The Seventh Avenue “squeaky wheels” appear to be getting their way. But in giving it to them, The Beacon believes the Town Council is going overboard.
By unanimous decision Dec. 3, the Council approved a cumbersome motion by Mayor Tom Bennett that essentially instructs Southern Shores’ coastal engineering consultant to change its beach-assessment methodology and disregard the results of its own studies in order to include the town’s entire coastline in a nourishment project. Need is irrelevant.
The Town will spend about $10,000 on a “revision” by APTIM Coastal Planning & Engineering of the “Beach Management Plan” that it formulated in December 2018, after studying Southern Shores’ 3.7-mile coastline.
In rejecting the part of the Town’s hired expert’s conclusions that they did not like, both Mayor Bennett and Councilman Jim Conners spoke about “modifying” the “goals” of the Town’s Beach Management Plan, whose bottom-line objective is to sustain the beaches.
They are merely toying with semantics.
The problem the revisionists have is that APTIM concluded that IF beach nourishment were done in Southern Shores, it should be done only “along the southern 15,000 feet of the Town,” according to Program Manager Kenneth Willson’s September report.
This section runs from 70 feet south of Fifth Avenue to the Kitty Hawk border, excluding Seventh Avenue, where vocal and persistent beach-nourishment proponent Paul Borzellino lives—but not on the oceanfront.
Seventh Avenue property owner Mark Peters, who lives in Great Falls, Va., also has advocated before the Town Council for beach nourishment, circulating photographs of a narrowed post-storm oceanfront behind his house.
Last week the Mayor announced: “Any project that [Ken Willson] does has to include the entire beach.”
We ask: Why? Why not just do Seventh Avenue and other hot spots?
BEHIND THE SCENES, AGAIN
Among the four northern Outer Banks beach towns that have done beach nourishment, only Kitty Hawk has added sand to its entire beach—and for good reason.
Kitty Hawk’s dune system has never been called “fairly stable,” as Mr. Willson called Southern Shores’ at a March 2018 Town Council session. Nor has Mr. Willson ever told the Kitty Hawk council, as he told the Southern Shores Town Council then, that there is “no big rush” to “jump” on beach nourishment.
In storms, Kitty Hawk has a major flooding problem between the highways, especially on Lindbergh Avenue. In 2017, the town addressed it by nourishing 3.58 miles of shoreline at a cost of $18.2 million. Duck and Kill Devil Hills did their nourishment around the same time, as did Southern Shores at Pelican Watch.
(For an overview of the Duck, Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills, and Nags Head projects, see https://www.darenc.com/government/beach-nourishment/completed-projects.)
To achieve the end of beach nourishment at Seventh Avenue, the Mayor must tamper with APTIM’s standardized analytical process. He must play politics.
To arrive at this result, he met with the “new” Town Council in November outside of a public forum without public notice or public participation. As Mr. Conners made clear in the Dec. 3 meeting, some or all of the Town Council members conferred with Mr. Willson. (See The Beacon’s post about the town-manager search, 12/11/19.)
When the Mayor met “on three occasions” in November with “incoming Council members,” as he stated, Councilmen Leo Holland and Matt Neal and Councilwoman Elizabeth Morey had no authority to speak for the Town. They had yet to be sworn in. The Beacon believes they were out of line.
APTIM’S STUDIES TO DATE
APTIM did its first shoreline survey of Southern Shores in December 2017. It later measured shoreline change between December 2017 and May 2019 and submitted this data to the Town in September 2019 in an updated beach assessment report.
APTIM applies coastal engineering methods (not science) to derive beach erosion rates which it then factors into its projections for maintaining the shoreline in the event of certain storm scenarios.
For example, if, hypothetically, the annual erosion rate at the Chicahauk Trail beach access is 3 cubic yards per linear foot, APTIM asks how much sand should be added to the beach now in order to provide adequate storm-damage reduction in the event of a storm with characteristics like 2003’s Hurricane Isabel? It arrives at a conclusion using specialized technology.
One may quarrel with how, when, and where APTIM obtains measurements to calculate erosion rates, as oceanographers with the Duck Research Pier have, but one cannot quarrel with its uniformity and consistency in applying the methodology it employs.
Nonetheless, Councilman Conners sought at the meeting to distinguish Southern Shores from nearby beach towns, whose coastlines APTIM also has analyzed, saying “This stuff is not one size fits all.”
(Only Nags Head has contracted with a different coastal engineering company.)
The Town Council is currently “taking the data and recommendations” of APTIM, Mr. Conners said, and “tailor-making them to our own needs.”
The key “specific” need that Southern Shores has, but Duck, Kitty Hawk, and Kill Devil Hills do not, is the creation of a dry “usable” beach at Seventh Avenue.
According to Mayor Bennett, he and the not-yet-official Town Council “called our consultant in to talk to us about our Beach Management Plan (BMP) update. There were things about the plan that we weren’t solidly behind. . . . We didn’t feel it applied to Southern Shores and our beach situation. . . . It was more generic.”
In a Dec. 21, 2018 cover letter to former Town Manager Peter Rascoe, Mr. Willson described exactly what the BMP does: It “provides a long-term vision for the Town . . . to sustain the beaches that support a significant portion of their [sic] local economy and maintains [sic] the tax base of the Town.”
It was tailormade for Southern Shores.
To the extent there are BMP “goals,” other than just an overriding objective of maintaining the beaches, they are broadly stated in APTIM’s December 2018 report as the means by which such maintenance can occur:
- through a “reasonable level of storm damage reduction to public and private development”;
- through mitigation of “long-term erosion that could threaten public and private development, recreational opportunities, and biological resources”; and
- through a “healthy beach that supports” bird and sea turtle habitat.
THE MAYOR’S MOTION
In his motion, Mayor Bennett proposed “to update the Town’s Beach Management Plan to include updated goals and an additional option that includes the entire beach, including a cost estimate, the anticipated depth of usable dry beach upon completion of the project, dune stabilization, maps with legible street labels, and illustrations of how the beach has changed over time using historical aerial images.”
His motion also called for Mr. Willson to present this information in a “public forum” on Jan. 21, presumably at the Town Council’s 9 a.m. workshop session that day.
This is the second important Town issue—the first being the search for a new town manager—that the Council has scheduled for follow-up at its inconvenient mid-monthly morning meeting, rather than its more convenient regularly scheduled evening meeting. The Council should hold its Jan. 21 meeting at 5:30 p.m.
After the Town Council unanimously approved the Mayor’s motion, Mr. Borzellino suggested in public comments that the word “depth” be changed to “width.”
The Mayor chatted amiably with Mr. Borzellino during his two three-minute public-comment periods—a significant departure from the Mayor’s usual silence—and swiftly “moved” to make his word change, which the full council unanimously, and informally, approved.
The Mayor earlier explained that he had worked on his motion alone for an hour before having to enlist Interim Town Manager Wes Haskett’s assistance.
“I couldn’t make any headway,” he said, adding, “I’m not the sharpest knife.”
Property owners, especially those on the oceanfront who may have to pay handsomely for any nourishment that the Town does, deserve clearheaded thinking from their elected officials about a subject this consequential.
In a later discussion about how the revision would affect the work of DEC Associates, the Charlotte-based financial-consulting firm that the Town has hired, Mr. Haskett said that DEC cannot give a “summary” of beach nourishment costs and their distribution until after Mr. Willson does his additional work.
But, he noted, DEC has “run models” of costs.
Councilman Neal asked Mr. Haskett to have DEC present in January what it has and not wait for Mr. Willson’s entire-beach option.
THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM
Cost is the elephant in the room that the majority of the former Town Council never confronted directly and the current Council is already skirting. But The Beacon can broadly calculate the cost burden based on information dispensed at public forums, our own research, and our conversations with Dare County Manager/Attorney Bobby Outten.
According to a 2016 article by The Outer Banks Voice, Mr. Rascoe estimated that it would cost $25 million to nourish all 3.7 miles of the Southern Shores shoreline. That seems a fair minimum ballpark figure to us.
In September, APTIM estimated a cost of about $16 million for the two beach-nourishment project options that it recommended, neither of which includes the beaches north of Fourth Avenue.
Mr. Outten told the Town Council last month that Dare County has about $7.5 million available in its Beach Nourishment Fund (BNF) to give to a town; an unincorporated Dare County community, such as Avon; or both (in a split) for beach nourishment.
Earlier this week, Mr. Outten confirmed to The Beacon that there will probably be “a little more than $7.5 million” next spring, maybe about $8 million, “but it’s not going to be $15 million.”
Avon may be competing with Southern Shores for Dare County funding, but it has not yet done a beach study, which is a prerequisite for an application.
If both Avon and Southern Shores apply for the $7.5-$8 million grant, the county would prioritize the two projects, Mr. Outten said, assessing such factors as the storm/beach damage threat that each faces, as well as the cost-benefit and affordability of each.
Mr. Outten said that the “need in Avon is great. . . . The bigger threat is in Avon,” which is a gateway to all of south Hatteras Island.
But Avon has an affordability “problem.” Its tax base can be expected to contribute only $3 million, Mr. Outten said, on a project that is reportedly estimated to cost $20 million. The $3 million figure is derived from an increase in 40 cents per $100 of property value.
TAX BURDEN ON SOUTHERN SHORES
And what of Southern Shores? Even if Dare County gave the Town $8 million, it would still be short anywhere from $8 million to $17 million or more.
According to auditor, Dowdy & Osborne, LLP, the Town collected $3,024,041 in ad valorem taxes in 2018-19, $101,217 of which was property tax on motor vehicles. The total property valuation subject to the Town’s 0.22 tax rate—which is 22 cents per $100 of value—was $1,374,564,091.
All of this revenue pays a little less than 50 percent of the Town’s operating expenses.
To raise $8 million on $1.4 billion of property value, the Town could levy an across-the-board tax increase of nearly 60 cents. To raise twice that amount, the town-wide tax increase would be about $1.20.
As The Beacon has previously reported, it is customary for towns to distribute the burden of increased taxation for beach nourishment so that oceanfront property owners pay much more than other property owners in town, the theory being that they benefit more.
Pursuant to state law, the Town sets up “municipal service districts” (MSD) and taxes property owners according to the district in which their property is located. Public hearings are held during the MSD process.
It is possible for a property owner to petition the Town Council to be excluded from a municipal service district on the grounds that his or her tract does not receive the benefit of the district.
Southern Shores has a smaller tax base than Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills, and Nags Head, and, unlike these towns, it has no oceanfront commercial development to shoulder the burden. Oceanfront property owners in Town could see their taxes increase by 40 cents per $100 of value, or even more. For a $1 million property, that would be an additional $4,000.
For the owners of the luxurious seven-bedroom, 6,073-square-foot house on the oceanfront at the Seventh Avenue beach access, it would be twice that amount.
As for property owners elsewhere in town, an increase of 1, 2, 5, or more cents per $100 could be levied. On a $500,000 property, the increases would be $50, $100, $250, etc., respectively.
If we knew how much of the $1,374,564,091 in total Town property value represented oceanfront property, and oceanside or ocean “zone” property, we could more accurately speculate on the potential tax increases.
WHAT ABOUT THE $250,000?
Asked about the $250,000 that the Dare County Board of Commissioners approved last month for Southern Shores to conduct a beach-nourishment study, Mr. Outten told The Beacon that any money given to the Town for a project would be offset by what it has already received and used.
At the Dec. 3 meeting, Mayor Bennett said that the Town may use the $250,000, which is earmarked for a coastal engineering study, for “engineering,” “design,” and “consulting” costs. The Mayor was being imprecise.
Mr. Haskett said that he had confirmed with Mr. Outten that this money “can be used for permitting and design.”
In an earlier report, we quoted Mr. Outten as saying that the $250,000 could not be used to reimburse Southern Shores for its APTIM studies. (See The Beacon, 11/9/19.)
A few days ago, the County Manager clarified that “Whatever we did for the [other] towns, we should do for Southern Shores.”
The Beacon also learned from Mr. Outten that “Duck is actively going ahead with its maintenance,” tentatively scheduled for 2022-23, while Kill Devil Hills is seeking to delay theirs.
Just because maintenance is scheduled every five or six years does not mean it occurs then. Nags Head’s maintenance this year occurred eight years after its initial project.
A primary reason that Southern Shores is considering a project now is that it would like to share mobilization costs with nearby towns, which are about 10 percent of the total project costs.
“Do we speed up Kill Devil Hills?” Mr. Outten posed, “or slow down Duck?” If Southern Shores piggy-backs with Duck, Kitty Hawk, and Kill Devil Hills, “How do we “sync up all four towns?”
HOW MUCH ARE YOU WILLING TO PAY?
Seventh Avenue’s Mr. Borzellino has set up a private Facebook Group restricted to Southern Shores homeowners who support beach nourishment. Homeowners who are opposed to beach nourishment may not join and share their views.
His group, which Mr. Borzellino told the Town Council consists of “80 to 100 homeowners”—the page notes 88—is not exclusive to oceanfront property owners. Without knowing where their homes are, The Beacon cannot assess their motives and credibility. It is easy to spend someone else’s money.
In his conclusory remarks at the Dec. 3 meeting, Councilman Neal commented upon the number of emails he has received from this group and said to Mr. Borzellino: “Please tell us how much you’re willing to pay for it.”
He did not reply.
For all documents relevant to Southern Shores beach management reports, see: https://www.southernshores-nc.gov/?s=beach+assessment.
For APTIM’s September 2019 report, see: https://www.southernshores-nc.gov/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/Southern-Shores-Beach-Assessment-2019-Draft_2019_09_10.pdf.
Regardless of how the Town Council’s thinking evolves, it must disclose that thinking in public. We cannot regress to the dark pre-December 2015 days of no transparency.
That also means that if a document is included in the Council meeting package, the document should be included in full—or the section from which it is excerpted should be fully included—with the publication date clearly shown. APTIM’s “Executive Summary” in the Dec. 3 package was incomplete and taken out of context. It came from the December 2018 report.
At her first-ever meeting as a Council member, Elizabeth Morey encouraged people to “keep talking to us.” The Beacon would ask the newly elected Mayor Pro Tem to do the same. Let the sun shine in.
TRAFFIC COMMITTEE ON MONDAY: Don’t forget: The cut-through traffic exploratory committee meets Monday at 5:30 p.m. in the Pitts Center. According to Chairperson Tommy Karole, it will be a brainstorming session. New Town Council co-sponsors Morey and Neal are expected to attend.
Ann G. Sjoerdsma, Dec. 14, 2019