State Grapples With Unknowns of Groin Permits

NAGS HEAD — Stretching out into the churning waters of Oregon Inlet, a rock wall in place since 1991 has been credited with both building and eroding the beach on the northern end of Hatteras Island.

No other terminal groin has been built in North Carolina since the one in Oregon Inlet was permitted to save the southern approach to the Herbert C. Bonner Bridge, and with restrictions on shoreline hardening in place since the 1980s, there are few such structures existing on the coast. As the state Division of Coastal Management works with applicants to implement a new state law that permits construction of up to four terminal groins, the agency is grappling with many unknowns.

“I have no clue now what the issues will be that come up,” Doug Huggett, manager of the division’s Major Permits and Consistency Unit, told the state Coastal Resources Commission at its meeting last week in Nags Head, “but they’re going to be significant.”

Law Requirements

The terminal groin bill mandates that the sand-trapping structures be built only at inlets, and they must be accompanied by a plan that details how erosion at the inlet will be controlled. The bill also requires shoreline monitoring to determine if the groins are causing problems. Opponents argue that the structures interfere with the natural movement of sand along the beach and thus accelerate erosion farther away.

Faced with myriad options on ways to address the requirements, the division sought guidance from its panel of scientific advisors. After two meetings and “spirited” discussions with the panel, Huggett said, numerous questions remain, especially how to pinpoint the cause of post-construction erosion and whether there is expertise on the division’s staff to properly analyze and review data

To address the concern about staff limitations— including the lack of a coastal engineer —the division agreed to a voluntary third-party review of an application. There was also consensus on the science panel, Huggett said, to use existing data as much as possible, and to drop the idea of a “control” beach to compare erosion rates, since such a beach would be nearly impossible to locate.

“We have to be prepared to act on those applications,” Huggett said in a later interview.  “We have to respond to these applications just like we would any other application. You can’t always wait to process an application until we have all the information. You never get all the information. Legally, we don’t have any authority to stall.”

Whatever the challenges are, Huggett said that the division has enough experience to adequately process a terminal groin application. Budget shortages make hiring outside consultants unaffordable, he said, but the division is staffed by skilled “generalists” who routinely work with challenging projects.

“We are going to do the best we can with the resources we have,” he said.

Four Applicants

Huggett said that of the four applicants so far, Figure Eight Island is furthest along, and could potentially have a permit in six to nine months. He said he expects that division staff will meet the island’s representatives in the coming weeks.

Other applicants in various stages of the permit process, which typically takes about 18 months, are Holden Beach, Bald Head Island and Ocean Isle Beach. North Topsail Island decided earlier this month to not pursue an application.

It’s also conceivable that a fifth or sixth community will decide to apply for a permit. They may try to “sprint ahead” of an earlier applicant, Huggett said.

Applicants will be required to show that the project will not lead to significant adverse impacts on threatened species and adjacent property. They also must have the financial means to fund the project and pay for any future damage to nearby beaches or remove the groin if necessary.

David Kellam, administrator of Figure Eight Island, said that his community intends to build a terminal groin that is engineered to not harm the environment. He said it is too early to know what the structure’s design or cost will be, except to say it will likely be about 700- to 1,000-feet long and made of rock.

“We’re waiting on the state to interpret how and what they’re going to do,” Kellam said in a telephone interview. “Figure Eight certainly wants to do this right. We want to do it prudently for the protection of the estuarine ecosystems.”

State Sen. Harry Brown, R-Onslow and the Senate’s majority leader, was the bill’s main sponsor. He said that much compromise was involved before the legislation finally passed. “I think a lot of parties were probably not happy with the final results,” he said.

Brown, who first introduced his bill when he was elected about eight years ago, said he would not be surprised if others, besides the four current applicants, seek a terminal groin permit.

“I think it’s important to the coast,” he said. “And I think it’s important to the communities with inlets along the coast.”

Mike Giles, one of our coastal advocates, attended the first public meeting on the proposed groin at Ocean Isle. Read his interesting take in our blog Cape Fear Beacon.

About the Author

Catherine Kozak

Catherine Kozak has been a reporter and writer on the Outer Banks since 1995. She worked for 15 years for The Virginian Pilot. Born and raised in the suburbs outside New York City, Catherine earned her journalism degree from the State University of New York at New Paltz. During her career, she has written about dozens of environmental issues, including oil and gas exploration, wildlife habitat protection, sea level rise, wind energy production, shoreline erosion and beach nourishment. She lives in Nags Head.