Public Weighs In on Holden Beach Groin

The yellow house with the green roof is the easternmost house on the oceanfront at Holden Beach in this aerial photo from March 28. Photo: Holden Beach Property Owners Association

HOLDEN BEACH – This town would be better off sticking with beach re-nourishment projects and forego the prospect of building a terminal groin, a structure that critics say is too costly a risk with an uncertain outcome.

A majority of those who spoke Friday during a town meeting about the nearly 1,900-page final environmental impact study, or FEIS, which identifies a terminal groin as the preferred erosion control method at the island’s east end, urged town commissioners to drop pursuing the permits to build one.

“Now we’ve come to a moment of truth,” said John Witten, treasurer of the Holden Beach Property Owners Association. “This is too big a risk. There’s a reason the (state) statute calls this a pilot project. We’re the guinea pigs here.”

Witten, one of about a half-dozen people asked to formally address commissioners at the meeting Friday night, was referring to the 2011 state law amendment that ended a decades-old ban on coastal hardened structures.

When legislators initially repealed the ban, the statute allowed for the construction of up to four terminal groins on the North Carolina coast. That number has since been bumped to six terminal groins.

Terminal groins are wall-like structures built perpendicular to the shore at inlets to contain sand in areas of high erosion.

Erosion rates on beaches near inlets are often higher than that of other beach areas because of the way inlets naturally oscillate. That natural movement of the Lockwood Folly Inlet, which separates Holden Beach and Oak Island, has resulted in long-term erosion on the east end of Holden Beach.

For 50 years, sand has routinely been pumped onto the eastern end of the 8.1-mile-long barrier island. Sandbags have also been placed along the shore throughout the years as a temporary means to protect homes and properties.

By 1993, 28 properties and structures had been destroyed as a result of erosion.

Some in the town, including longtime Mayor Alan Holden, believe a terminal groin is a long-term solution to protecting properties and infrastructure on the east end shore.

The FEIS, a document that examines potential shoreline erosion control alternatives created by an engineering firm hired by the town, was released last month by the Army Corps of Engineers. The public comment period on the document ends April 16.

The preferred alternative in the final environmental impact study for the proposed Holden Beach terminal groin would include a 700-foot-long segment extending seaward from the toe of the primary dune and a 300-foot anchor segment extending landward from the toe of the primary dune. Photo: Corps of Engineers

The preferred alternative is a 700-foot-long terminal groin with a 300-foot shore anchorage system. The proposed structure would also include a 120-foot-long “T-head” segment centered on the seaward end of the main stem to help minimize the potential rip currents and sand losses during extreme wave conditions.

The estimated $34.4 million project would include a long-term beach re-nourishment plan to supplement the structure.

Commissioners announced during a prior meeting that they would not be taking action Friday.

Coastal engineer and geologist Spencer Rogers with North Carolina Sea Grant said maintaining sand in near-inlet areas like the east end of Holden Beach is challenging because of the high erosion rates in those areas.

“Beach nourishment in some areas clearly is not going to work,” Rogers said.

In high-erosion areas, including near-inlet areas, re-nourishment is not cost-effective, he said, and therefore would benefit from “properly designed” terminal groins, he said.

Spencer Rogers

Rogers, a member of the North Carolina Coastal Resources Commission Science Panel and CRC Advisory Council, said he’s recommending terminal groins be included in the CRC’s permitting kit.

Fran Way, a senior coastal engineer with Applied Technology and Management Inc., the firm that drafted the EIS for the town, said the town would save $12 million over 30 years if it builds a terminal groin.

“The design is increasing the beach nourishment longevity from two years to four years,” he said. “To increase that longevity means that you’re saving money.”

He encouraged commissioners, who last month voted to put on hold pursuing federal and state permits to build a terminal groin, to move ahead with obtaining the permits. Then, he said, the town would have that tool in their pocket should commissioners decide a few years from now to build a groin.

If the town moves ahead with the permitting process, officials there could expect a legal challenge, said Mike Giles, who recently retired as a coastal advocate with the North Carolina Coastal Federation.

“There are better ways,” Giles said. “Look at the beach now. It cost you very little and you have a better beach now than you would if you construct a terminal groin.”

Neighboring Ocean Isle Beach’s plans to build a terminal groin were put on hold last August when a lawsuit was filed on behalf of Audubon North Carolina. The lawsuit, filed by the Southern Environmental Law Center, challenges the Corps’ analysis of the project.

Critics of terminal groins argue the hardened structures come with too big a price tag – both fiscally and environmentally – to justify what they argue benefits a small number of homes.

Andy Coburn, associate director of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University, said in a written statement to Holden Beach commissioners that a terminal groin does not make fiscal sense.

Andy Coburn

Coburn wrote, “it is my professional opinion that the public cost of building and maintaining a terminal groin at Lockwood Folly Inlet will exceed public benefits by a factor of ten over the project’s 30-year planning horizon, and any benefits that do accrue will be grossly inequitable in their distribution.”

Funding the construction, maintenance, monitoring and re-nourishment associated with the structure, Coburn wrote, “is fiscally irresponsible and could well be viewed as a breach of fiduciary duty on behalf of the decision makers responsible for the health, safety and public welfare of (the) Town of Holden Beach, its citizens and the many thousands more who visit – often for the primary purpose of using and enjoying the public beaches on Holden Beach.”

If a terminal groin does prevent damage to every property for 30 years after construction, the associated costs would “still be ten times greater than the maximum possible return ($1.8 million) the town can possibly hope to recoup,” Coburn wrote.

Worst-case scenario, he wrote, the groin fails, leaving the town with nothing in return and legal challenges “that will inevitably arise.”

“Even though the actual outcome is likely to fall somewhere between the two extremes, it is clear that the cost of building and maintaining a terminal groin at Lockwood Folly Inlet will exceed maximum potential benefits IN EVERY SINGLE CASE – even if the proposed project works exactly as project proponents and consulting engineers hope AND without one single detrimental environmental impact,” Coburn wrote.

The town should, instead, continue to re-nourish the beach, a method that has been proven beneficial in Holden Beach, proponents of that alternative argued.

Jay Holden, a member of the board of directors of the Dunescape Property Owners’ Association, said the town has not lost a home to erosion since 2001.

“We oppose the groin because it has a very limited and uncertain effectiveness that is far outweighed by the risk and the cost,” Holden said.

The association supports dredging the inlet, nourishing the beach and urging the Corps to keep the inlet ebb channel at a south-southwest orientation.

Geoff Gisler, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, also suggested the town continue to re-nourish the beach rather than build a groin.

Geoff Gisler

The modeling in the FEIS is based on 10-year-old data, is misleading and inaccurate, he said.

Last year, about 120,000 cubic yards of sand was placed on the east end of the island, Gisler said. The state paid a significant share of the cost, leaving the town to pick up about $76,000 of the $465,000 price tag.

“We also have the beach and we have seen what nourishment over the last 10 years has done to the beach,” Gisler said. “The beach is significantly wider than it was in 2008. It’s in very good shape.”

The town’s most recent re-nourishment project put about 1.3 million cubic yards of sand along about a 4-mile stretch of oceanfront in the middle of the island.

The first phase of the $15 million Central Reach project wrapped in March 2017.

That project is protecting about 450 to 500 homes, Witten said, a far greater number than the 2,500 feet of beach at the east end.

“You, the taxpayers of Holden Beach are picking up the bill for the terminal groin,” he said. “We don’t have the money. We cannot afford to take this kind of risk with our limited resources.”

He reminded commissioners that they all said they opposed a terminal groin in a candidate questionnaire they filled out last fall prior to the town elections.

“We’ve spent $630,000 and what we’ve got is a big stack of books,” Witten said. “It’s a terrible shame that we’ve lost that amount of money. We can’t keep doing this year after year. The time to call into question is now. Now it’s time to move on and protect the east end of the island and keep doing what we’re doing in the channel.”

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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.