Say NO! to beach nourishment.
Why? Because the Southern Shores oceanfront doesn’t need it. It is that simple. The dune system on our shoreline is stable.
So why is the Southern Shores Town Council even considering an estimated $9-$13 million sand replenishment project for a large portion of our beaches in 2022? And why is it holding a public hearing on the matter at its 5:30 p.m. meeting Tuesday in the Pitts Center?
I offer several answers:
1. Coastal-engineering consultant Ken Willson, whom Town Manager Peter Rascoe refers to as the “Town Coastal Engineer” and with whom he works hand-in-glove, orchestrated Tuesday’s beach-nourishment bandwagon scenario through progressive surveys in 2017-18, which show the Southern Shores 3.7-mile shoreline is stable, but nonetheless confound non-coastal engineers, also known as elected officials.
The impetus for Tuesday’s public hearing is the “Beach Vulnerability Assessment and Management Plan” that the Town Council confusingly authorized Mr. Willson on March 6, 2018 to conduct and that he filed in final form in December.
Mr. Willson’s plan outlines three exorbitant beach-nourishment “options,” covering 15,500 linear feet of the shoreline, for the Town to consider—IF it decides to go that route. The Beacon elaborated upon these options in detail Feb. 28, 2019, when it reported on the Town Council’s Feb. 26 special planning session, and will not repeat them here. Mr. Rascoe has been touting these three options as the “Town Coastal Engineer’s” “recommendations” in the lengthy public-hearing “notices” that he has arranged to post online or circulate in the mail.
Did you read the postcard you received?
(Please note: The beach nourishment being discussed now has nothing to do with the Pelican Watch oceanfront, which is a long-standing and well-known hot spot. The replenishment done there in 2017 will be maintained.)
2. Dare County needs to know “as soon as possible,” in April, according to Mr. Rascoe, whether Southern Shores intends to partake of the Dare County Beach Nourishment Fund in summer 2022, when Duck, Kitty Hawk, and Kill Devil Hills will be doing their five-year beach-nourishment maintenance and Southern Shores will be doing the same at Pelican Watch. The County reportedly would kick in 50 percent of the costs. Because of this money, which comes from occupancy taxes, the Town Council is feeling artificial time pressure and acting rushed when it needn’t be.
3. The Town Council, collectively, is befuddled by Mr. Willson’s surveys and reports and has deferred to him since he became part of the Southern Shores “fabric” in 2017, going along with whatever he suggests. If you have any doubt of this, queue up the video for the March 6, 2018 Town Council meeting, when Mr. Willson presented his “baseline” beach assessment report, and listen to the Council’s 15-minute discussion after he was done. It’s painful. I empathize, but it’s still painful.
If I were to speculate, on the basis of the comments made by the Council a year ago, how many of the members had read and absorbed Mr. Willson’s baseline report, I would say zero to one.
You may consider this blog an editorial. Frankly, I have already asked a top-notch N.C. environmental attorney what a property owner can do to stop a town government from embarking on unnecessary beach nourishment. I’ve said NO! to mini-hotels. I can say NO! again. (Full disclosure: Thanks to my parents, I am an oceanfront property co-owner. I have no problem with paying my fair share of increased property taxes if they are warranted. But I’m not keen on supporting a bigger government without just cause.)
Once undertaken, as Mr. Willson told the Town Council at its special planning session, beach nourishment becomes “an exercise in adaptive management. . . . It is never seen as a one-time event.”
Translation: It is a mortgage that Southern Shores can never pay off.
I do not believe that the Town Council, collectively, has done its due diligence on Mr. Willson’s vulnerability assessment and proposed beach-nourishment options. Due diligence here demands the procurement of independent outside expert analysis and advice. It demands at least a second opinion.
No responsible board, public or private, should ever consider committing more than $5 million of anyone’s money—but, especially, taxpayers’ money—until it has intelligently and comprehensively evaluated the need for the project it is thinking of funding.
I also have to wonder if Council members have heard what Mr. Willson himself has said on several occasions about the stability and condition of our shoreline. For more than two years, his message consistently has been: Southern Shores is in great shape. No worries.
At the February session, he told the Council: “The dune system in Southern Shores is in pretty good shape.” It is “fairly intact,” providing protection against storms and erosion.
If Southern Shores were to jump on the beach-nourishment bandwagon now, he said, it would be doing so much earlier than any other Outer Banks town has—ergo, much earlier than necessary.
If the Town Council approves a beach-nourishment project Tuesday evening after hearing from citizens and taking a vote, I believe it will be chasing the money because the money is there. (See answer no. 2.) It will not be because a thoughtful and responsible evaluation led them to conclude that beach nourishment is a necessary public service that must be performed now. (See no. 3.)
HOW WE GOT HERE
When Ken Willson first burst on the Southern Shores scene, it was as a “project manager” for the Wilmington, N.C.-based CB&I/Coastal Planning & Engineering of N.C., Inc. He spoke at the Jan. 17, 2017 town meeting-public forum on beach nourishment about planning for an eventual replenishment project.
Mr. Willson received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from UNC-Wilmington in geology and earth science. He earned certification in coastal engineering from ODU University. You may see his forum presentation here: https://www.southernshores-nc.gov/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/Ken-Willson-Southern-Shores-Jan-17-2017.pdf.
The Town Council, with Mr. Rascoe’s guidance, authorized Mr. Willson, who is now vice president of Aptim Coastal Planning & Engineering of N.C., Inc. (APTIM), to do a baseline assessment of the Southern Shores beaches in 2017. APTIM has cornered the market on conducting beach profile surveys and project planning for Outer Banks towns, including, most recently, Duck, Kitty Hawk, and Kill Devil Hills.
That, to my mind, makes him an interested, i.e., biased, party. He stands to gain financially from whatever the Town Council decides.
Mr. Willson presented his 2017 beach assessment to the Council at its March 2018 meeting, informing members that “the shoreline is looking fairly stable” and there is “no big rush” to “jump” on beach nourishment.
“I think time is in on your side,” he concluded.
The results of his company’s surveys of 22 beach profiles, which are locations along the Southern Shores shoreline that are spaced 1,000 feet apart from each other, showed 1) the shoreline is “stable,” having lost only 0.4 feet (that’s five inches) between 2006 and 2017; and 2) the volume of sand in the system had actually increased during the same time period.
“The shoreline is looking pretty stable,” he said. “We’re not seeing any hot spots right now. The long-term averages and the short-term averages [for shoreline changes] look to be pretty stable, pretty manageable.”
But, he continued . . . we do see some areas along the shoreline that have less sand volume than others, some houses that are closer to the stable line of vegetation than other houses. He, therefore, recommended to the Council that it authorize APTIM to conduct a “vulnerability assessment of the oceanfront structures” and to determine the “minimum cross-section of [sand] volume” that should be maintained to protect the shoreline from storm damage.
And, just so the Town Council would have the information it needs, he said, he would provide a “five-year plan” for “what a project would look like” when he conducted the vulnerability assessment and the volume determination.
Not that the Town needs to implement that five-year plan, you understand.
Please refer back to answer no. 1 above. And no. 3.
The plan part of his “Beach Vulnerability Assessment and Management Plan” is, in fact, that five-year plan that Mr. Willson told the Town Council just a year ago it need not rush to put into effect.
The APTIM manager submitted a draft of this assessment/plan to the Town Manager on Nov. 20, 2018, but Mr. Rascoe didn’t publish it on the Town website. The final report was submitted Dec. 21, 2018, on the Friday before the Christmas holidays.
A public presentation by Mr. Willson, with a Q&A, in January or February, would have been informative and helpful. It did not occur. At the same time, the Town Council might have sent the assessment/plan out for review to independent experts. To my knowledge, that did not occur either.
No mention has been made in public of any due diligence. (See no. 3.)
To my mind, the most informative, experienced (40 years), and judicious speaker at the 2017 forum was Spencer Rogers, a coastal engineer with North Carolina Sea Grant, which is a research and education program affiliated with N.C. State University.
Mr. Rogers has a master’s degree in coastal and oceanographic engineering (U. Fla.) and a bachelor’s degree in engineering (U. Va.) and serves on the faculty of the University of North Carolina at Wilmington’s Center for Marine Science.
I would like to know how Mr. Rogers would evaluate Mr. Willson’s Beach Vulnerability Assessment and Management Plan. In particular, I would like to know what he thinks about the assessment’s methodology, which uses what Mr. Willson told the Council is a “numerical model that basically simulates a storm event.”
You “input” your beach profiles and your storm characteristics, such as wave heights, wave period, and water level—in this case, using those of Hurricane Isabel, a 2003 storm—he explained in March 2018, and then you “get a feel for what your damage might be.”
In other words, you project potential damage by cooking numbers.
But we know the damage that Isabel did to Southern Shores, and we know that 15 years later, our shoreline is stable. No hot spots. In fact, the amount of sand in our dune system has increased since Isabel. Mr. Willson said so himself.
You don’t have to be a coastal engineer or a geologist to know that storms throw shorelines out of equilibrium, and it takes time for them to adjust. Erosion occurs, but so does accretion, which is the natural process of sand replenishment: Sediment returns to widen the eroded beach again.
Town Councilman Fred Newberry, who is the only elected official with property in Southern Shores’ ocean district, said as much at the March 5 meeting. His comment that the dry-sand area—which Mr. Rascoe likes to call the “public trust ocean beach”—“comes, and it goes” was spot on. Dramatic change can occur in a matter of days.
It is unfortunate, but not surprising, that only a handful of people from the community heard what Mr. Willson said at the Town Council’s Feb. 26 planning session. The session was held at 9 a.m. on a work weekday and publicized without any mention of the agenda.
If you didn’t click on the “Agenda” link, you had no idea that Mr. Willson was even presenting his “options.” Once again, our Town government failed to be transparent. And the Council didn’t do much planning, either. (Here is the notice that appeared on the website: https://www.southernshores-nc.gov/southern-shores-town-council-special-meeting-february-26th-council-planning-session/.)
The four Council members who attended the planning meeting discussed setting up a joint Town Council-Town staff committee, or other constituted committee, to do financial planning and prioritizing of big-ticket projects in town, including beach nourishment. Organizing a committee looks a lot like due diligence.
But that thoughtful response went out the window as soon as Mr. Rascoe advised them at their March 5 meeting that, if they wanted to obtain Dare County funding in 2022, they had to decide now whether to “pull the trigger” on beach nourishment.
I am feeling railroaded.
A FINAL NOTE: The Town Council also will be holding public hearings Tuesday on all of the proposed zoning text amendments designed to curtail high-occupancy houses in the residential districts. The hearing on beach nourishment will be held within 10 minutes after the call to order, before any staff reports. The hearings on ZTA 18-10, 19-01, and 19-01CUP will be held during the “new business” portion of the meeting.
Ann G. Sjoerdsma, March 31, 2019