How many people use the beach at the Seventh Avenue access, pictured here last month, on a given day?

The curiosity of coastal-engineering consultant Ken Willson’s latest report to the Town Council is that, in seeking to define what constitutes “sufficient useable beach” in Southern Shores, he ignores the adjectival qualifier, “sufficient.” He also uses data from surveys done in May 2019, making no effort to collect new measurements or to compare last May’s data with historic data.

We now know what Mr. Willson, who is vice president of APTIM Coastal Planning & Engineering, has calculated to be the average beach widths in May 2019 of the Southern Shores, Kitty Hawk, and Kill Devil Hills shorelines, but nothing about their sufficiency. We also do not know, because he does not tell us, how the May 2019 data compare with widths now or with widths at any other time in Southern Shores’ history.

By unanimous decision Dec. 3, the new Town Council approved a cumbersome motion by Mayor Tom Bennett which, when revised, essentially instructed Mr. Willson to modify the methodology that APTIM had used to evaluate beach conditions in Southern Shores for its December 2018 Beach Management Plan and Vulnerability Assessment.

The Beach Management Plan was preceded by APTIM’s baseline assement of the Southern Shores beaches in 2018 and updated in May 2019. (See below.) Mr. Willson presented the results of the update to the Town Council on Sept. 10, 2019.

After two property owners on Seventh Avenue persistently and publicly complained about their narrowed oceanfront being left out of Mr. Willson’s December 2018/May 2019 recommendations for beach nourishment in Southern Shores, the Mayor asked APTIM to re-evaluate. (Mr. Willson’s recommendations came less than two years after he told the Town Council that the Southern Shores oceanfront was “stable” and “in good shape.”

The Town Council’s request eventually took the form of a reformulated goal for the Beach Management Plan that reads as follows, with the italicized wording being new:

Maintain a healthy beach that provides sufficient useable beach and supports valuable shorebird and sea turtle nesting habitat.

Notably, no effort was made by the Town Council to define what constitutes “sufficient.”


According to the new report, which was submitted Jan. 14, Mr. Willson examined May 2019 beach-width conditions on the Southern Shores coastline and along the entire Kitty Hawk-Kill Devil Hills shoreline that was nourished in 2017, and came up with average beach widths.

But he never assesses the sufficiency of these averages, nor does he detail where along the many miles of this shoreline, ranging from the northern limit of Southern Shores to East Baum Street in Kill Devil Hills, does he derive his measurements. Addresses of the so-called “profile stations” would have been very helpful.

Mr. Willson concludes that the “average useable beach width” along the Southern Shores coastline south of Third Avenue last May was 84 feet. He says that the average useable beach width last May in the area south of Southern Shores that was renourished in 2017 was 103 feet.

Are 103 feet necessary for a beach width to be “sufficient”? Of course not. A beach of 40 feet could be sufficient, if it is used seasonally by few beachgoers. In contrast, a beach of 150 feet might be considered insufficient if it is mobbed with people. But in using the methodology that he used, Mr. Willson implicitly suggests that Southern Shores beaches must be 103 feet to be “sufficient.” Nonsense.

Figure 3 in Mr. Willson’s report, which is identified as “Addendum A” to the Town’s Beach Management Plan, purports to show the beach widths at a number of profile stations, only several of which are identified in the report. One of them is at Skyline Road, which had a beach width last May of about 100 feet.

The lowest width along the examined shoreline appears to be in the southern end of renourished Kill Devil Hills, where the beach last May was 50 feet.

Mr. Willson reports that the average useable beach width from Fifth Avenue in Southern Shores north to the Duck line last May was 57 feet.

How wide are the beaches now? We do not know. The shoreline ebbs and flows, accretes and erodes. As Dr. Katherine Brodie, an oceanographer at the Duck Research Pier who lives in Southern Shores, said at a September 2019 Council meeting: APTIM’s “data are limited.”

We do not have the benefit of long-term data. This is a glaring omission.


After computing averages for beach widths along the Southern Shores-to-Kill Devil Hills coastline as of last May—widths that he says “may meet the Town’s desired criteria [sic] of ‘sufficient’”—Mr. Willson then considers cost ramifications of revisions that would be based on them.

He looks at expanding the potential beach nourishment project in Southern Shores from 15,000 feet of oceanfront shoreline, as he recommended in 2018-19, to 19,712 feet. The latter would be the Town’s entire oceanfront.

He then adjusts the beach-fill options he recommended to the Town Council last September by adding two more.

In what he calls “Option 4,” Mr. Willson proposes to place a “design volume density” of 30 cubic yards of sand per foot along the 19,712-foot oceanfront, even though he states that the beach south of Third Avenue “had sufficient useable beach as of May 2019.”

Option 4 is an update of what was previously termed Option 1, which would have placed 36 cy/ft. of sand volume on the beaches south of Third Avenue to the Kitty Hawk line. Mr. Willson estimates the total cost of Option 4 to be $14,755,600, as compared with Option 1’s $13,974,200.

So-called Option 5, Mr. Willson writes, “is essentially the same beach fill configuration in Option 1 [36 cy/ft.] from Third Avenue south,” but it also includes placing 30 cy/ft of beach fill from Third Avenue north to the Duck line. The cost for this option is estimated to be $16,196,500.


The Beacon is well aware how tedious and cumbersome it is for property owners to sort through, and make sense of, Mr. Willson’s data compilation and manipulation and his various reports of the past three years. We would like to have independent experts, such as oceanographers from the Duck Research Pier, study his Southern Shores reports and recommendations as a whole and in the context of the coastal environment—starting decades ago—and give us their opinions on his conclusions.

We are hopeful that Dr. Brodie and her oceanography colleague, Dr. Nicholas Cohn, who also lives in Southern Shores, will attend Tuesday’s workshop and speak in the public forum. Property owners would benefit from their expertise.

Mr. Willson first appeared on the Southern Shores scene as a presenter at the beach nourishment forum that the Town held in the ballroom of the Hilton Garden Inn on Jan. 17, 2017. Because Mayor Bennett turned this special forum-conference into a regular Council meeting and allowed public comments to be heard before the assembled experts spoke, many of the hundreds of people who came to listen to the experts left before the program started.

A floodgate of Pelican Watch homeowners, who had already complained in a private meeting with the Mayor and in Town Council meetings, delayed for more than an hour the start of the forum that everyone had come to hear. I still hear from people that they no longer attend public meetings because of what occurred at this forum.

Allow me to tell those of you who avoid meetings that Mr. Willson has changed his tune during the past two years.

Subsequent to the forum, the Town Council, with former Town Manager Peter Rascoe’s guidance, authorized Mr. Willson, then a “project manager” for APTIM, to do a baseline assessment of the Southern Shores beaches in 2017.

APTIM, which is based in Wilmington, has nearly cornered the market on conducting beach-profile surveys and doing beach-nourishment project planning and execution for Outer Banks towns. APTIM has been a contractor of Southern Shores, Duck, Kitty Hawk, and Kill Devil Hills. Only Nags Head has hired a different coastal engineering firm.

Mr. Willson presented his 2017 beach assessment to the Town Council at its March 6,  2018 meeting, informing members that the Southern Shores “shoreline is looking fairly stable” and there is “no big rush” to “jump” on beach nourishment.

“I think time is on your side,” he concluded. Check out the tape. He said it.

The results of APTIM’s 2017 surveys of 22 beach profiles, which are locations along the Southern Shores shoreline 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,” Mr. Willson 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, cautiously . . . 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.

And this is how the Beach Management Plan that APTIM submitted in December 2018 and that the Town Council authorized updating in May 2019 came to be.

At the Town Council’s Feb. 26, 2019 special planning session, at which Mr. Willson first presented his three recommended options for beach nourishment in Southern Shores, the now-vice president of APTIM told the four members in attendance (former Councilman Christopher Nason was absent):

“The dune system in Southern Shores is in pretty good shape.” It is “fairly intact,” he said, providing protection against storms and erosion.

But, somehow, time is no longer on our side.

You can read all about the short beach-nourishment journey in Southern Shores from the Town’s coastal engineering consultant’s acknowledgment of stability on our oceanfront less than three years ago to what now appears may be an ill-advised leap by the Town Council into investing in a project, on The Beacon:

2/28/19 (the special planning session);

3/31/19 (an editorial opposing beach nourishment as unnecessary);

4/4/19 (public forum, Rascoe’s urging of “pulling the trigger”);

9/17/19 (questions by oceanographers about APTIM’s “limited” data); and

12/14/19 (the Town Council’s “useable” beaches).

See you Tuesday morning.

Ann G. Sjoerdsma, 1/19/20


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