district from 1997 to 2015 — as the primary Ward & Smith employee involved with TISPC. He’s worked as the law firm’s senior adviser for government relations since 2020. 

Smith has worked for Topsail Beach in various capacities for at least a decade and became mayor four years ago. He said TISPC has strived to receive federal funding for at least 15 years and described Ward & Smith’s services as helpful in advancing several long-term goals, such as federal support for the Surf City storm mitigation project.

At the Jan. 25 meeting, TISPC concluded a four-month search by selecting Raleigh-based lobbyist David Farrell of Maynard Nexsen P.C. to take over state duties from former lobbyist Connie Wilson of Connie Wilson Consulting, Inc. She retired last year after 12 years of work with the commission. Farrell will be paid $4,000 a month.

Smith said it would be difficult to give a figure of how many hours per week the lobbyists work, as it fluctuates based upon activities within the legislature. At the state level, the group will lobby to maintain funding for the Shallow Draft Inlet Dredging Fund, which will cover $16.8 million of a $22 million contract signed with Norfolk Dredging Company in October 2023; FEMA is providing the remaining costs.

The project aims to renourish Topsail Beach by excavating between 1.6 million and 1.9 million cubic yards of sand from inlet channels and applying them to the beachfront. However, a November 2023 review of inlet depths found some areas more shallow than anticipated, potentially increasing the project’s cost by $3.5 million; Topsail Beach may seek state support on any cost increases.

“When the communities need the shallow draft fund to keep the inlets open, they’re not talking about $500,000 — we’re talking about anywhere from $10 to $20 million,” Smith said at the meeting.

The commission will also advocate for recurring patronage from the Coastal Storm Damage Mitigation Fund at $10 million per year. The fund provides grants to local governments to mitigate and remediate storm damage to beaches and dunes.

Other state priorities include shellfish lease management changes to provide public access to state waters and lobbying to keep home insurance rates at an affordable cost. Just recently, the North Carolina Rate Bureau requested as high as a 99% rate increase in coastal counties earlier this month, although experts told Port City Daily the final figure will likely be significantly lower. 

NCRB chief operating officer Jared Chappell told PCD storm risk is the primary reason for the heightened insurance cost on beach-front homes — North Carolina experienced five hurricanes of varying intensity from 2016 to 2022. 

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association anticipates sea level to rise several feet in coming decades; one of TISPC’s roles is to stay up to date with sea level rise studies and integrate new data with federal and state legislative goals.

On the federal level, TISPC will request Congress to direct the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to conduct a full review of past expenditures through the Flood Control and Coastal Emergencies program, which assists disaster-impacted communities with recovery and repairs on critical infrastructure. This review would use forward-looking data to estimate future expenses and ensure budgetary flexibility for the program.

Additionally, the group will lobby Congress to establish a FEMA team with one representative for the island to determine losses when making disaster recovery recommendations.

TISPC will request legislation to allow sand used for Coastal Barrier Resources Act (CBRA) beach renourishment projects on non-CBRA designated beaches and amend the region’s CBRA-designated areas.

The commission also wants to consider involvement with initiatives such as the RISEE Act to acquire federal funds for offshore wind energy projects. The group is looking into studies on offshore wind production’s impact on commercial fishing.

Vice Chair Mike Benson — who is Mayor Pro Tem of the town of North Topsail — noted TISPC is starting the year with momentum, having passed some of their top legislative priorities last year. These include granting local authority to remove deserted vessels and banning non-encapsulated polystyrene foam in docks for environmental preservation.

“I think we got along further in this legislative cycle than ever before,” he said at the meeting. 

Benson also noted TISPC’s efforts could serve as a model to other coastal communities without a coastal protection policy organization. Smith told PCD Cateret County has a similar body but said other nearby municipalities have not established a group to carry out the same breadth of initiatives as TISPC. 

PCD reached out to Benson to ask if he had any other goals for shoreline protection but he deferred to the chairman.

Although it was not on the agenda, Smith raised the idea of considering new tree protections akin to Oak Island’s vegetation ordinance amendment passed last week. He cited the stormwater absorption benefits of high tree volume in coastal areas.

Most notably, Oak Island broadened the definition of heritage trees — which refers to a tree considered particularly valuable for its rarity, age or size — from encompassing 30-inch diameter trees to 15-inch diameter trees, making a significantly higher number of trees require a permit for removal. 

“We haven’t had any conversations about doing a total canopy coverage,” Smith told PCD, in reference to Oak Island’s tree canopy study carried out by urban forestry consulting firm PlanIt Geo, which was published in November and helped inform the town’s new vegetation policy.

Smith noted Topsail and Surf City already have tree protection ordinances, but he is interested in taking new measures to preserve vegetation.

“I think as we move down through the year, it will become important to understand how they reached the size of a tree and a few other issues there at Oak Island,” he said.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to change the word “expand” to “amend” for CBRA-designated areas in Topsail Island, to change the phrase “Topsail Island” to “Topsail Beach”, and to specify “shellfish” leases for public uses of state waters. Port City Daily regrets these errors.

Tips or comments? Email journalist Peter Castagno at peter@localdailymedia.com.

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