The North Carolina Coastal Federation strives to work with — not against — the natural processes of North Carolina’s barrier islands. Rising sea levels, storms, and efforts to engineer the natural functions of our coastlines threaten habitat and public access. Using hardened structures like terminal groins as a means of erosion control is costly, and in many cases, states that have used these structures are now dealing with unintended erosion and degraded natural beaches and habitats.

We continue to evaluate constructed terminal groins for potential adverse effects, as well as to oppose the construction and permitting of new terminal groins, especially in communities where residents and visitors have expressed strong opposition. We will also educate people on why these structures can be so damaging.

What Are Hard Structures?

  • A jetty is built perpendicular to the shore, usually at inlets, and extends out into the water. It blocks the current moving down the beach, called the longshore drift, holds sand in place, and prevents the end of the island from washing away and the channel through the inlet from filling with sand. Typically, jetties are concrete or rock structures built at inlets and channels in order to maintain channels for shipping and navigation.
  • A groin is built perpendicular to the coast and works similar to the way a jetty works. But groins are usually smaller than jetties and built on straight stretches of beach, not near inlets or channels. They are often built in a series of parallel structures on one section of the beach and can be made of wood, concrete, steel, or stone. Terminal groins are the “terminus” of an island.
  • A sea wall, as the name suggests, is a wall built along the coast between the land and the ocean. Sea walls are typically made of concrete or stone and can be very large.

What are the Impacts of Hard Structures?

While hardened structures can protect roads, beach homes, and other buildings threatened by erosion, they often cause increased erosion further down the beach. Groins act like dams to physically stop the movement of sand. They work by preventing longshore drift from washing sediment down the coast. As a result, they cause a buildup of sand on the side protected by the structure — which is precisely what they’re intended to do. But areas further “downstream” on the coast are cut off from natural longshore drift by these barrier-like structures. No longer replenished by the sand that usually feeds them, these areas experience worsened erosion.

Beach erosion on barrier islands is natural. Every sandy beach in the world is being whittled away by waves and wind. If left on its own, the beach retreats in the face of this constant onslaught. It will always be there, but maybe not in the same place or in the same form. Erosion is only a problem when we put buildings and roads in the way. This is why long-term planning – which encompasses a multitude of tools – is crucial to managing our beaches. Instead of ‘solving’ the problem at hand, groins often just move it further down the shorefront.

History of the “Seawall” Ban

Historically, North Carolina has tried to avoid the problems that can be brought on by the use of hard structures to control erosion. In 1985, the North Carolina Coastal Resources Commission (CRC), a policy-making body for the coastal management program, studied the effects of hard structures on beaches in other states. The CRC concluded that the potential negative effects of such structures could cause irreversible damage to North Carolina’s beaches. As a result, the CRC recommended banning the construction of hard structures to protect buildings at the coast. The ban made exceptions for protecting historic buildings that could not be moved and for maintaining important waterways needed for navigation, such as Oregon Inlet in Dare County.

The regulatory ban on hard structure existed in practice for 15 years before it was upheld in court in a 2000 case. In 2003, the North Carolina General Assembly voted unanimously to formally adopt the hard structures ban as law. The law banned the construction of most new, permanent erosion control structures on the beach but contained the same exceptions as the regulatory ban.

The state’s environmental community has consistently supported this prohibition on these hard structures.

Attempts to Repeal the Ban

A number of beach communities, led by Figure Eight Island, have long lobbied for an exception to the legislative ban to allow “terminal groins.” They argued that such structures would control erosion, but science did not support that.

The North Carolina Senate passed a bill in 2008 to allow “terminal groins” but it went nowhere in the North Carolina House.

Coastal Resources Commission Study

In an attempt to break the logjam, the legislature ordered the Coastal Resources Commission to conduct a study on “terminal groins.” The commission hired engineering consultants, who could find no scientific evidence that terminal groins won’t harm beaches. The study also confirmed that groins won’t eliminate the need for costly beach re-nourishment.

Based on those findings the commission found no compelling reason to recommend that the ban be changed. But neither did the commission vote to uphold the ban. Recognizing the subject’s political volatility, it instead recommended that the legislature attach environmental and fiscal conditions to any bill that allowed groins. The legislature looked to the CRC for guidance but got a muddled response instead.

Repeal of the Ban

In 2011 by passing the Senate Bill 110 the North Carolina General Assembly repealed a 30-year-old ban on hardened structures and allowed up to four “test” terminal groins to be built in North Carolina. Four permit applications for the construction of a terminal groin were submitted to the federal U.S. Army Corps of Engineers district office: Figure Eight Island, Ocean Isle Beach, Holden Beach, and Bald Head Island. To date, Bald Head Island and Ocean Isle Beach have constructed terminal groins, but Holden Beach realized the negative impacts of such a structure and withdrew their
permit. Figure Eight Island is currently in the permitting process with the Corps of Engineers and is subject to further regulatory and public review and comment. In the 2015 session of the General Assembly, the legislators passed a bill that will allow two more terminal groin projects to apply for the required permits. North Topsail Beach and Emerald Isle are the two municipalities that are considering proposals for these new potential additions to hardened structures on our public beaches.

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