North Carolina to Start Enforcing Sandbag Ban

May 2, 2008

North Carolina officials began inspecting sandbag structures used to protect beach property from coastal erosion, searching for the roughly 150 that must be removed.

As part of the process, regulators will inspect all the state’s 370 known sandbag structures. Those that must come out are in communities that were actively pursuing beach nourishment in 2000.

Those that are covered with sand and natural vegetation will be allowed to remain in place, but the state will order property owners to remove exposed sandbags, said Mike Lopazanski, the coastal and ocean policy manager at state Division of Coastal Management.

“We’re not going to have people dig up the beach just so they can remove sandbags,” he said.

State officials estimate the majority of the sandbag structures that must be removed are in Dare County, which includes most of the state’s Outer Banks barrier island chain.

North Carolina banned seawalls and other hardened structures in 1985, but allows sandbags on ocean beaches as a temporary erosion control measure. Critics argue many essentially became permanent fixtures that block public beach access and often make erosion worse at neighboring properties.

People who use the sandbags say they’re the only thing keeping the ocean from carrying away the beach on which their homes, hotels and roads are built.

Property owners with sandbags affected by the May 1 deadline will have a 30-day grace period to remove any exposed sandbags or face a fine based on how long the bags have been in place. Owners can also seek a variance from the state to try and keep the bags.

Legal challenges are expected from property owners who aren’t granted a variance. The owners of a condominium development in Kure Beach have already sued the state, appealing the commission’s decision to reject its request to keep the sandbags that have protected the 48-unit complex from the encroaching surf since 1985.

“There is no other property in this state like ours,” said attorney Gary Shipman, who represents the condo owners.

Shipman argues the Riggings condo complex is stuck between a renourished beach to the south and a rock seawall that protects the Fort Fisher Historic Site to the north. The complex’s owners are banned from replenishing their beach because it includes an outcropping of federally protected coquina rock that cannot be disturbed or covered with sand.

Shipman said the seawall in front of the Civil War fort increased the erosion in front of the condominiums – an effect that lies behind the state’s ban on such hardened structures.

“The order denying our variance is not supported by the evidence presented,” Shipman said. “At the end of the day, all that we’re expecting is to be fed out of the same spoon as our neighbors to the north and south.”

When they return to session next month, state lawmakers are expected to consider a pilot program that would allow new permanent seawalls or groins. It is being pushed by residents of Figure Eight Island, an exclusive beach community near Wilmington where beach erosion is threatening about 20 houses.

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