North Carolina’s coastal communities could see some big changes as the N.C. Coastal Resources Commission continues to move forward with projects and goals ranging from trimmed Coastal Area Management Act (CAMA) land-use planning guidelines, to preparing for sea level rise, to helping beach town governments fund dredging projects with more flexible timeframes.
The commission discussed these issues during July 30-31 meetings in Beaufort, N.C.
Frank Gorham, commission chairman, said he wanted to make sure the CAMA guidelines are still serving a purpose in communities that now have sophisticated planning codes in place.
“I could be dead wrong and communities need and want them. But I need to be made more comfortable that it’s giving them a service or a value as opposed to just making them do something that’s not needed,” Gorham said during an Aug. 1 phone interview. “I am not questioning the value of planning. I’m questioning the double planning.”
Gorham said the commission plans to request input from communities to determine what changes are needed.
Gorham’s request coincides with a 2015 scheduled review of a section of the CAMA guidelines. Mike Lopazanski, coastal and ocean policy manager with the N.C. Division of Coastal Management, said changes could make the land-use planning program more responsive to the needs of communities.
“We’ll be looking at the analysis that’s required within the land-use plans and trying to focus on what’s really necessary from the local government standpoint,” Lopazanski said during an Aug. 1 phone interview.
During workshops held October 2013 and May 2014, local communities requested a simpler, less time-consuming process to acquire certification and move forward with projects. After working with Division of Coastal Management staff, applicants must schedule a hearing with the Coastal Resources Commission for final certification. One change could eliminate that final step, which Commissioner Neal Andrew described as a formality.
“The DCM staff in essence has already assisted the community developing it, they’ve reviewed it to make sure it complies with the necessary rules that CAMA has, the state and federal rules, so when it comes before the commissioners, it’s more of a procedural thing,” Andrew said during an Aug. 1 phone interview.
Updated sea level rise study aims for credibility
In other business, commissioners discussed developments from the science panel charged with updating a 2010 study on projected sea level rise in North Carolina.
The 2010 study predicted North Carolina’s coast could see sea levels rise by as much as 39 inches by 2100. The prediction spurred fear and skepticism, leading the North Carolina General Assembly to halt agencies from making decisions citing sea level rise projections until the report is reexamined and updated.
Gorham said the commission and the science panel are taking precautions to ensure the updated report does not elicit the same reaction.
“What we want to accomplish in this study is to have people believe in the credibility of this study,” Gorham said.
The commission requested the panel use a 30-year timeframe and gather as much local data as possible when updating the report. Gorham said a 30-year timeframe fits with other planning cycles used by the Division of Coastal Management to understand other coastal issues like erosion rates and sand placement cycles. The study will be updated every five years to assure predictions remain accurate.
“We’ve also asked them to make sure that, as much as possible, they’re looking at North Carolina data,” Andrew said. “They’re going to look at global reports and nationwide reports but we’ve asked them to make sure that the focus of the North Carolina report is based on North Carolina data.”
The report will split the coast into four areas of study to account for regional differences—for example, Andrew mentioned a discrepancy with data suggesting sea level is rising faster in Duck, N.C. than in Wilmington when in fact, the land is sinking.
Predictions in the updated report will be less severe, giving a range of high and low predictions with a margin of error for any calculation of potential water rise.
The commission hopes the updated report will be viewed as credible so coastal communities will be able to begin planning for sea level rise, if necessary.
“If it is determined that we need to start planning for this possible sea level rise, there are items that need to start getting addressed on a long-term basis because there will be significant costs involved having to modify or adjust existing infrastructure,” Andrew said.
The panel will meet once a month until a draft report is completed and submitted for peer review by Dec. 31, 2014. The final draft will be submitted to the state legislature in March 2016.
The public is invited to participate in the process by attending monthly science panel meetings or submitting comments or research for the panel to consider.
Expanded dredging season a priority
The commission also moved forward with an inlet management study by narrowing the focus for new inlet management practices from 10 priorities, whittled from comments and suggestions gathered at public hearings in March and April, to four priorities.
A longer dredging season is one of the top priorities. Dredging projects are currently confined to a Dec. 1 to March 31 timeframe to avoid interference with nesting sea turtles. An extended window could lend flexibility for projects and even lessen the financial burden on local governments picking up the tab for the projects.
Gorham said the burden has become heavier as state and federal dollars dwindle.
“Your local communities are kind of being stuck with taking care of this dredging themselves, or at least much more of it than in the past. And one of the things that really makes dredging so expensive is that we have this very, very narrow window,” Gorham said.
Andrew said the commission has received confirmation that extending the windows might lead to savings.
“The large dredging contractors have all indicated that the dredging window that we have now is the most expensive time of year for them to get work done. …If those windows could be expanded by maybe another month in the spring and maybe start a month or two months earlier in the fall, we could realize significant savings to the communities,” Andrew said.
Lopazanski said while the economic benefits are clear, the commission and staff are waiting for more information to determine if the decision would significantly impact nesting loggerhead sea turtles. An ongoing study conducted by coastal biologists and engineers from Wilmington-based Chicago Bridge & Iron Company, or CB&I, will hopefully reveal some answers.
Gorham said the commission will benefit from the leadership of Commissioner Suzanne Dorsey, whose experience as executive director of the Bald Head Island Conservancy will help the group come up with ways to mitigate any impact to nesting turtles.
Another priority for commissioners in the inlet management study is flexibility to place dredged sand on adjacent beaches instead of depositing it offshore, as some permits require.
“That upsets a lot of the communities that believe if it’s beach-quality sand and you are picking it up and moving it, it only seems to make rational sense that you put it onto a beach that could benefit from it,” Andrew said.
Other priorities include erosion rate calculations in inlet hazard areas and alternatives to static vegetative lines.
Public comment on the proposals will be available in September before a report is submitted to the governor and state legislature by Dec. 31.
The next scheduled meeting of the N.C. Coastal Resources Commission is Oct. 22-23 in Wilmington.