Wrightsville Beach starts to worry about lapping sea Mason Inlet creepingsouth toward resort island on Carolina coast


WRIGHTSVILLE BEACH, N.C. - For the better part of a decade, Mason Inlet, the turbulent wash that separates this Atlantic resort island from Figure Eight Island to the north, has been on the move.

It has been creeping steadily south, sweeping away with eons-old impunity both mighty sand dunes and the fragile nests of shore birds.

Wrightsville Beach residents have watched warily as the inlet has come closer and closer to their beachfront hotels, condominiums and cottages, but not so warily that they have been impelled to retreat to safer soil or halt the construction of more hotels, condominiums and cottages.

Theirs is the familiar barrier-beach tale of hope against hope, trust that shoreline engineering can fool Mother Nature, reliance on the great faucet of government disaster aid and cheap storm insurance, and, ultimately, denial of the obvious - that all up and down the Atlantic coast, the sea, aided by storms and hurricanes, is slowly but inexorably rolling up and over beaches.

Now comes undeniable reality, and with it a new debate over what to do about the continuing headlong rush to develop Atlantic beaches.

At the doorstep

Over the past two years, Mason Inlet has migrated south so rapidly that its waters are lapping on the doorstep of the northernmost structure on Wrightsville Beach, a condominium and hotel development called Shell Island Resort.

What is at risk here is not some beach cottage but a nine-story building with 169 apartments that was built about a decade ago, for $22 million. It is probably the largest, most expensive building on the North Carolina coast to be on the verge of being claimed by the Atlantic.

"All of this was predictable and, in fact, was predicted," said Todd Miller, the executive director of the North Carolina Coastal Federation, a group that promotes preservation of the state's beaches, bays and marshes. "But people just weren't listening or didn't want to hear. So now a whole section of a major beach town is on the edge of destruction."

The prospect of such a disaster has again raised questions about the efficacy of building on the sea's edge.

State and federal officials are beginning to take a second look at policies and procedures that were intended to slow beachfront construction but, given the explosion of coastline population over the past 25 years and the number of buildings now at risk, must be judged less than successful.

"It's always prudent to step back and take a look at where you are and what policy improvements you can make, if any," said Roger Schecter, the director of the North Carolina Division of Coastal Management.

Some beach towns, developers, cottage owners and businesses are organizing to protect their interests, aware that the encroaching sea is a problem but fearful that any new development laws may be too draconian.

Regulations at issue

"This is not a clean-cut debate," said Dave Weaver, the assistant manager of New Hanover County, which includes Wrightsville Beach and the neighboring city of Wilmington.

At issue, in particular, is whether North Carolina should weaken its unusually tough regulation that prohibits permanent placement of protective seawalls on beaches.

A hundred or so properties along the North Carolina coast, including Shell Island Resort, have temporary sandbag walls in place, and many property owners are pushing for permanent permits.

The Shell Island Homeowners Association issued a statement a few weeks ago that said the resort was "unable and unwilling to allow a $22 million investment to be washed away and intends to take steps necessary to protect its interest."

Some states permit permanent protective structures on their beaches, even though sooner or later, the experts argue, the sea finds a way to circumvent the walls.

Also at issue, and equally contentious, is whether to curtail federal programs that provide cheap, easy-to-get storm insurance for oceanfront homes and businesses, as well as speedy grants and loans for storm repairs not covered by insurance.

When plans for Shell Island Resort were first announced, in the mid-1980s, the erosion specialists warned that the sea would inevitably try to claim it because Mason Inlet was steadily creeping down the beach from the north while the Atlantic surf was steadily threatening to roll over the beach from the east.

At the same time, state coastal protection officials reminded the developers that state law prohibited permanent seawalls.

But state officials said they were powerless otherwise to halt the resort project, especially since the developers readily agreed to meet the state requirement that new beach structures be set back a "safe" distance from the water's edge.

That margin, considered far too small by many beach experts, is calculated by the state in most cases to be about 100 feet - or the point where the ocean's edge is expected to be in 30 years, given the average encroachment rate along the coast of about 3.5 feet annually.

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