The Carteret County Beach Commission should resist taking an apparent $44 million windfall from the Army Corps of Engineers as part of a proposed a long term beach nourishment program. It has liabilities that will wash out many of the possible benefits and in the process restrain local control of beach management.
The beach commission, consisting of representatives from the four Bogue Banks towns, an at-large member and representation from the county’s Tourism Development Authority, has worked diligently with the Army Corps of Engineers for more than a decade to develop a 50-year beach nourishment plan to maintain Bogue Banks beaches, a major economic engine for the county and the state.
Since 2001 the county, the state and the Corps have spent a total of $7.5 million in feasibility studies and engineering designs. It is worth noting that the county and state have prepared studies and designs independent of the federal government so there should be little doubt about the potential and benefits of developing a long term plan.
But the devil is in the details, both immediate and long term. The proposed plan will result in the loss of flexibility, local control and restraints on future funding sources.
The Corps’ proposal requires the municipalities to provide public access supported by a minimum of ten parking spaces every half mile along the 22-mile beach strand. According to Greg Rudolph of the Carteret County Shore Protection office, the access point requirements are doable but the requirement of providing parking spaces for the access points within a quarter-mile radius is far more challenging. The new plan requires easements from property owners, which have been in place well over a decade, but will have to be re-done without any assurance of a positive outcome.
In addition to the expenses associated with meeting the access and parking requirement, acceptance of the Corps’ plan will restrict the county from benefiting from FEMA funds as it has in the past years because of the hurricane damage. Since Hurricane Irene, 2004, FEMA has provided over $87 million to Bogue Banks communities for recovery efforts.
Because one federal program cannot support another federally funded program, any damage to the county’s beaches resulting from natural disasters would be excluded from FEMA funds if the Corps is also funding the beaches.
An even bigger cloud hangs over the future of the very agency, the Corps of Engineers, charged with the oversight and funding.
With the elimination of dreaded “earmarks” the Corps has lost the congressional support it once enjoyed for congressional budgeting. Because the agency is basically independent it must sell its services and needs to Congress which is difficult since it deals primarily with coastal and river states and has to fight with other agencies that provide services in more populous congressional districts. While earmarks were considered “a pox” on the political process, at least representatives from those regions benefiting from the Corps could get project funding with old fashioned “horse trading.” The Corps now has to argue its budget independently.
As Mr. Rudolph noted in a recent meeting of the beach commission, “the federal appropriation process is quite sloppy and unreliable” which ends up shortchanging the Corps.
Granted, if the county does adopt the Corps’ 50-year plan, beach maintenance cost will stabilize and millions of federal dollars will be available if, and that is a big IF, the Corps maintains its funding source. On the flip side, the county has successfully maintained Bogue Banks beaches with funding from county room tax revenues assisted by both state and federal funding which brings into question what will change with the 50-year beach plan.
The conclusion of accepting the Corps’ program will be more restraints, less local control and the possibility that the Army Corps of Engineers won’t be able to maintain funding should Congress or the President decide to dedicate financial resources elsewhere. The county is facing financial challenges due to decline in business activity as we respond to the pandemic. But in spite of these challenges, the beach commission should avoid making any costly long term commitments that are neither dependable nor responsive to the needs of the community.
Carteret County enjoys the best beaches and water access opportunities in the state because it has been proactive in protecting these resources. This is not the time to hand the responsibility over to more federal control. We need to keep as much control in our future as possible.