Topsail Beach’s Sand Dune Debate

TOPSAIL BEACH – The much-debated dune ordinance Topsail Beach adopted a year ago is once again under review with the town planning board determining how much sand, if any, may be removed from a property in order to build.

Adopted last June, the amended ordinance prohibits “protected” dunes from being materially altered. Neither can builders remove more than one cubic yard of sand a month from the dune.

The town defines a protected dune as a mound or ridge of sand rising at least eight feet above mean sea level and at least three feet above the lowest elevation of any adjacent depression of sand.

The owners of a series of vacant, oceanfront lots at the south end of the Pender County beach town argue that the dune rule renders their lots unbuildable.

This newly constructed home sits on a lot amid an oceanfront stretch of properties at the southern end of Topsail Beach. The homeowners received permits to build before the town board in June amended Topsail Beach's dune permit ordinance, which prohibits the removal of more than one cubic yard of sand from the dune system. Photo: Trista Talton

This newly constructed home sits on a lot amid an oceanfront stretch of properties at the southern end of Topsail Beach. The homeowners received permits to build before the town board in June amended Topsail Beach’s dune permit ordinance, which prohibits the removal of more than one cubic yard of sand from the dune system. Photo: Trista Talton

Town code requires homes have parking for three vehicles. For the properties at the south end, this means more sand would have to be removed to create enough parking spaces, the owners argue.

“In order to do that the dune would have to be significantly altered,” said Frank Braxton, planning board chairman. “If we lose any of that volume then that kind of begins to affect the property owners themselves, those behind them and those owners on either side. For every action, there is reaction. If you alter something that was once a protection and it’s no longer there then what are the consequences?”

It’s a complicated issue, one that prompted the planning board in May to ask for an additional 90 days to study options before making a recommendation to Topsail Beach commissioners.

The planning board is consulting with state and federal agencies to get answers to a number of questions. Would allowing dune alterations affect the town’s flood insurance rating? How might a change to the ordinance affect future Federal Emergency Management Agency funding for beach re-nourishment?

North Carolina Coastal Area Management Act regulations prohibit the disturbance to vegetation or sand within the frontal or primary dune. Topsail Island, including Topsail Beach, which is at the sound end of the island, has a frontal dune system. Such dunes are defined as the first mounds of sand, landward of the beach, that have sufficient vegetation, height and continuity to offer some protection to the land behind the dunes.

“The issue there is what happens if that dune or that mound of sand is a continuation back toward the island,” Braxton said. “Now we’re trying to figure out how much can you move and where can you move it to. I think we are trying to be very cautious. We’re asking a lot of questions and getting answers slowly. I don’t think anybody’s trying to take a hard line there and say this shouldn’t happen.”

Property owners whose homes are nestled along a series of three canals that extend from New Topsail Inlet toward the ocean shoreline have expressed their concerns about altering the dune system. They argue that removing sand from the dune could make their properties vulnerable in storms.

It’s taken two decades of natural and man-made efforts to restore the south-end dunes, wiped out in the 1980s by erosion because of their proximity to the inlet.

Spencer Rogers

Spencer Rogers

“It’s important to understand from some people’s perspective just how bad things were in the 1980s,” said Spencer Rogers, a coastal engineering expert with North Carolina Sea Grant.

Residents and property owners familiar with the south end since that time remember when the oceanfront was much closer to the street.

The town began efforts to rebuild the dune in 1996 following Hurricanes Bertha and Fran. Those efforts, paired with New River Inlet’s steady migration south – 90 feet per year, according to Rogers – has created a healthy dune system.

As sand on the oceanfront lots has accreted, owners of those lots have become eager to build. Town officials last year began examining the more than 20-year-old dune ordinance after development projects along a small area of the oceanfront lots – there are 29 in all at the south end – were being pushed quickly.

At the time and with CAMA approval, construction was underway on one of the lots. Since the home was built under the old ordinance, sand was removed from the dune.

“They changed the profile of that fairly significantly,” Braxton said. “One of the things we’re asking is that someone look at that house and see if it could be built in the same condition under the new ordinance.”

The answer, said Kevin Combopiano, is no.

Combopiano is part of a group of oceanfront property owners who have been trying to get the ordinance changed.

“A surveyor put together a house that he could potentially build that would potentially meet the criteria,” he said. “The house he put together was so small it was basically a shack. The ordinance, right now, makes those lots completely unbuildable. I could apply for a CAMA permit to build a house tomorrow and I would get it, but the town has made it so restrictive.”

Mayor Howard Braxton

Mayor Howard Braxton

He bought his lot, one block north of where the canals end, in 2012. The lots, his included, easily meet CAMA’s 60-foot setback, he said.

“I’m just biding my time,” Combopiano said. “I want that option to be able to build.”

He said the frontal dune, even with an altered secondary dune, is enough to protect homes adjacent to the oceanfront lots.

Town officials last year consulted with Rogers on how best to manage the dunes. His recommendation was to prohibit sand from being removed from the lots.

He said in a recent telephone interview that his recommendation has not changed.

Pressure from the oceanfront property owners and threats of lawsuits essentially prompted the town to take another look at the ordinance, Mayor Howard Braxton said.

“We thought we made the ordinance a lot simpler, but we didn’t,” he said.

He said the town can’t create land that simply isn’t there to meet state dune rules, the town ordinance and the town’s zoning rules for parking spaces.

“There’s just not enough room to do what they want to do with it,” he said.

Some town leaders have suggested the property owners could create parallel parking spaces.

“Now you’re looking at parking spaces on the right-of-way, which is not on your lot,” Frank Braxton said. “If you can’t move sand, you could park on a steep incline, but that’s not the best situation. It’s going to be difficult for someone to build, but it’s not going to be impossible.”

Any suggested revisions from the planning board are expected to presented to commissioners in August.

About the Author

Trista Talton

Trista Talton is a native North Carolinian who, shortly after graduating from Appalachian State University in 1996, took her first newspaper job as a reporter for the Hickory Daily Record. She has since migrated to the coast, covering everything from education and local governments to law enforcement, the environment and the military, including an embed with Marines in Kuwait for the start of the Iraq war in 2003. She has been a Coastal Review Online contributing writer since 2011 focusing on coastal-related issues from Onslow to Brunswick counties. She lives with her husband and two sons in Jacksonville.