Two oceanographers from the Field Research Facility north of Duck questioned beach-nourishment recommendations made by APTIM, the Town’s coastal-engineering consultant, at the Town Council’s special planning session Tuesday because, they said, they are “based on limited data” and “on short-term trends that are not particularly helpful.”
Despite educated reservations expressed by Dr. Katherine L. Brodie and Dr. Nicholas Cohn, about both APTIM’s research and its conclusions, three of the five Town Council members—including Mayor Tom Bennett—appeared ready to approve a beach nourishment plan for Southern Shores that will likely cost more than $16 million.
Councilman Conners qualified his interest in choosing one of APTIM’s two recommended plan options at the Council’s Oct. 1 meeting by saying he would do so “for the sole purpose of trying to get some cost” data, which strikes The Beacon as putting the cart before the horse.
Dr. Brodie, who, like Dr. Cohn, lives in Southern Shores, told the Town Council in public comments that, “Historically, Southern Shores has been one of the most stable areas of our coastline here on the Outer Banks, but,” she acknowledged, “it may not always be.”
Both oceanographers skeptically questioned APTIM’s recent calculation of an annual erosion rate that it used to increase the amount of sand volume in its recommended beach-fill plan options. These increases have led to markups in the costs of the two plans the Town Council is now considering of nearly 25 percent.
Dr. Brodie advised that “there is a lot of seasonal variability in our coastlines and so if you survey in the summer one time and in the winter another time [as APTIM did], you could just be looking at that seasonal variability, versus long-term trends.
“It’s really hard,” she continued, “to extrapolate some of these short-term and long-term erosion rates from two different data points taken at very different times of the year.”
Dr. Brodie also corrected an observation made by APTIM Program Manager Kenneth Willson, who presented his firm’s latest 18-month survey of the Southern Shores coastline. (The Town has retained APTIM for several short-term shoreline assessments over the past three years.)
Mr. Willson had stated that “sand is traveling more laterally than it is north to south.” Dr. Brodie said unequivocally that sand “transport” is north to south.
(Please see The Beacon’s 9/17/19 post for background on the beach nourishment option plans that the Wilmington, N.C.-based APTIM Coastal Planning & Engineering of North Carolina has recommended to the Town. The Beacon also wrote about APTIM’s research in blog posts on 2/28/19, 3/31/19, and 4/3/19.)
Dr. Cohn spoke Tuesday about looking at “larger implications,” not just “short-term trends.”
APTIM derived a “pretty small change in terms of erosion,” Dr. Cohn said, of the firm’s calculated rate of 3 cubic yards per linear foot (cy/lf). He cautioned that culling such a statistic from a short-term trend “may not be particularly reliable.”
Dr. Cohn also said there are more “data sets available” on the state of the Southern Shores shoreline than the consultant analyzed in its report, which goes back to 2006 and a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers survey done then.
Both Dr. Brodie and Dr. Cohn offered their professional expertise to the Town Council in helping it to make an informed and educated decision about beach nourishment. Two other oceanographers who work with them at the coastal observatory known as the Duck Research Pier, also attended the meeting, and one of them lives in Southern Shores.
Dr. Brodie described the job of making “objective decisions based on really limited data,” such as APTIM’s data, “challenging.”
In the Town Council comment period after public comments, Councilman Fred Newberry expressed an interest in learning more from the scientists.
“I heard some comments tonight from folks . . . that have a different view on how to interpret the data,” said Mr. Newberry, who suggested that another public hearing be held before the Town Council votes on beach nourishment—an idea that was resisted by Mayor Bennett and Councilmen Jim Conners and Christopher Nason.
Councilman Gary McDonald backed the idea.
“What’s [another hearing] going to give us that we don’t already have?” the Mayor asked
When Councilman Newberry said he would value more public input because “I don’t think the decision is all ours,” Mr. Conners quickly remarked: “I think we’re elected to make that decision.”
Later in the meeting Mayor Bennett made clear that he is “not favoring the more expensive option” of two that APTIM is now recommending—clearly indicating that he has decided to go forward with beach nourishment, despite the skepticism and objections of Ph.D. scientists in his own back yard.
The Field Research Facility, which was established in 1977 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, has long had a website with contact information. It would not have been difficult for the Mayor or former Town Manager Peter Rascoe or any member of the Town Council to have picked up the telephone and spoken to an expert. Any one of them could have convened a public forum with Field Research Facility scientists.
If Mayor Bennett is now thinking about meeting with these experts in private—behind the scenes—The Beacon believes he would be compounding his mistake. The public trust has been damaged enough.
TOWN COUNCIL FAILS TO DO DUE DILIGENCE
Months ago The Beacon advocated procuring second opinions and objective expert evaluations of APTIM’s methodology, data, and conclusions in its Beach Vulnerability Assessment and Management Plan, which was submitted in December 2017. (See 2/28/19 and 3/31/19 posts.) Its 2019 Beach Assessment Report, submitted to the Town this month, is an 18-month update of the 2017 report.
The Town Council took no steps after Mr. Willson presented APTIM’s vulnerability and management plan at its Feb. 26 planning session—which Mr. Nason did not attend—to obtain an independent analysis. The Beacon believes it failed to do its due diligence in vetting APTIM’s research, and it further did not meet its fiduciary responsibilities. In fact, The Beacon would call it negligent.
In remarks they made Tuesday, the Mayor and Councilmen Conners and Nason, who often vote as a bloc, indicated that they have uncritically accepted APTIM’s data and recommendations. Although Mr. Nason acknowledged that the data are “limited,” and “new information” has arisen, he nonetheless pronounced APTIM’s data “good,” and “all that we’ve got.”
(See The Beacon’s 9/17/19 blog for a description of these plans, which would apply to a 15,000-linear foot area of the Southern Shores shoreline, from about Third Avenue south to the Kitty Hawk border, and cost either $14,026,800 or $16,749,900, or more, as the Mayor admitted Tuesday.)
That APTIM stands to gain financially from a beach-nourishment project in Southern Shores should have made everyone on the Council skeptical, not just the two “minority” members. Not only did Mr. Willson work with Southern Shores on the 2017 Pelican Watch project, he has arrangements with every other Dare County beach town. APTIM has cornered the beach-nourishment market on the Outer Banks.
The three majority members made clear on Tuesday their intent to base their decisions on voting for a 2022 beach-fill project on the availability of monies from the Dare County Beach Nourishment Fund, not on sufficient and reliable data or on good science.
“If we don’t act somewhat promptly, we’re going to miss out,” Mr. Nason said, “and if we miss out, then the Town is on the hook for a huge chunk of money, and we haven’t done our job.”
This opinion forecloses the possibility that the Town will actually be out nothing because it will not embark on a beach-fill project.
Mr. Conners also said that his decision “depends on how we fund this” in addition to the County’s contribution.
According to a lengthy notice written by Mr. Rascoe about the Town Council’s April 2 public hearing on beach nourishment, Dare County would kick in 50 percent of the Town’s costs.
Six months ago, Mr. Rascoe also said that the County needed to know “as soon as possible”—preferably in April—if Southern Shores would be requesting this funding, which comes from the collective occupancy taxes of the towns.
The scheduling of a 2022 beach-fill project coincides with when Duck, Kitty Hawk, and Kill Devil Hills will be doing their five-year beach-nourishment maintenance. Southern Shores also will be renourishing the Pelican Watch dunes then.
When asked Tuesday by Mr. Newberry when the Town needs to convey its funding request and commitment to Dare County, Mayor Bennett said, as Mr. Rascoe did in March, “as soon as possible,” and warned that the money could disappear if the Town did not step up.
Later, Mr. Bennett, who also expressed concern in April about the money being given to someone else, clarified the timing by saying: “In November.”
The Beacon believes a vote by the Town Council on APTIM’s recommended beach management plan options at its Oct. 1 regular meeting would be ill-advised, if it does not first–and finally–do its due diligence on the data and the financing and bring the public into the loop.
REPORT IS ENGINEERING AND STATISTICS, NOT SCIENCE
Dr. Brodie, Dr. Cohn, and their colleagues confirmed in interviews after the planning meeting what The Beacon first wrote 2/28/19: APTIM’s surveys constitute engineering and statistics, not science. Scientists know how statistics can be manipulated. Non-scientists, like those on the Town Council, who typically do not know how to analyze statistics and critically scrutinize engineering surveys, should talk to people who do.
The Beacon has long been troubled by how APTIM arrived at its conclusions about how much sand volume it believes is required in sections of the Southern Shores shoreline to sustain the beaches. Its calculations of sand-volume “density” in cubic yards per linear foot are what informs its recommendations and are based on a design storm model.
As it explained in its vulnerability assessment, APTIM used technology to simulate the characteristics of the 2003 storm, Hurricane Isabel—its wave heights, wave period, water level, and duration—at three different sea levels to derive its target goals of sand-volume density. It came up with goals of either 846 cy/lf or 858 cy/lf, depending on the portion of the beach. Because a 15,000-linear-foot section of the Town’s shoreline falls short of APTIM’s target goals, the firm recommended beach nourishment there.
The Beacon would like to ask Dr. Brodie or Dr. Cohen what she or he thinks of APTIM’s storm-model methodology, or what Dr. Brodie called “numerical modeling and analysis.” Is APTIM’s methodology valid? Two of the sea-level scenarios APTIM considered strike The Beacon as dubious; one of them simulated “the storm with 30 years of sea-level risk from present day (2048 equivalent).”
Are the target volume-density goals truly significant? Or are they just theories about sustaining the beaches that lack real evidence? Should they compel an investment in excess of $16 million?
The skepticism of these scientists, who are readily available to the Town Council, should be enough to stop the Council from going forward with beach nourishment. To do otherwise strikes The Beacon as grossly irresponsible.
At a March 2018 meeting of the Town Council, Ken Willson presented his firm’s 2017 assessment of the Southern Shores beaches. He said then 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.
At the time Mr. Willson’s company had surveyed 22 beach “profiles,” which are shoreline locations that are spaced 1,000 feet apart from each other, and determined that 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. APTIM has used these profiles in subsequent surveys.
Despite the positive report, Mr. Willson recommended that the Council authorize APTIM to conduct a “vulnerability assessment of the oceanfront structures [i.e., houses]” and to determine the “minimum cross-section of [sand] volume” that should be maintained to protect the shoreline from storm damage. That minimum cross-section is what he calls the volume density.
The Town Council unanimously agreed.
So, it is that only 18 months after Mr. Willson gave the Southern Shores shoreline a clean bill, three of five Town Council members appear on the verge of committing the Town—meaning taxpayers—to an expenditure of at least $8, $9, $10 million, on the basis of questionable data and without truly understanding how the financing would work.
It was abundantly clear Tuesday that, although Town Council members remember the name of the father-son financial-adviser team from Charlotte that spoke to them in February, they know very little about the financial planning process, much less the impact project funding will have on their constituents.
“We need to have more transparency on how much this is going to cost,” said Yvonne Duiker of Kingfisher Trail at the April 2 public hearing. The same is true today.
Doug and Andrew Carter of DEC Associates told the Council in February that their consulting fees would be $35-$40,000 for developing a financial plan and setting up a “beach fund” for the earmarked funds; and $30,000 for working on finding the financing, which is typically for five years. In another five years, more funding would be required to finance maintenance of the beach-fill.
Both Councilmen Conners and Nason previously have expressed interest in special obligation bonds, which permit the Town to set up “municipal service districts” and to levy different tax rates within the MSDs, so that, for example, people who own oceanfront property—many of whom are absentee owners—would pay more than other property owners do for the beach fill.
But this is only one option that the Carters mentioned, and it is a disadvantageous one to many of Mr. Nason’s and Mr. Conners’s constituents—enough so that they personally should be researching other options before they make any decision on beach nourishment. They, and their colleagues, have a financial fiduciary responsibility to the public they serve. It’s past time that they exercise it.
COUNCIL HAS TOO MUCH CONSOLIDATED POWER
We conclude by observing that, as is true in so many other Town matters, the formation of a technical committee on beach nourishment would have been helpful to the elected officials. It could have been formed under the auspices of a Town planning committee, which the Town once had, along with a finance committee. The Town Council needs advisers who have knowledge, skills, and perspectives that they lack. They don’t have—and are not expected to have—all of the answers.
Ever since the Mayor, Mr. Nason, and former Town Councilman Leo Holland, who served from 2013-17, eliminated all of the Town’s standing committees, except one—the capital improvements committee, which the Mayor and the like-minded Mr. Conners co-chair—too much discretion, power, and decision-making authority have been vested in three people, or 1/10 of one percent of the Town’s population. This consolidation has led to a bogging down of action on important issues, such as nonconforming lots, and to ill-formed discussions on the Town Council of others, such as special-event houses.
That has to change.
NEXT UP: The Beacon looks at updating the Land-Use Plan, a document that identifies the concerns, priorities, and aspirations of the entire community, as well as how well the Town is meeting the management goals, policies, and other requirements imposed by the Coastal Area Management Act (CAMA). Typically, during the update process, property owners are surveyed on long-range planning goals for the Town and given an opportunity to “speak out” at a community-wide forum.
That the opinions and other data underlying the current Land-Use Plan, which was finally certified by the N.C. Coastal Resources Commission in 2012—after having been submitted by the Town in 2008 (the CRC had many questions)—date back more than 10 years is a serious problem. The years-long update process will require a consultant to oversee and does not need to be delayed until 2020 U.S. Census data are available—as Councilmen Conners and Nason seemed to believe Tuesday. The sections on population, growth trends, and other demographic data may be inserted when available.
Ann G. Sjoerdsma, 9/20/19