SURF CITY — A Pender County town has been waiting in limbo to find out if it will receive authorization on a federal nourishment project. The news came Sunday afternoon that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will move forward with a solo operation for Surf City after neighboring town North Topsail Beach dropped out of a joint deal last summer.
The towns were tied together, based on proximity and project scope, for the USACE’s Coastal Storm Risk Management, a 50-year beach nourishment project. When North Topsail backed out of the plan in July 2021 prior to signing a formal partnership agreement, it left Surf City in a bind. The project was authorized by Congress in 2014 and could not move forward without both towns on board.
North Topsail Beach leadership pulled out of the agreement over the rising expense it would owe for its share of the project, federally appropriated in 2019 from the Disaster Relief Act.
When a feasibility study was done in 2010, USACE estimated construction costs at $123.1 million and $227.8 million for the continued renourishment over 50 years. It increased to $144.3 million and $245.4 million, respectively by 2015. In 2020, it rose again to $237 million, with the 50-year plan costing an additional $672.1 million.
Of the total estimated cost, federal dollars would have covered 65%. The state and two municipalities were going to split the remaining 35%; Surf City, comprising 6 miles, would be responsible for 60% — or $19.4 million — and North Topsail, with 4 miles of beach, would finance 40% — or $12.8 million.
To save up for the federal renourishment project, Surf City created a long-term plan for its share by allocating 10 cents of its 41-cent ad valorem tax. It also provides $600,000 per year from accommodation taxes and revenues from its newly implemented paid parking plan.
North Topsail Mayor Joann McDermon sent a letter to the USACE last summer indicating her town’s portion had increased 56% since its original estimate. As it stood, North Topsail was not financially able to afford the expense.
To move forward as an independent project, the USACE had to formally “de-authorize” North Topsail Beach, the “key indicator” for Surf City to forge ahead, town manager Kyle Breuer explained to Port City Daily on a call Monday.
“This was a big hurdle we got over,” Breuer said.
The USACE submitted in March a validation report, necessary when more than 20% of a project changes, proving it was financially beneficial to pursue the project for Surf City, without North Topsail.
“Through all the data and background information, they were able to determine that the project was not only something valuable, but three times that benefit seeking the dollar in return,” Breuer said.
The USACE will reevaluate the scope and economics of the project, which Breuer said he doesn’t anticipate changing much from previous design and planning documents. Though no final cost has been determined yet.
As it stands, Surf City should receive roughly 60% of the intended 15 million cubic yards of sand dedicated to what was once a joint project, in an effort to protect its oceanfront and expand the beach footprint to allow for more recreational opportunities.
“Each beach is different, so they are all engineered and designed specifically for the needs of that beach based on current conditions,” USACE spokesperson Dave Connolly said.
For Surf City, USACE will construct a new dune, projected to be 25-feet wide at an elevation of 15 feet above NGVD 29 (mean sea level), and a berm with a crown width of 50 feet and top elevation of 7 feet above NGVD 29.
Dunes act as protective barriers, preventing flooding and storm damage, and berms are designed to reduce wave energy. Combined, beach nourishment places sand in a way that the natural coastal processes can “reshape” the beach.
“A nourishment project of this magnitude certainly is going to be robust in the effect of protection of critical infrastructure of investments,” Breuer said. “Beach nourishment remains our number one priority as we continue to work toward building a more resilient community.”
The 50-year project will protect Surf City’s coastlines every six years by rebuilding dunes and beach berms that have eroded and washed away.
The amount of sand on the beach is a constantly fluctuating number. Post Hurricane Florence, the town lost 1.4 million cubic yards of sand and spent $14 million, partially reimbursable by FEMA, on beach repair in the spring of 2020.
But it has reported positive net gains in recent years.
Between 2020 and 2021, Surf City documented a net gain of 343,853 cubic yards of sand across its 6 miles through natural sediment movement and another 139,477 cubic yards from 2021 to 2022. Sand volume is recorded at Surf City’s 34 monitoring stations on the beach.
“Just like any coastal environment, there’s some giveth and taketh,” Breuer said. “Some monitoring stations would have seen losses, and some would have seen gains but overall that net difference has been positive.”
Breuer also estimates Surf City’s expense of roughly $25 million to likely remain the same. USACE confirmed it doesn’t anticipate a higher cost “since the project is smaller and the quantity of material will be less.” But there are no firm calculations at this time.
The federal project does not yet have a proposed start time either; the town plans on signing a formal partnership agreement with USACE in coming weeks. Thereafter, USACE will work on proper easement acquisitions for future construction, with the goal of completion by 2024.
The work will likely impact certain areas of town with heavy equipment pumping offshore sand onto the beach.
“We’ll try to minimize the impact as much as we can,” Breuer said. “We want to be good partners and make sure to communicate with property owners and rental companies to make sure they’re up to speed.”
Once construction begins, a visual tracker and map will be placed on the USACE website, which “predicts where construction will be occurring on a given day, so the public can avoid those areas,” Connolly said.
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