Terminal groin bill raises questions

by Michelle Saxton
Wednesday, May 22, 2013

How construction of future terminal groins would affect taxpayers and public beaches are among questions and concerns local officials have after the North Carolina Senate passed a bill that would allow more of the structures.

Senate Bill 151, the Coastal Policy Reform Act of 2013, would repeal several restrictions in a 2011 law that lifted the 1985 ban on terminal groins. 

Under the new proposed bill North Carolina would no longer set a limit of four permits for new terminal groins, no longer require applicants to demonstrate an imminent threat by erosion or provide proof of financial assurance to cover long-term maintenance and monitoring of the structure and no longer bar permits from being issued when funds are generated from non-voted general obligation bonds.

“It’s a major policy shift for North Carolina,” Rep. Susi Hamilton, D-New Hanover and Brunswick, said in a Tuesday, May 21, phone interview.

Hamilton was concerned that financing of terminal groins was less well-defined in the new bill and that it removes a provision allowing voters to weigh in if state funds are used.

“When you couple the construction and maintenance of those structures with shallow draft inlet dredging and all of the things that we’re already having trouble financing, where does that leave us?” Hamilton said, later adding, “The beaches of North Carolina belong to all the citizens of North Carolina. So if you’re placing private terminal groins … from house to house to house, what does that do to public access?” 

Terminal groins in North Carolina

North Carolina currently has terminal groins – or structures built to control beach erosion by retaining sand – at Fort Macon and Oregon Inlet. Both were built under specific exceptions to the state’s previous hardened structure ban, state Division of Coastal Management Public Information Officer Michele Walker said. 

Meanwhile, four communities were preparing Environmental Impact Statements in the pursuit of building terminal groins – Figure Eight Island, Bald Head Island, Ocean Isle Beach and Holden Beach, Walker said Wednesday, May 22.

Rep. Rick Catlin, R-New Hanover, an engineer, planned to study technical issues of the bill. 

“We want to keep safe, nice-looking, sandy beaches,” Catlin said in a Monday, May 21, phone interview. “I want to make sure that this doesn’t hurt that. I don’t think it will, but I need to verify it.” 

Science is on both sides of the issues involving terminal groins, and the previous law to allow four more was a reasonable compromise, Wrightsville Beach Mayor David Cignotti said in a May 21 phone interview.

“I’m a little bit cautious about them opening up the floodgates and just allowing them at will,” Cignotti said. “I would rather the state take its time and allow the four that they were discussing and study it, give it some time, make sure these things are not only going to … protect the homes that are in the inlet areas but not contribute to erosion elsewhere.”

Terminal groin costs would depend on the size of a structure but could be $5 million to $10 million for a 1,000-foot to 1,500-foot structure, coastal engineers have estimated in the past.

“Those are major structures,” said North Carolina Coastal Resources Commission member Larry Baldwin of Harkers Island during a May 21 phone interview. Baldwin said he has heard costs as high as $15 million, and added there would be more costs attached to ongoing monitoring.

Baldwin, whose expertise on the board is coastal land development, said terminal groins are different than jetties in that groins are designed to stabilize a channel with sand building up to a point and then allowed to flow, while jetties basically stop all sand flow.

“To try these on an experimental basis to see if they do stabilize things I think would be a worthwhile thing to do,” Baldwin said of terminal groins.

Senate Bill 151

The Coastal Policy Reform bill had been referred to the House Environment Committee, of which Catlin is a vice chairman and Hamilton is a member.

The bill also would amend marine fisheries laws, amend Coastal Area Management Act permitting laws and clarify that cities or counties may enforce ordinances within the state public trust areas. 

The bill would add that inlet management plan monitoring and mitigation requirements must be reasonable and would not include “unduly speculative or remote matters” or costs that outweigh benefits and would not need to address sea level rise.

Potential benefits of terminal groins should be taken into account when considering permits, the bill also adds, including the protection of beaches, dunes, wildlife habitats, roads, homes and infrastructure.

Terminal groins would still be limited because North Carolina has only 14 inlets, primary bill sponsor Sen. Bill Rabon, R-Brunswick, New Hanover, Pender and Bladen, said during a May 14 Senate Agriculture, Environment and Natural Resources Committee meeting on the bill.

Sen. Ellie Kinnaird, D-Chatham and Orange, said the state had fought off terminal groins for years and the new bill was a betrayal of everything that was agreed to if groins were to be allowed.

“We have a beautiful coast; I don’t think it will be beautiful after this,” Kinnaird said in an online audio feed of the meeting. “We know from testimony last time that you may put a groin in but your neighbor may suffer.”

The North Carolina Coastal Federation had opposed lifting the ban on terminal groins two years ago but also felt the previous bill had included significant protections to local governments and taxpayers, federation representative Rob Lamme said during the meeting. 

More time should be given to see how terminal groins work, Mary Maclean Asbill, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, said at the meeting.

“I just am surprised that we would go ahead and end the pilot program before we’d had a chance to see how these structures impact our state and its taxpayers,” Asbill said.

Rabon agreed there is concern about the expense but that terminal groins would hopefully save some dredge funding and relieve taxpayers’ burden rather than increase it in the long haul. He also noted the pilot program was underway. 

“It takes quite a bit of time to get this in place,” Rabon said. “When your inlet is filling or when your front yard is washing away you don’t have a lot of time. No one on this committee would decry the fire truck from running down the street to put out the fire, but I see people in this body constantly decrying trying to save a house that is washing away.”

email michelle@luminanews.com

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