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The fruits of this legislative session include offshore drilling proposals, a decimated Clean Water Management Trust Fund, cuts to research, the approval of terminal groins, and a rush to dismantle environmental regulation and enforcement.

New laws and fewer rules spell major changes for the N.C. coast 

Trouble is looming for coastal North Carolina after the Legislature passed bills that roll back environmental protections.

File photo by D.L. Anderson

Trouble is looming for coastal North Carolina after the Legislature passed bills that roll back environmental protections.

We're at the height of beach season and it's full tilt vacationland up and down the strands. This is when most of us experience a little of life on the North Carolina coast.

It's also harvest time, and the locals are concentrating on gathering those tourist dollars. Early summer has been a challenge. Wildfire season, which normally dies out in early June, lingered well into July, and massive fires inland have choked residents and visitors from Wrightsville Beach to Corolla.

The thick smoke from coastal wildfires rolled through Raleigh about the time the Legislature wrapped up a session that inflicted major changes on the policies and politics that shape the changing coastline. Wildfires are part of the ecology of the coastal plain, and the scorched pocosin will soon recover. The same recovery may not be true for the region if predictions about what was set in motion this session hold true.

The 2010 elections ushered in not just a Republican majority in the Legislature, but also a remade legislative delegation for coastal North Carolina; two key Senate seats and a handful of House seats went Republican for the first time.

The win spelled the end of an era when coastal policy was shaped mainly in the office of former Senate President Pro Tem Marc Basnight, who retired for health reasons in January. In his 26 years in the Legislature, the Manteo Democrat was no great foe of coastal development, but he can be credited at least with trying to manage it and for attempting to balance the interests of traditional industries like fishing and tourism and the burgeoning build-out on the shore.

One of his signature issues was the Clean Water Management Trust Fund, which dedicates $100 million each year for water quality and preservation throughout the state. The money has helped protect estuaries and shellfish habitats from the impact of coastal development.

What happened to the trust fund is indicative of the shift in priorities and a harbinger of the future for progressive environmental policies. To help cover the budget shortfall, the trust fund was first hit for $50 million annually in Gov. Bev Perdue's proposed budget, then shaved further to $12.5 million by GOP budget writers in the Legislature—an 88.5 percent cut. The fund's future is unclear, but the message to environmentalists is not.

Add the other fruits of the session—offshore drilling proposals, cuts to research, the approval of terminal groins (a kind of underwater jetty that reduces wave action)—and a rush to dismantle environmental regulation and enforcement: You can understand why longtime advocates for the coast worry that the Legislature has jeopardized years of progress in managing the formidable forces of both human and nature.

HUMAN FORCES: When the housing bubble burst, the rapidly growing areas along the state's southeastern coast tallied some of the biggest losses. A News & Observer report in late February by Jay Price found that since 2006, near the height of the bubble, property values in Carteret and Brunswick counties had dropped by $12 billion—more than 25 percent. Waterfront and near-waterfront properties, the article says, plunged even more.

For now, the brakes are on development, but for environmental advocates like N.C. Coastal Federation Executive Director Todd Miller, there's little doubt the economic forces that have reshaped the coastline for decades will soon resume their work.

Miller, who founded the federation in 1982, says plenty of projects are already in the pipeline. "We're sitting on a 20-year supply of developments," he says.

Under what rules these projects will be built and how their impacts will be monitored is now a question mark. "The worry is, are we going to have a facade of environmental protection, something that's not real," Miller says.

The passage of regulatory reform and limits on the crafting of new environmental rules, he says, will eliminate agencies' ability to be agile in designing new regulations and redrafting old rules, many of which were implemented in the 1970s and '80s.

"We won't be able to adjust programs to deal with emerging demands," he says. "That means the rules we have will have to suffice. If they're found to be inadequate, it will be impossible to change them."

The continued defunding of the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, he says, will also severely impact its ability to handle demands of development, including long-term monitoring of storm water systems and other infrastructure.

"Going into this, what we had was not a panacea," Miller says, "but the change is pretty severe."

NATURAL FORCES: Prior to the real estate boom, coastal development consisted mostly of single-family homes and small motels. Now, with billions invested in larger multistory structures and raw land at a premium, there's more at risk and more of an incentive to try to wrestle with nature.

North Carolina's coast is one of the more dynamic on the Eastern Seaboard. It is composed mostly of barrier islands that migrate by rolling like the tread of a bulldozer; the inlets, ocean-side beaches and sound-side lagoons retreat and advance at the whim of storms and sea-level rise.

With the Atlantic climbing steadily, the state's barrier islands are moving toward the mainland. That wouldn't matter so much if those islands had not over the course of the last few decades become the target of hundreds of billions of dollars in real estate investments.

The state, recognizing the dynamic nature of the coastline and the negative impact seawalls and jetties have had elsewhere, established rules in 1985 preventing hardened structures, such as jetties, seawalls and groins, from being built.

Ever since, those trying to protect their investments from being taken by the sea have tried to overturn the rules or circumvent them, most famously the late oil tycoon Walter Davis, whose waterside home in North Topsail was threatened by an eroding shoreline. In more recent years, the well-heeled residents of Figure Eight Island, a private resort community just north of Wrightsville Beach, financed a nearly successful lobbying effort to win legislative approval to build a terminal groin to preserve several rather pricey homes. This year, after a protracted debate and closed-door negotiations, an agreement was struck between the governor and coastal legislators to allow four terminal groins to be built. Two of the most likely locations are around inlets at Bald Head Island and Figure Eight Island. The Town of Kitty Hawk has also shown interest in the idea and helped finance the lobbying effort with other coastal towns.

Orrin Pilkey, a Duke ocean sciences professor emeritus and author of several books on the Carolina coast and other shorelines, says four may seem like a small number, but it's just the beginning of the armoring of the coastline.

Pilkey says while the new law has stringent engineering requirements, he and others who have studied the issue believe that won't stop the groins from being permitted.

"Within three to five years there'll be serious problems," he says. "It'll happen fast."

And as has happened elsewhere, Pilkey says, the groins will lead to more hardened structures as communities, condos, complexes and hotels line up for their share of bulwarks against the mighty Atlantic.

"It's going to be a mess," he says. Even though the law states that a terminal groin shown to be detrimental—most likely through cutting off the sand supply to a beach downcoast—will be removed, Pilkey says it's doubtful it would happen. The impact will be blamed on a number of factors, not just the groin, he says. "Nobody takes these things out."

And with enforcement and oversight dwindling, it will be even more difficult to stay ahead of the curve when projects go awry, Pilkey says.

"It's so sad because the State of North Carolina led the way in so many ways."

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