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Figure Eight Island awaits state decision on terminal groin requirements

Dr. Robert Parr

Update: The Coastal Policy Reform Act of 2013 has passed its second reading in the House.

This article was modified to reflect a correction.  The cap on the number of terminal groins allowed in the state, according to the most recent version of the Coastal Policy Reform Act of 2013, is four.

Today, state leaders in the House could consider a bill that would ease financial requirements for beach communities looking to install a terminal groin.

The jetty-like structures are usually installed at the end of an island to control sand flow and combat erosion.  

Since the North Carolina legislature legalized terminal groins in 2010, four beach communities have started the permitting process.  The one thought to be the farthest along – Figure Eight Island – still has daunting hurdles to overcome before it can build a structure that supporters hope will protect homes and roads from an encroaching shoreline. 

But opponents and environmentalists say the project on Figure Eight would harm a pristine ecosystem and damage the local economy by altering a popular public recreation area. 


“I mean, we couldn’t take this boat safely out into the ocean, but here we are – just a short distance from the ocean completely protected.  And then you see the Sea Oats.  I mean, it looks like Thomas Kincaid picture back here, doesn’t it?  [laughter]  All we need is a little bungalow…a fish shack…”

Prissy Endo and Dr. Robert Parr are in a small boat passing through a quiet inlet near Figure Eight Island.  Endo grew up in nearby Middle Sound and says she remembers when the development of Figure Eight began in the 1970s.   

“I’m very alarmed about the proposal to build a terminal groin and seawall at the northern end of Figure Eight.”

Bob Parr is a practicing emergency physician.  Before he went to medical school, he earned a Master’s degree in oceanography at Oregon State University.

“And my specialty there was how dredging there in estuarine systems affected the existing environment.”

For Parr and Endo, the installation of a terminal groin is only the first blow to this unmanaged inlet area.  It’s also the ongoing maintenance – the periodic dredging and beach renourishment – that worry them.  Rich Inlet, a historically stable inlet, has never before been dredged. 

 “Well, we probably have about 100 species of fish, about 20 species of clams, three or four species of crabs.  We have millions of species of small microorganisms that we don’t even know about.   Generally speaking, when you go in and dredge an area, most of those species are displaced.”

It takes about ten years for those species to re-colonize, says Parr.  This project would allow dredging every two to three years, which means the ecosystem would never fully recover.  And the reason non-scientists would care about the displacement of microorganisms?

“Well, it’s the basis of the food chain.”

Figure Eight Island stakeholders have tried beach renourishment.  But chronic erosion on the north end means the sand doesn’t stay on the beach very long. 

Terminal groin opponents also argue that public access to Rich Inlet could be compromised by the project.  Jack Spruill is Vice President of PenderWatch, an environmental advocacy group.  He delivered a petition entitled “Save Rich Inlet” with almost 140 signatures to the Corps last year. 

“We, the undersigned, spend time in Rich Inlet fishing, swimming, teaching our children how to swim, walking on the beach, sunbathing, picnicking, and bird-watching, among other activities.  We oppose the proposal by the Figure 8 Island Homeowners’ Association to build a seawall and terminal groin because they will destroy the beautiful sand spit on the Figure 8 Island side of Rich Inlet.”

Loss of public access has a larger implication, says Mike Giles of the North Carolina Coastal Federation. 

“You’re talking about loss of economy.  People buying boats, paying for gas, going out there buying food, coming down saying they’re going to Rich Inlet or Lee Island to camp or recreate, and this has possibilities of affecting Lee and Hutaff Island north.  It’s going to cause loss of a recreational use of a public resource.”

But that claim is nonsense to David Kellam.  He runs the Figure Eight Island Homeowners’ Association.  Maintaining the inlet area, says Kellam, could actually improve access for recreational boaters and fishermen.

“Otherwise the channels may very well fill in and the boating / recreation people won’t even have a place to go get out there…We don’t see any opportunity for loss in the engineering design, the protection of it.  It’s been open to the public and it will continue to.  The conditions out there should not change.  If anything, they should be enhanced through proper management.”

Mike Giles of the Coastal Federation says there should be barriers to building in risky coastal areas in the first place.

“That erosion has been ongoing there for years and years… There’s one individual that built a house on the back side that asked us several years ago, ‘how many years do I have?’  And one of our scientists told him ‘5 years’.  He said, ‘that’s enough’.   And right now his house is almost in the water… So he took a gamble, hoping, praying that the state is going to bail him out.”

But whether a terminal groin is an appropriate method for combating erosion should be a local decision, says Caswell Beach Mayor Harry Simmons.

“The tools should be available for local governments and property owners and so forth to use as it might make sense in their specific situation.  I think how many houses it protects is a decision that the Figure Eight Beach Homeowners’ Association is going to have to make.  And they’re going to have to decide – is it worth doing?  It’s not a decision for me.”

For Mike Giles of the Coastal Federation, the debate hinges on this: 

“What we say is when you build in those particular areas, you’re rolling the dice.  And the people of North Carolina should not have to pay for your decisions.  And the resources and the public trust waters should not be in jeopardy because you made a bad decision.” 

Whether a permit is granted will come down to how the Corps answers this question:   what is the least damaging environmentally practicable alternative for Figure Eight Island? 

Stay tuned for Part Two of our series on Terminal Groins.  We’ll explore the factors the Army Corps of Engineers will weigh when making the final permit decision.  

Rachel hosts and produces CoastLine, an award-winning hourlong conversation featuring artists, humanitarians, scholars, and innovators in North Carolina. The show airs Wednesdays at noon and Sundays at 2 pm on 91.3 FM WHQR Public Media. It's also available as a podcast; just search CoastLine WHQR. You can reach her at rachellh@whqr.org.