Fighting the Development Tide

North Carolina's eroding beaches dramatize an American dilemma: how to utilize this precious resource without destroying it

DUKE University geologist Orrin Pilkey marches down a North Carolina beach as if he's on a crusade - which he is. ``This island has been a disaster for us,'' he says. ``We have our most dangerous, most dense development here.''

Dr. Pilkey is referring to Topsail Island, a 22-mile-long barrier island off the state's southern coast. But it's the northern tip that really gets him riled up. He points to clusters of condos and large expensive houses on small lots that line what looks like little more than a 100-yard-wide sandbar. He says this area, where development is continuing, should not have been built on because of its high shoreline erosion rates, and lack of vegetation and sand dunes. In the next severe Atlantic storm, this section will flood and the buildings will be destroyed or washed away, he says.

Pilkey, a stocky, energetic man, is well-known in North Carolina as an advocate for protecting beaches and barrier islands which extend from Maine to Texas on the nation's east coast. He says they should not be developed, but left to Mother Nature.

Barrier islands are narrow strips of sand that occur in front of almost every gently sloping coast in the world. Geologists say they are the most dynamic landforms on earth because they continually migrate and change shape.

But shoreline structures get in the way of this natural migration and are susceptible to rising sea levels and natural erosion, say geologists. Man is then forced to replenish beaches with sand or erect seawalls to stop the ocean. Pilkey says this not only is costly to taxpayers; it destroys beaches, limits beach access, and puts millions of people at risk in severe storms.

``These are the worst possible places to develop in the long-term sense from a geologic hazard viewpoint - the whole problem being putting static development in a very dynamic place,'' Pilkey says.

The mass exodus to the nation's coasts is spurring the rapid development of beaches and barrier islands. Census reports show coastal communities are growing faster than any other areas in the United States.

Coastal development and redevelopment (after storms) are being subsidized by 51 federal programs, says Beth Millemann, director of the Coast Alliance, an environmental group in Washington, D.C. The largest is the Federal Emergency Management System's Federal Flood Insurance Program. Created in 1968, it offered homeowners in flood-prone areas low-cost insurance to cover flood damage if the communities they live in steer new development out of these areas. But this land-use mandate, which is up for reform this year, has been ignored. Developers and homeowners have used the inexpensive insurance to build anywhere - even in high-risk zones.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration forecasts some of the worst storms and hurricanes in some 20 years may occur this decade because of changing global weather patterns. The agency also says warming seas may increase the rising sea level.

DESPITE these predictions, many developers and business people say shoreline development should continue. And many in North Carolina see Pilkey's view (that development should be banned) as an inflexible approach.

``Pilkey's position is not supported by anybody but a very small minority of people ... because the barrier islands are the economic health of eastern North Carolina. That is what brings tourists down, promotes construction,'' says Kenneth Kirkman, a lawyer who does permitting work for coastal developers and economic groups. ``I think most people agree that the key is education and knowledge - don't have people spending money and investing where you don't have a reasonable chance that a structure would have a reasonable lifetime and, second, that people investing their money there are doing so knowledgably with what the risk may be.''

North Carolina has some of the strictest laws in the nation to regulate development and keep beaches accessible. It requires that large buildings set back from the ocean 60 times the annual erosion rate, and prohibits building hard structures - seawalls, groins - on the beach. To deal with erosion, it encourages hauling in sand from other areas - and relocation for houses about to fall in.

Laws in other states vary. Many have setback regulations. New Jersey and Maine ban new seawalls; South Carolina not only bans them, but has said existing seawalls be torn down in 40 years. Florida recently allowed them to be built where needed.

``I think North Carolina was fortunate in that it adopted its coastal plan while a great deal of the coast was undeveloped, and so a lot of development in the boom period of the mid-'80s came after there were already regulations and setbacks,'' Mr. Kirkman says. Pilkey and others want to keep it that way. They want to prevent the coast from becoming overbuilt like New Jersey's, where massive seawalls have been put up to stop erosion.

``I feel North Carolina is one of the most progressive in terms of beach policy awareness,'' says John Wells, a geology professor at the University of North Carolina Institute of Marine Sciences.

Yet, Wells and Pilkey emphasize that the rising sea level and erosion present a gradual problem that will impact present and future shoreline development.

``It's a crisis people don't realize. It's a crisis politicians have a hard time responding to because it's not on their watch when the problem's going to occur,'' Pilkey says.

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