CAROLINA BEACH ––– Canal Drive has a flood problem 91 years in the making.
Seemingly once a month (or more), saltwater spills over from the Carolina Beach Yacht Basin onto Carolina Beach’s low-lying, 800-foot-wide strip of sand, framed by Canal Drive.
Flooding on the north end isn’t just a one-off, hurricane issue; it comes with every high lunar tide, arriving at innocuous points in the year, altering the routine of residents living in roughly 100 homes on the strip.
Some keep rubber boots packed in their cars. Most have a plan in place to park at higher elevations when the tide rolls in. Retired civil engineer Dale Walters religiously monitors tidal, weather, and cyclone apps to know when to get his vehicle to higher ground.
“Come the first of August, I will spend every morning looking at all three of those and every evening before I go to bed doing the same thing,” he said.
The land probably shouldn’t be there to begin with, in consideration of modern regulations. Alas, it’s there — and nearly fully built out (with multi-million dollar homes to boot).
In the 1930s, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers forged the Intracoastal Waterway and carved through what’s now Snow’s Cut, the Town of Carolina Beach latched onto the opportunity. The town asked the feds to dredge out the area known today as the Carolina Beach Yacht Basin and dump the spoils on what is now Canal Drive and Florida Avenue. Before, the area was filled with soft soil and marshland.
“It was just mush, basically,” town planning director Jeremy Hardison said.
After scooping out the yacht basin, the town put a 30-year hold on developing on the spoils, Hardison explained, to observe how the earth compacted and performed. “By that time, 30 years later, living on the water was very attractive to people,” he said. “So there was a lot of development pressure to open up those lots.”
In the ‘60s and ‘70s, buildings began popping up, built at a height “wherever they felt they should build to,” with or without hardened bulkhead structures, Hardison said.
“And then the kicker is, we did not have a floop map or any flood regulations or any requirements to say, ‘Hey, here’s a level you have to build to,’ until 1975,” he said.
At sea level
Canal Drive is the lowest elevation in town, just about 2-to-3 feet above sea level, according to Hardison.
Water has risen as high as 8.6 feet above sea level during Hurricane Fran in ‘96, and recently over 5 feet during Hurricane Florence. Extreme lunar tides can swell water 4 feet over sea level.
Of the 134 parcels fronting the south side of the basin –– where flooding is most notorious –– 16 have no bulkhead, an erosion-control structure coastal property owners erect to hoist in land from the sea.
From an environmental standpoint, bulkheads are unfavorable, as they deplete natural coastal resources by hardening the shoreline. From an engineering perspective, the handful of properties lacking bulkheads serve as floodgates for the overall shoreline, allowing water to creep onto the street and pool, with inundated storm drains not working as designed.
“The water literally rivers onto the road through these low areas,” Walters said.
Water would even flow through the storm drains and onto the street, with backflow devices malfunctioning.
As chair of the Canal Drive Flooding Advisory Committee, established in February 2018, Walters and his comrades on the ad-hoc group have dedicated years to trying to address the town’s flooding problems. They spearheaded a public safety solution to the problem, creating a $250 fine for driving through floodwaters on Canal Drive, which council enacted in March 2019.
A February 2019 flooding and vulnerability study of the area recommended the town systematically replace all of its stormwater devices, an achievable move the town made.
The real fix is messier. Engineering it can be done; legally permitting it is proving a formidable task.
Private issue, public remedy
Last week, Walters presented what could be the committee’s final recommendation to the town council at a workshop meeting. The 2019 study pinpointed nine unbulked properties that serve as key entryways for marina spillover. Carolina Beach owns two; private interests own seven.
This private ownership stake makes regulating improvements knotty. Tidal encroachment isn’t a paved area of law: If one private property’s natural shoreline causes flooding on another private property and damage to public property (i.e., corroded streets), there is no obvious legal recourse for either aggrieved owner.
“The underlying defect is a private issue,” Walters said. “Those are not easy solutions to find.”
In 2019, the committee lobbied a legislative concept to then-Sen. Harper Peterson, who was willing to take on their cause. Ultimately, a bill wasn’t filed, not for a lack of interest, but due to the complications of the matter and Peterson’s eventual end of term.
The legislative initiative dreamed, if the town could just get the statutory authority to mandate private property owners to install bulkheads, it could solve the flooding. They also floated the concept locally, crafting a draft ordinance that attempted to accomplish the same feat.
If mandating private property owners pay an estimated $50,000 wasn’t already daunting enough, the committee ran into perhaps an even bigger hurdle: CAMA. The Coastal Area Management Act, enforced by the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality, protects coastal habitats. DEQ must issue CAMA permits to new bulkheads prior to construction, and on Carolina Beach’s undeveloped marina-front lots, the task is nearly impossible, short of a formal variance request.
Properties that bulked up and filled in to higher elevations prior to the ‘70s are grandfathered in. “If you didn’t do anything with your property at that time, you were kinda caught,” Hardison said. “There’s a reason they’re vacant. Essentially, they’re not buildable because of coastal wetlands.”
Engaging in talks with the seven private property owners, Walters told council their willingness to install bulkheads wasn’t the biggest catch. “All of these locations have indicated when we’ve talked to them they’d be happier than clams to put a wall in,” he said at the meeting.
Critical habitats have progressed far enough along the natural properties that a bulkhead on the lot would be pointless, eating up the buildable portion of the property.
“It has been a quagmire of Catch-22s,” Walters told council. “And while everyone [at the DEQ] has been amiable and forthright to work with, there has been zero flexibility with regard to providing a physical fix to the problem.”
One legal maneuver the committee is volleying is declaring the seven natural shorelines a public nuisance. If the town goes that route, it could mandate the owners to install bulkheads as a nuisance abatement.
The town could go ahead and bulk up its two nuisance properties, but that effort would be fruitless: “If you plug it over here, you create a problem over here,” Walters said.
It would cost the town less than $100,000 to solicit engineering design recommendations based on the 2019 flood study, the committee recommended. This study is necessary before securing most major grants, which prefer most of the legwork in place before funding big projects like this. A comprehensive legal review would cost an estimated $30,000 to help the town better understand its proper flood abatement remedies.
Walters’ plea to council was a couple of weeks too late; officials just wrapped the new budget and were wary of spending any town funds on the problem, in favor of looking for outside grant funding to assist.
“I am concerned when we start talking about nuisance abatement that we would impose governmental restrictions on existing properties that would devalue their property or have a lien against their property for 50,60, $70,000, who knows what, because if you can do it on Canal Drive with this issue, who’s to say you can’t do it all over town?” Mayor LeAnn Pierce questioned at the meeting.
“It’s a little bit of heavy government for me,” she continued. “I don’t like the thought that we would sue our citizens. I have a problem with that.”
The town’s attorney is currently reviewing the committee’s recommendations, with possible directions for what’s to come expected next week. For Walters, the lifestyle is worth the imposition. “The nuisance of the flood is real but it’s counter-balanced by the community.”
Send tips and comments to Johanna Ferebee Still at firstname.lastname@example.org