Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Bald Head Island residents against beach erosion legislation that passed without public input

After Hurricane Florence, Bald Head Island's mayor initiated a decision that spurred controversy among several island residents. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Bald Head Island leaders helped draft legislation to allow for a potential hardened groin at the point of where the South and East beaches converge. (Port City Daily/File)

BALD HEAD ISLAND — State law now allows counties more options for beach erosion prevention measures, though city officials and environmentalists disagree on what is best for the coast. 

READ MORE: Around 300 BHI villagers sign petition against $2.88 million in ferry litigation

House Bill 385, which passed Thursday, allows the entire North Carolina coast to have seven instead of six permanent erosion control structures made of rocks to combat beach erosion. They were banned in 1985 up until 2011 because the North Carolina Coastal Resources Commission determined the structures — such as groins, jetties, and seawalls — cause irreversible beach damage. 

While implemented to reduce erosion in one area of the beach, these structures often divert and exacerbate erosion on the other side of the structure. 

The law was overturned to allow for construction of four “test” groins in coastal communities. Bald Head island already has one, though a second could come to the island as village leaders spurred a legislative change by requesting local legislators Sen. Bill Rabon (R-District 8) and Rep. Charlie Miller (R-District 19) alter the bill’s language. 

It has sparked residential concerns since council didn’t reveal ahead of time it was seeking the bill change.

“All we knew was there was an effort,” Rex Cowdry, Bald Head Island resident, told Port City Daily. “It’s the first step down a slippery slope, to putting rock groins all along North Carolina beaches.”

Cowdry referred to a presentation given at a recent council meeting on June 21 described in the agenda as a “discussion with Bald Head Conservancy,” where Chris Shank, executive director, explained the downfalls of implementing rock structures on the beach. 

Village of Bald Head Island is considering a rock structure at the end of East Beach, located in front of the Shoals Club, at the southern tip of the island near Frying Pan Shoals. To Port City Daily, Shank cited concerns with the unpredictability of that area of the beach shifting naturally and with storms, advising against the permanent structure.

The language that the village wanted to change in the bill allows the current sand-filled tubes in front of the Shoals Club to be converted to rock structures

“The fact that they were including the hardening of the existing groins in the language was not known until basically the committee had already taken action on it,” Cowdry said.

HB 385 states: “If a permanent erosion control structure originally permitted pursuant to a variance granted by the Commission prior to July 1, 1995, 17 consists of a field of geotextile sand tubes, the field of geotextile sand tubes may be replaced with rock erosion control structures.”

Village of Bald Head Island is considering a rock structure because it’s less expensive. The island would save roughly $12 to $16 million over time, as currently it has to replace cloth tubes filled with sand every five years. They cost $1 to $2 million each replacement and have been used since 1995, according to a letter published by Mayor Peter Quinn on the Village Voice page of the Bald Head Island website Monday.

The letter addressed the newly passed legislation and that council was looking to add a hardened structure at the point near Frying Pan Shoals, where East and South beaches converge. He said it had a lobbying firm to address the issue, paid to Ward and Smith to engage with Rabon and Miller, as well as the Division of Coastal Management, the Department of Environmental Quality, and other state agencies.

Village spokesperson Carin Faulkner said she couldn’t locate the finances to answer Port City Daily’s inquiry about how much was spent on lobbying.

The mayor wrote in the letter there have been alterations to the island’s “morphology at Frying Pan Shoals, including “dramatic erosion and loss of beach habitat and property on the east end of South Beach.” The rock structure can now be studied as a potential solution to help mitigate the breakdown.

Shank said in a report the village should have waited until results from a study conducted by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) evaluating the sand geophysics of the Frying Pan Shoals system were reported before changing the language. 

In the letter, Quinn noted though Bald Head Island now has the option to pursue hardened structures, there are no plans set in stone to see them through, noting the projects are costly and take years. 

“The Village would not undertake such a study without any basis for a helpful solution,” the mayor wrote in his letter. “Any structure would be subject to extensive design, environmental study, public input and state and federal permitting.”

Port City Daily reached out to the mayor and council but did not hear back from anyone by press. 

The ban on rock structures was in practice for 15 years, and adopted unanimously as law by the North Carolina General Assembly in 2003. In 2011, following lobbying from beach communities, including Figure Eight Island, it was repealed. 

Bald Head Island built an $18-million rock groin on the west side of South Beach adjacent to the Cape Fear River which was completed in 2016. It was intended to mitigate severe erosion resulting from dredging that moved the Cape Fear River channel closer to Bald Head Island to make it easier for big ships to access the river. 

Inlet groins slow down sand as it moves into navigable channels, which can help cut down on continued dredging costs for the inlet. Shank added Bald Head Island’s existing groin helps to stabilize the beach areas near the Cape Fear River which is dredged every two years by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to get rid of eroded sand in the channel.

The mayor highlighted in his letter the success of its existing groin next to the Cape Fear River, but Shank points out the Frying Pan Shoals location has completely different concerns. It is more complicated structurally than the west side of South Beach near the existing groin and is home to more turtle nests. 

Shank also said the effectiveness of hardened structures is unclear for Frying Pan Shoals since the waves are stronger and because of its location at the intersection of two beaches, with southward and eastward sand movements converging at The Point.

The complexity of the sand bar structure on the shoals creates different wave patterns that constantly change the sandbars underneath the water in unpredictable ways. No one has been able to accurately model the sand’s movement because of the shoals unique structure and the unpredictable storms that can change The Point rapidly.

Shank said the village should not have pushed for legislation allowing rock structures that cannot be removed in a constantly changing location where adverse affects of the groin cannot be predicted. 

“You can’t just put a structure there and expect to know what the repercussions of that structure are, it could create all kinds of unintended consequences for erosion on the downdrift side, or even the updrift side if you get a storm approaching from the right direction,” Shank said. 

Aside from concerns about environmental impacts of the bill, residents were upset over the lack of public consultation on the matter. Port City Daily reached out to the village to clarify why this decision was not made publicly but did not receive a response by press. 

Cowdry wrote a letter expressing his concerns addressed to other Bald Head Island residents. It was obtained by Port City Daily from Bald Head Island planning board member Betsi Stephen.

“The village crafted this bill language in the dead of night and even after the terminal

groin lobbying effort was acknowledged, kept the other provisions secret,” Cowdry wrote. 

He also noted that while the public was aware of the hiring of the lobbying firm and the village’s consideration of rock structures, they were unaware the language of the bill included rock structures.

Cowdry told Port City Daily the concern for erosion only benefits the private Shoals Club and he would rather see the beach in its natural state than to have potential tax increases to fund the project.

Bald Head Island residents approved a $4.5 million bond during the 2023 election to renourish the Shoals Club beach area. That will still move forward; however, the town wants to conduct studies to consider a rock structure at Frying Pan Shoals.

Shank added the Shoals Club has looked into relocating and bought property on higher ground from its current spot. Relocating would be a more effective measure to protect the club than rock structures or the sand renourishment project recently approved by the village, which, according to Shank, will not provide permanent relief.

Shank also said the village is trying to keep the island from shifting, but that it’s going to naturally change regardless of their efforts.

“Living in harmony with nature was the island credo, at least it has been in the past,” Shank said. “This is a monumental decision in the way we approach barrier island management in North Carolina and it did not get the conversation that it deserves.”

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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