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SUNSET BEACH — A roomful of people brought questions to a Nov. 6 public hearing about a proposal to remove an inlet hazard designation from a Sunset Beach island site previously occupied by Mad Inlet.
Mike Lopazanski, policy and planning section chief for the North Carolina Division of Coastal Management, said his division is in the process of gathering public input and will be taking public comment until Dec. 12.
According to a press release issued Oct. 31 by the North Carolina Department of Environmental and Natural Resources, Mad Inlet closed in 1997, ending a watery separation between the Sunset Beach island and Bird Island, and is not expected to re-open.
As a result, the N.C. Coastal Resources Commission, or CRC, has determined the inlet hazard designation is no longer necessary for permitting purposes.
Lopazanski said the agency will consider impacts affecting property owners in the area. The measure, if approved, would lift restrictions on development in that area. He cited 126 properties in the area, where less than 10 are undeveloped and would no longer be required to adhere to inlet hazard rules if the change is approved. He said that would not affect local, federal or environmental restrictions.
Mike Giles, coastal advocate with the North Carolina Coastal Federation, was among those questioning the proposal.
He asked whether the agency’s determination that Mad Inlet won’t reopen is based on science “or just the fact it hasn’t reopened since 1997?” He said Hurricane Sandy should be remembered.
“Mad Inlet is sitting there like a ticking time bomb,” Giles said, adding it has the potential to “blow open” and affect flood zones.
“Look at Hatteras Island,” he said. “Those are questions and general comments we’d like to see addressed in this proposal.”
Richard Hilderman, a retired Clemson University biochemistry professor who owns property in Sunset Beach, and Bill Ducker, chairman of the Bird Island Preservation Society, expressed other concerns.
Ducker cited CRC information that removal of the inlet hazard designation would allow property owners to develop under more common oceanfront development standards.
“In other words, are we to assume now that the CRC is promoting development in areas that anyone can look at?” he asked. “This is all shifting sand we’re talking about, and so the assumption the inlet will never open again I think is very, very broad and probably does not have a scientific explanation for making that conclusion.”
Ducker cited the end of Ocean Isle Beach as an example of erosion and repairs that have had to be dealt with.
Sunset Beach Mayor Richard Cerrato asked whether government is trying to overdevelop the coast and wanted to know the identities of the parties involved “who seem to have a financial interest in this.
“I recognize that this is Mad Inlet, but this seems to be like a mad decision,” he said. “I think the citizens of Sunset Beach are so concerned about the preservation of their coast.”
Cerrato said they are facing terminal groins, “and now we seem to be overdeveloping our coastline.”
Resident Mark Benton said most people who live in the area are established single-family homeowners. He also expressed concern about disturbed turtle nests and increased insurance costs.
Other residents had similar comments and questions.
Sammy Varnam spoke on behalf of Ed Gore, one of the owners of the property in question.
“Mr. Gore is one property owner, so let’s not get confused,” Varnam said, pointing to a map. “He don’t own everything in that purple shaded area.”
He also disputed a resident’s claim that Gore owns “everything on that beach.”
“Yes, we have storms,” Varnam said. “Yes, Hurricane Hazel opened up several inlets, and you know what we done? We closed ‘em. So don’t freak out. Let’s keep the facts right.”
Gore said he is an 81-year-old, second-generation developer of Sunset Beach who has been there all his life.
“The inlet has never opened and shut in my lifetime but once,” he said. “And that was some 17 years ago.”
He said sand accretion in that area wasn’t totally natural but was spurred by the jetties at Little River Inlet that extend 2,000 feet to stabilize the navigation channel.
He said it has also benefited Bird Island and all of Sunset Beach.
“What will be done in the future is not foreseeable at this moment in time,” Gore said. “But I see it as gathering sand that will continue. So it’s appropriate, in my opinion, to change that designation from inlet hazard area to an asset area for the town of Sunset Beach.”
Comments on the proposed rule change will be accepted until Dec. 12 and may be sent by mail to Braxton C. Davis, director, N.C. Division of Coastal Management, 400 Commerce Ave., Morehead City, NC 28557, or by email to Braxton.Davis@ncdenr.gov. Copies of the proposed rule change and a map of the area are available from the N.C. Division of Coastal Management website, www.nccoastalmanagement.net.
Laura Lewis is a staff writer for the Beacon. Reach her at 754-6890 or firstname.lastname@example.org.