Emerald Isle’s decision last week authorizing town manager Matt Zapp to apply for a multi-million-dollar flood prevention project was an obvious slam dunk decision considering the town is, according to some observers, 90% developed and as a result is regularly experiencing serious rain water flooding at key locations. But this effort will only be successful if the town also creates a long term strategy for the eventual full development of the town and sticks with that plan.
Emerald Isle’s leadership has, for many decades, attempted to address the impacts of stormwater created by heavy rain events. In 1985 the town formed its first committee to study the problem of persistent flooding. The causes, rapid development and the associated increase of impervious surface, were obvious. What was needed were solutions which were many, and often times controversial, because of accompanying land restrictions.
Since that first effort, the town has, with certain levels of public agreement, developed stormwater relief solutions, including the purchasing of land to prevent development and for use as a catch basin system.
The town’s 2018 Comprehensive Land Use Plan notes that the town had already invested millions of dollars in “a stormwater system to serve the Coast Guard Road area, with a total of 8 stormwater pump stations discharging to wetland areas in Emerald Isle Woods Park with a 9th expected to come online in early 2017.” And yet the problem, just three years later, persists.
The unanimous vote by the board to apply for a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) grant designed to Build Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC) is a good indication that the board understands the problem and sees the need to develop solutions. But devising solutions is easy, it’s the implementation of those solutions that will be the greatest challenge. Implementation will require hard-nosed commitment on the part of elected policy leaders and their constituents.
The federal program, part of the Disaster Recovery Reform Act of 2018, provides funding for innovative projects that involve a shared funding mechanism and/or project design. Mr. Zapp, anticipating a cost of $3-$5 million, is recommending partnering with N.C. State University for what he describes as “a proven approach to discharge stormwater by way of natural filtration” in oceanfront sand dunes.
The town already has approval under certain flooding conditions to pump stormwater onto oceanfront dunes. With new innovations in the process it is hoped that it can be used with greater frequency.
As noted, stormwater management for Emerald Isle is not a new problem. The town, its leaders, residents and visitors have had to deal with this problem for the past 40 years. The intentions and actions to solve the problem have been successful for only short periods of time during which the town has continued to grow. This growth has subsequently overwhelmed existing stormwater services.
Now that the town has available federal funding the planners need to do more than just deal with the current circumstances. Instead, efforts should be made to project forward as best as possible, using state demographic information and the experience of other coastal towns that have undergone rapid change. From this information, along with public input, the town should review and upgrade its Land Use Plan to resolve its almost 40-year-old stormwater problem.
There are two key benefits to looking down the growth path. First it will help, if not force, the town to establish a strong development land use plan that will guide any future financial investment in the town. Secondly, it will assure the wise use of funds, federal funds, that may not be available in the future.
The final analysis of this endeavor is that the town board and its citizens will eventually have to commit to a plan that will inevitably make some people unhappy. This is the only way the town will be able to sensibly avoid expensive fixes in the future. Otherwise, this 40-year problem will become a forever problem and the repair will become too costly both financially and politically to solve.