Bald Head Island erosion program causes an uproar Exclusive community's artificial beach barriers called 'basically folly'

November 17, 1996|By new york times news service

BALD HEAD ISLAND, N.C. - Even Hurricane Fran dealt gently with this resort island, a wealthy enclave where sunsets are long and slow and travel is by golf cart.

The hurricane, which devastated 120 miles of beaches and many homes farther up the North Carolina coast, merely brushed Bald Head, shaking loose barely a shingle or two.

But now a storm of a different kind is buffeting the island, and it is Hurricane Fran that is largely responsible.

This lush strand of dunes and maritime forest, the southernmost of North Carolina's barrier islands and perhaps the most exclusive, sought for years to protect its beaches from erosion.

Last year it received approval from the state to do so, granted an unprecedented waiver from a decade-old state policy that bars jetties, sea walls or anything else that would stop the natural wearing away of sand.

As a result of the waiver, Bald Head proceeded with a project of artificial beach protection, or "hardening," completed in May. Sixteen immense sand-filled tubes, each 300 feet long and 9 feet high, now jut into the sea here, placed intermittently along a mile of shoreline at right angles to the beach front.

Pressure expected

But in the aftermath of the damage that Hurricane Fran brought nearby, some conservationists are warning that pressure from other beach communities for the kind of protection allowed only here is bound to increase. And that, they say, could well undermine what some consider the nation's most sophisticated beach-erosion policy.

That policy, allowing nature to take its course, was adopted by North Carolina in 1985, in the belief, shared by environmentalists and marine experts, that localized efforts to stop sand from washing away was at best futile over the long term and at worst destructive over the short, since nearby beaches could be starved of sand that would otherwise naturally wash from one place to another.

That argument may prove an increasingly hard sell among property owners looking for any measure of anti-erosion protection for their beach-front homes and adjacent roads.

Just this summer a resort on Wrightsville Beach sought sandbag protection but was turned down by the state's Coastal Resources Commission, the agency that had granted Bald Head a waiver for placement of the tubes.

"With the hurricane, probably the pressure is going to be enormous for these types of tubes up and down the coast," said Todd Miller, executive director of the North Carolina Coastal Federation, an environmental group.

Miller regrets that Bald Head was ever granted the variance, which resulted in large part from a lawsuit filed by one of the island's homeowners, the Texas oilman Walter Davis. "By sending that signal," Miller said of the commissioners who allowed the waiver, "they're inviting other suits."

'Timing is very bad'

John Wells, the director of the Institute of Marine Sciences at the University of North Carolina, agrees that the arrival of the hurricane so soon after the placement of the tubes was bad news for environmentalists.

"The timing is very bad," Wells said, "and that is an important point. There's going to be tremendous pressure to do something. I'm concerned that there are going to be some major tests of our no-hardening policies."

The people of Bald Head scoff at the notion that other communities can cite the island's tubes as a way of successfully pressing their own claims.

Bald Head, whose eastern tip forms Cape Fear, is isolated like no other North Carolina island - indeed, with the Atlantic coastline here veering sharply westward, nothing lies to the south except vast sea - and so, the residents say, there are no other beaches to be affected by the local beach-erosion blunting made possible by the tubes, called "groins."

"Our groins will not hurt any other beach," said Robert Timmons, a retired neurosurgeon who is former president of the property owners' association.

Roger Schecter, director of the state's Division of Coastal Management, agrees that "there are no similar beach situations throughout North Carolina."

And Tom Bradshaw, the island's part-time mayor, who points out that Bald Head residents paid more than $3 million for their own beach protection, adds that they nonetheless agreed at the time that they would remove the tubes if it turned out that they were causing degradation of any nearby beaches.

This is hardly the first time an environmental fight has centered on Bald Head, which was virtually undeveloped as recently as 30 years ago and much of which has been privately owned since Colonial days.

One of the most clamorous of the conservation battles occurred in the late 1960s, when an owner named Frank Sherrill prepared to sell the island to developers. Conservationists instead pressed the state to buy Bald Head and preserve its marshes and dense maritime forest as the northernmost outpost of Southern species like palmetto and laurel cherry. But they failed.

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