A Beach Bill For The Governor

July 19, 2013: The Senate accepted House changes to Senate Bill 151 (Coastal Policy Reform Act of 2013), which means the bill now goes to the Governor. The bill does two things:

1. Changes  existing law on construction of terminal groins for inlet stabilization.  The most controversial part of the bill makes changes to state law on construction of groins to stabilize inlet shorelines. After prohibiting permanent erosion control structures on ocean and inlet shorelines for nearly 40 years, state policy changed in 2011 when the General Assembly amended the Coastal Area Management Act to allow construction of terminal groins at inlets. A terminal groin is a structure built perpendicular to the beach at an inlet or at the end of an island to stabilize the shoreline;  in some cases, the groin also  traps sand moving along the shore to build up the beach behind the groin.

The 2011 legislation, Session Law 2011-387,  followed a 2010 study of terminal groins by the state’s Coastal Resources Commission (CRC). After reviewing the impact of the small number of existing inlet groins in North Carolina and similar projects in other states, the CRC issued a report concluding that terminal groins can have both positive and negative impacts and should only be allowed under very strict conditions. You can find links to the final CRC report and recommendations here.  Because of concerns identified in the report,  S.L. 2011-387 only allowed  four groin projects to be permitted coast-wide  as something of a pilot project. No projects have been permitted  yet.

In the most significant change to the 2011 law,   Senate Bill 151  redefines  “terminal groin” to include projects that could be something else entirely — including a  field of multiple groins.   The new definition of “terminal groin” no longer matches the definition used by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers  to describe that  particular type of shoreline stabilization project.  Senate Bill 151 changes the definition in state law to include projects involving installation of “one or more” groin structures  or a single groin with  “a number of smaller supporting structures”. The expanded scope of the definition means that the Department of Environment and Natural Resources could permit projects with even greater impacts  than a simple  terminal groin — impacts that were never considered in the 2010 Coastal Resources Commission study.

2. Provides clear authority for beach communities  to address debris, damaged structures, personal property  and other obstructions on the public trust beach. This part of the bill responds to a N.C. Court of Appeals decision in Town of Nags Head v. Cherry  that concluded only the state has the authority to order removal of  nuisance structures from the public trust beach.  An earlier post provides a  more complete  discussion of the  case. Coastal towns had always assumed that their authority to enforce local ordinances –including nuisance ordinances —  extended to the public trust beach (the area between the mean high tide line and the mean low tide line).  In fact, state law specifically recognizes local authority to regulate many activities on the public trust beach and the charters for some coastal towns extend into the water. The Court of Appeals decision, however,  made a distinction between ordinances generally and those specifically intended to protect public trust rights  and held that only the state could act to protect those rights. The bill returns the law to what many in both state and local government had always believed it to be — shared state and local authority to protect public rights of access to the beach and to address conditions that create a health and safety hazard on the beach.