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Tuesday, November 28, 2023

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First, state lawmakers punched a hole in the 30-year ban on hardened erosion-control structures along the North Carolina coast by allowing construction of sand-catching terminal groins. And last week, in response to an order by legislators, the N.C. Coastal Resource Commission voted to relax the rules governing sandbag walls on the beach.

Sandbags have long been deemed a temporary solution, to give owners of property threatened by erosion time to find alternatives, such as the periodic beach renourishment that protects Wrightsville Beach property. But “temporary” is a relative term.

Some of the 289 permitted sandbag walls along the North Carolina coast have been in place two decades or more. The limit is eight years, but many extensions have been granted, and the legislature has constrained the CRC’s authority to enforce the deadlines and order the sandbags removed.

Much of the erosion that prompted the use of sandbags relates directly to unwise development along the coastline. Building in places where Mother Nature is likely to take aim is ill-advised. Yet humans’ longing to be nearer to the wind and waves led to rapid development of the barrier islands, spits of sand whose form and breadth change frequently with the tides.

I was there on New Year’s Day 1987, when a major coastal storm churned up the waters of the Atlantic Ocean and washed away part of The Riggings, an oceanfront condominium complex at Kure Beach.

Twenty-eight years later, the sandbags are still there, deteriorating because the owners were not permitted to repair or replace the weather-beaten bags. That will change under the new rules, but those rules also will make it easier to keep the walls in place indefinitely.

Former congressman Mike McIntyre, D-N.C., managed to secure $2.7 million in federal funding to help The Riggings’ owners move their endangered 48-unit, four-building complex to the west side of U.S. 421. But they stubbornly stood their ground and said they could not afford the cost of relocating.

The CRC attempted in 2009 to force The Riggings to remove the sandbags, but court rulings agreed with the owners that the financial hardship would be too great and ordered the commission to hear the request for an extension again. The request is tentatively scheduled to be heard next month.

In the case of The Riggings, sand replenishment is not an option, although homeowners have in the past pleaded for that option to protect their property. In addition to sitting on the edge of the Atlantic, the complex also is sandwiched between a rare outcropping of coquina rock and the wall of boulders that protects the Fort Fisher Civil War historic site. Coquina rock serves as a reef for sea life and cannot be covered with sand.

North Topsail Beach has it even worse. The waves lap at many structures and have even breached the sandbags that provide little real protection when storms whip up powerful waves, as they did this past week.

The state finds itself in somewhat of a pickle. Construction never should have been allowed in some of the places where the ocean now laps at expensive homes. But leaving these structures at the mercy of the sea would mean potentially disastrous economic fallout and loud public outcry.

Owners and businesses have invested billions of dollars in coastal development, and beach towns rely on that existing development to balance municipal budgets.

Sandbags are an eyesore and often block public access to the beach that belongs to everyone. Unless they are maintained, they tear and can divert erosion to other parts of the beach.

The new rules will not only encourage property owners to take their time finding an alternative, but a spokeswoman for the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality confirmed that they could effectively permit an unbroken wall of sandbags down the beach.

“It’s just a slippery slope,” said Todd Miller, executive director of the N.C. Coastal Federation. “The way we’re building them now, we might as well have seawalls.”

At high tide the public beach in front of existing sandbag walls is often lost.

“So we’re not protecting the public trust,” he said.

The beaches belong to all of us, not just the fortunate few who can afford to build their castles on the sand.

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