Changes requested for inlet mandates

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Rigorous project requirements outlined when Masons Inlet was first relocated in 2002 could soon be softened or shed, pending the outcome of negotiations between New Hanover County and project partners. This installment concludes a two-part series that began March 5.

More than 10 years ago, the project to shift the inlet 3,000 feet north to protect public, private and residential property at the northern tip of Wrightsville Beach was the first of its kind in the state. Because the project has successfully protected the property, county shore protection coordinator Layton Bedsole said he hopes the changes under consideration by state and federal agencies will allow the county to more flexibly manage the project.

“The north end of Wrightsville Beach was in a very, very precarious situation. There were significant resources at risk, and an approach that was vetted through dozens of public and private entities was developed and implemented,” Bedsole said. “Fifteen years later, the results of that hard work by all those folks are apparent. That should be recognized and acknowledged.”

The project is limited to a maximum of nine maintenance events over the course of its 30-year permit. Bedsole has asked the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to remove the nine-event limit from the permit, which Corps project manager Emily Hughes said could be replaced with language that allows maintenance as needed, based on discussions with state and federal agencies.

Another request, under review by the N.C. Division of Coastal Management, could reduce the frequency of dredging and relocation events in Masons Inlet by requiring a different review process once the inlet travels too far south or north, which prompts each new round of maintenance.

The inlet quickly moves around within the engineered corridor, Bedsole said, while staying a safe distance from the property it was relocated to protect. Under the county’s request, if the inlet moves outside of the corridor, it would initiate a conversation among agencies about the next maintenance event, Bedsole said, instead of a lengthy review and mandate to dredge.

Even though the project is actively permitted, the DCM required the county to follow the full review process required to secure a new permit before each maintenance event takes place — likely because the project was unique at the time, said Robb Mairs, local field representative for the Division of Coastal Management.

“Since this was the first project in North Carolina where they essentially relocated an inlet, I think the intent was, every time there’s a maintenance event, we want these agencies to review it under the full-blown permit process,” Mairs said. That process entails review by a group of state and federal agencies as well as public notice, all within 75 days, he continued. The change requested by the county would shift the project to a more expedited review by directly involved agencies before the inlet is dredged.

Mairs said the change would clarify the process already followed during the last few maintenance events.

“It seems to be a routine event now,” Mairs said. Involved with the project since 2004, he added, “It seems like it’s successful, based on my experience. I haven’t seen any issues or problems on our end.”

A third request, under review by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, could alleviate the county’s formal responsibility to gather data on shorebirds nesting in the Mason Inlet Waterbird Management Area north of Shell Island Resort, created after inlet relocation to offset habitat potentially lost to the birds.

For more than 1,000 property owners on the north end of the Wrightsville Beach and Figure Eight Island who pay all costs to maintain the inlet through county tax assessments, collectively known as the Mason Inlet Preservation Group, the changes requested by Bedsole could translate to savings, said group co-chair Dr. George Melita.

“The financial burden since day one has been on the property owners on the north end of Wrightsville Beach and Figure Eight Island. It’s been burdensome, and we’re at the point where I think it’s very important that citizens and taxpayers get some relief and some cooperation to reduce the burden,” Melita said.

email miriah@luminanews.com

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