BOGUE BANKS — On Jan. 17, four days after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced it had approved $281 million for beach nourishment work on Bogue Banks and in North Topsail and Surf City in Onslow and Pender counties, Raleigh’s The News & Observer ran an opinion piece.
In it, Dr. Rob Young, head of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University, had this to say: “...I’ve never understood the federal interest in spending that much money on a local coastal economy. We’ve been spending billions.”
Renowned geologist Dr. Orrin Pilkey, a professor emeritus at Duke University, put it this way in the same opinion piece: “These projects can only be characterized as madness. The sea-level rise is clearly accelerating, increasingly intense storms are expected as has happened in the last four years, and the amounts of money spent on these beaches will need to be expended again and again...”
But to Carteret County officials, it isn’t madness. To them, whether it’s federal, state or local money that pays for beach nourishment, it’s economic lifeblood.
Without it, said Greg Rudolph, longtime head of the Carteret County Shore Protection Office, Bogue Banks “would look like it did after Hurricane Floyd (in 1999).
“The Ocean Reef (condominiums) in Emerald Isle were almost in the ocean. There were trailers falling down the escarpment in Salter Path.
“We’d have that after almostevery hurricane and after a lot of relatively minor ‘mullet blows.’”
Since 2001, Carteret County, state and federal governments have spent $144,153,979 to nourish the tourist-magnet beaches on Bogue Banks, from The Point at the western tip of Emerald Isle at Bogue Inlet to the eastern tip of Atlantic Beach.
It breaks down to: $75,420,126 in federal money (52%), $54,833,853 in county and town money (38%) and $13,900,000 in state money (10%).
All of that, according to county figures, paid for placement of 14,971,903 cubic yards of sand on the Bogue Banks beaches. That’s the equivalent of 1,247,659 standard dump truck loads.
Hurricane Floyd, in 1999, was the trigger for the county to get into beach nourishment in a big way. There had been minor efforts before that after previous hurricanes in the ‘90s, but Floyd was a large, damaging storm, causing serious erosion. It was the impetus to do more, much more.
“Our beaches are just too important” to risk such catastrophic losses, Mr. Rudolph said last week of the decisions made at that time.
And without those decisions, the entire county’s financial landscape would be different, as would those of the towns, not just on Bogue Banks but also on the mainland, because of the sheer magnitude of the value of oceanfront and the other properties on the island, Mr. Rudolph said.
The county’s total property valuation “would be a billion or two dollars lower,” he added. “The county and towns have to provide services for the people who live here.”
According to Carteret County Tax Administrator Sarah Davis, the 2019 value of all property in the county was $17,278,329,164, as of a Wednesday email. Of that, $5,543,926,837 was from that narrow 25-mile-long island. That’s nearly a third of the total. And much of that value comes from oceanfront properties threatened by storms.
If you had less property value, Mr. Rudolph said, there would be dramatically less tax revenue, but services would still have to be provided.
“So, if you look at it from a revenue-neutral standpoint,” he said, “to get the money to provide the services, you’d have to raise taxes.”
And if you raise taxes too much, many people wouldn’t be able to afford their homes, and businesses would be harder to open and stay afloat, he said.
But there’s no doubt it’s expensive.
The county’s last completed beach project, in 2019, nourished the strand in eastern Emerald Isle, all of Indian Beach and most of Salter Path and cost $20.2 million, with no federal money, and $5 million in state funds.
The rest of the money for the placement of nearly a million cubic yards of sand came from the towns coffers and the county’s beach nourishment fund, which receives half of the revenue from the county occupancy tax, which is mostly paid by tourists.
Another project, for western Atlantic Beach, all of Pine Knoll Shores a tiny portion of Salter Path and some of western Emerald Isle, will start next month, with a staging area soon to be established at the site of the old Iron Steamer Pier in Pine Knoll Shores.
This one, nearly 2 million cubic yards of sand, is expected to cost $28.2 million. Of that, about $13 million is coming from the county’s beach nourishment fund. The remaining $15 million or so is coming from state coffers, money the legislature set aside for beach projects after Hurricane Florence in September 2018. Carteret County got almost all of that money.
And a third Bogue Banks project, possibly to start in 2021, is already in the planning stages. There’s no telling how much that will cost.
The county hasn’t received U.S. Army Corps of Engineers money for beach nourishment projects recently, although the towns have received millions of dollars in Federal Emergency Management Agency reimbursements for the cost of replacing sand lost during Hurricane Florence in 2018. In addition, federal funds pay for dredging the harbor at the state port; sand from that has been placed on the strand in Atlantic Beach for years, at no cost to the town.
But that $281 million allocation from the ACE earlier this month contained $44.5 million for the county’s Bogue Banks 50-year beach master plan, which the ACE had already approved but not funded.
The county has been operating under what it calls an interim master plan, using local and state and FEMA money, and according to Mr. Rudolph, won’t use that $44.5 million right away.
Still, he said it’s welcome and will be used once the 50-year plan approved by the ACE gets underway. It’s supposed to be a federal cost-sharing program. It will also require more public beach access points, something the public clamors for often and uses to criticize nourishment, especially since some paid parking has been implemented at existing accesses.
The county, Mr. Rudolph said, couldn’t have done all of these beach projects over the past two decades without the federal money, at least in the beginning.
“Bogue Banks is 25 miles long,” he said. “The state of Delaware is 25 miles long. So, we have a whole state’s worth of beach in our one county.”
Furthermore, Mr. Rudolph said, the ACE must do a cost-benefit study before it approves any expenditure, such as the recent $281 million allocation, and projects are approved only if they are expected to generate more revenue than the expenditures.
Finally, Mr. Rudolph said in regard to federal spending on beach projects, if beaches were not nourished, hurricanes would do more damage, and there would be more FEMA reimbursements for cleanups.
Emerald Isle Commissioner Jim Normile, who is on the county beach commission, which advises Mr. Rudolph’s office, also stressed storm damage prevention.
Without nourishment, he said, many people would already have lost their homes and/or businesses. But that’s only part of the reason for nourishment, he added.
“When people talk about beach nourishment, many of them, I think, are just talking about the flat, sandy ‘towel’ beach, where they put their towels down and play with their families,” he said. “But on the commission – and if you look at the intent of what we do – it’s really about the dunes.”
Stable and sizeable dunes, he said, protect not just property and property values, but also people’s personal and business investments and the towns’ investments in infrastructure: roads, electric lines and water lines.
“If the people who came before us (on the beach commission) hadn’t set this up years ago, it would be chaos out here,” he said.
Pine Knoll Shores Town Manager Brian Kramer agreed.
“The federal government doesn’t even call it ‘beach nourishment,’” he said. “They call it storm damage reduction, for a reason.”
Pine Knoll Shores has about 4.5 miles of beach, and Mr. Kramer said it’s not in as bad shape as it was after Hurricane Floyd in 1999 or immediately after Hurricane Florence in 2018, but it’s not good.
“All of the little secondary dunes we had after we put in sand fences and vegetation seven years ago are gone,” he said. “Those protected the primary dunes. To say this (project) is timely is an understatement.”
Mr. Normile thinks the state should play more of a role, by setting up a funding mechanism to help the towns afford beach projects.
There is a similar mechanism already in place for dredging channels; it gets revenue from boat registrations and boat fuel taxes. The money comes back to counties and towns through grants. The commissioner said he and others are working on that issue.
Then, of course, there’s the county’s economy, which is in large part driven by tourists who use that towel beach.
“There is a quote from the mayor of Myrtle Beach, 10 or 15 years ago, something like, ‘They don’t come to Myrtle Beach to see myrtle, they come for the beach,’” Mr. Rudolph said.
Carteret County Chamber of Commerce President Tom Kies concurred.
“Tourism,” he said, “provides well over 3,000 jobs in this county, and the beach is the primary reason people come here.”
According to the N.C. Department of Commerce, tourism was worth $377 million in the county in 2018.
Mr. Rudolph figures at least 75% of that was generated by Bogue Banks.
“I think the county has done a remarkable job paying for it. I don’t see any negatives,” Mr. Kies said.
But some environmentalists remain concerned about beach nourishment.
Michael Murdoch, of the Croatan Group of the N.C. Sierra Club Chapter, said he realizes beaches are crucial to the county’s and towns’ economies, but believes it’s wrong to think Bogue Banks beaches are in such terrible shape.
He also worries about the expense of the projects; as sea level continues to rise, he added, projects are going to get bigger and the expense will, too.
Mr. Murdoch also believes nourishment impacts the invertebrates – worms and mole crabs – on the beach, and that impacts birds and fish. He believes that while nourishment supports the tourism industry, most of those tourism jobs are low-paying.
Mr. Rudolph, however, is convinced the county, its engineers and state and federal governments do a great job minimalizing any impacts.
Nourishment can’t be done during sea turtle nesting and hatching season, for example, and there have not been any complaints in recent years about bad-quality sand being placed on the strand.
Mr. Rudolph acknowledged there are short-term impacts on invertebrates. But, he added, they come back fast.
“You’d be hard pressed to find an ecological wasteland out there on the (Bogue Banks) beaches,” he said.
Editor's note: This article was last updated Jan. 28 at 1:04 p.m. to replace the real estate values chart that had transposed digits.
Contact Brad Rich at 252-864-1532; email Brad@thenewstimes.com; or follow on Twitter @brichccnt.