SUNSET BEACH — The N.C. Coastal Resources Commission, at its meeting today in Nags Head, will be asked to table a decision on a controversial proposal to remove land that was once a tidal inlet from state rules that restrict development.
Sunset Beach officials are asking the commission to postpone making a determination despite a recent consensus of the CRC’s Science Panel on Coastal Hazards, which will recommend that the commission lift the inlet-hazard area designation from Mad Inlet, which once separated the Brunswick County town from Bird Island.
“We’d rather see them come up with an updated inlet management plan,” Sunset Beach Mayor Ron Watts said.
The town is urging the CRC to wait to make a decision on Mad Inlet until the N.C. Division of Coastal Management completes its current study of all developed inlets. The study will include an ongoing evaluation of the state’s inlet hazard areas as well as consider new development standards, revise existing ones and look at historic inlet management techniques.
The CRC in December tabled a decision on removing Mad Inlet and asked its advisory panel for a recommendation.
The so-called Science Panel met Feb. 4 and came to the consensus that because the land is no longer an inlet it cannot be called an inlet hazard area. The panel also agreed that it is highly unlikely the inlet will reopen.
“It’s not an inlet hazard area now in the definitions that are intended to identify present inlet hazard areas,” said Spencer Rogers, a panel member. “We’re not saying it’s not at risk of being breached in a storm. That’s not what inlet hazard areas are defined as for. Nothing that has been proposed so far has been that effective in defining potential inlet hazard areas.”
The area is next to Little River Inlet, which has 4,000 feet of jetties on either side.
“Those two make it highly unlikely that the inlet would ever open up again,” Rogers said. “The chances of it reopening as an inlet and remaining open as an inlet are extremely nonexistent.”
CRC Chairman Frank Gorham said he does not plan to vote to table a decision on the matter.
“I am very capable of being outvoted,” he said. “I heavily, heavily rely on science. I want science to make the decision. You either respect the science panel’s expertise or you don’t. The members may disagree with me and that’s fine. I like to agree on a process first then let the answers come out of the way the process determines. The science panel did that. They came to the consensus that Mad Inlet will not become a viable inlet again.”
Those who oppose the CRC lifting the designation, including the town and the N.C. Coastal Federation, say the area can, in fact, be classified a hazard area under current wording. They also argue that the history of the inlet’s migration strongly suggests it could reopen again.
“All of us would prefer that the designation stay there,” Watts said.
The town council in December adopted a resolution opposing the proposal, stating, in part, that several beach towns are examining whether to install terminal groins to curb beach erosion.
“The Town Council feels there is a probability that Mad Inlet could reopen, given the amount of sand movement that will be experienced if terminal groins are installed in neighboring communities,” the resolution reads.
Removing the designation would loosen development rules on land that has, over the decades, repeatedly closed and sliced open. Larger, denser development would be allowed on the land.
A 1995 analysis conducted by the University of North Carolina Institute of Marine Sciences looked at the inlet’s migration patterns over the course of more than a century. The study revealed that since 1873 Mad Inlet had migrated over a distance of about 8,000 feet, typically to the west with episodic shifts back to the east.
Those shifts are “unpredictable,” according to the analysis.
That unpredictability makes it “impossible” for the science panel to definitely state whether Mad Inlet will ever reopen, Todd Miller, the federation’s executive director, wrote in a Jan. 22 letter to Gorham and CRC member Neal Andrew.
The federation also argues that the CRC’s rules do not require an active inlet for an area to be designated a hazard. Inlet areas are defined as those subject to inlet migration, rapid and severe changes in watercourses, flooding and strong tides.
“Clearly, the location surrounding where Mad Inlet last existed is still an ‘inlet area’ that is more hazardous for development than non-inlet areas,” Miller wrote.
If the CRC goes with the panel’s recommendation, Watts said the town would look at local zoning rules to see if it can further tighten building restrictions.
When the inlet closed in the 1990s, it left a pristine stretch of oceanfront, land that is within the town’s conservation zone, which sets forth strict building rules including the stipulation that lots must be a minimum of one acre before construction. Regardless of the inlet hazard designation, the area will remain within a federal zone that prohibits property owners from obtaining federal flood insurance. It is also a federally designated VE, or high velocity wave action, zone.
“The challenge of not having public utilities and not being able to go get federal flood insurance, I think, certainly minimizes the chance of it getting developed,” Watts said. “Still, there’s no question that the council wants to do what it can in keeping the status quo.”
That, Watts said, will mean clarifying information from the Division of Coastal Management, which told the panel on Feb. 4 that the town petitioned to have the inlet hazard designation removed from Mad Inlet in 2004.
Town employees have been digging through archived documents, including past council meeting minutes, trying to find evidence that substantiates DCM’s claim. So far, Watts said, nothing has turned up.
“Even if the town did request this 10 years ago, no one involved with the town now wants that and the resolution the council unanimously passed in December speaks for that,” he said.