Panel vote may help lift Sunset Beach inlet hazard designation

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Some Sunset Beach residents are disappointed a Coastal Resources Commission advisory panel has approved a measure they believe will help lift an inlet hazard designation for Mad Inlet.

Sunset Beach resident Sue Weddle expressed disappointment with the unanimous vote by the 11-member CRC Science Panel on Coastal Hazards at a Feb. 4 meeting in the Beaufort County town of Washington.

The panel’s recommendation to be forwarded to the CRC is that Mad Inlet is not presently an inlet and is not likely to persist as an inlet, said Mike Lopazanski, policy and planning section chief for the North Carolina Division of Coastal Management.

The panel did not vote to lift the inlet hazard designation for Mad Inlet, Lopazanski said. Rather, members were tasked with assessing the now-closed inlet and the likelihood of it re-opening, he said.

Weddle was among residents who attended the Feb. 4 meeting.

Five speakers from Sunset Beach at the meeting were scientist Richard Hilderman, local turtle watch coordinator Carmel Zetts, former Mayor Richard Cerrato, Sunset Beach Taxpayers Association president Ray Puknys and Bill Ducker, chairman of the Bird Island Preservation Society.

“They were superb,” Weddle wrote in a Feb. 5 email. “They each had different points to make and perfectly complemented one another to give a complete picture of the issues. But it was for naught.”

The science panel got caught up in language, Weddle said.

“Was an inlet hazard area still an inlet hazard area if there was currently no channel of water exiting in the hazard area? They all agreed it was still a high-hazard area, but felt, linguistically, they could not call it an inlet hazard area,” she said.

The panel plans to recommend something be done to identify those high-hazard areas without calling them inlet hazard areas.

“I’m not holding my breath,” Weddle added.

She said it might have helped if someone from Sunset Beach Town Council had attended. At a Dec. 2 meeting, Sunset Beach Town Council unanimously approved a resolution opposing removal of the designation for Mad Inlet at the west end of the island.

At the start of the Feb. 4 meeting, Weddle said, officials with the state Division of Coastal Management announced the effort to remove the inlet hazard designation from Mad Inlet was initiated by a petition from the town of Sunset Beach in 2004. The petition was to remove the inlet hazard designation from private property that runs from the 40th Street walkover on the Sunset Beach island to the Bird Island Coastal Reserve.

“This was news to all of us since none of us recalled any action by the town council to approve such a petition,” Weddle wrote.

Weddle officially requested a copy of the petition from the Division of Coastal Management, which she later received.

Weddle questioned the validity of the petition, which was faxed July 19, 2004, but does not include any names or signatures of town officials and is not on town letterhead, nor does it bear the town seal.

She compared it with the petition opposing lifting the inlet hazard designation that was approved by town council this past December, which is signed and dated.

The 2004 petition asks for privately owned land — about 35 or 40 acres that start at the last walkover on Sunset Beach and run to the beginning of the Bird Island Coastal Reserve — to be reclassified.

The faxed petition sent in 2004 bears the name “Walter D. Knott II” and also cites him as a contact person. Weddle said Knott used to be a member of the Sunset Beach Planning Board years ago. The unsigned, unsealed document also has “DRAFT” at the top of the page.

Weddle said she wants to research town minutes to see if Sunset Beach Town Council ever took action to create such a petition.


Panel info

Lopazanski said Mad Inlet was not considered in the same manner as other inlets because it has closed. The board reviewed data, including historical photos and maps showing the topography of the area.

“They came to the conclusion it’s not presently an inlet and is not likely to persist as a viable inlet,” he said.

Weddle complained more credence was given to the unsigned 2004 document and that Lopazanski did not mention that Sunset Beach Town Council in December unanimously approved a more valid resolution that the inlet hazard designation not be lifted.

Lopazanski said they tried to piece together a meeting from 10 years ago.

“One thing we did have was a draft resolution from the town,” he said, acknowledging that Weddle is correct that the 2004 document is not on town letterhead.

He said the more recent resolution approved by town council in December was included in public comments.

“The commission is aware of that,” he said, adding members will take that into consideration during their decision-making, along with factoring in implications for “development and such.”

The science panel’s Feb. 4 recommendation will be considered by CRC at its upcoming meeting Feb. 26 in Nag’s Head.

Since CRC will be assessing all inlet hazard areas along the North Carolina coast in the near future, Weddle questioned why it’s honing in on Mad Inlet now.

“The advisory board was not given complete information that they needed to make an informed decision,” she said. “I see no reason to pull Mad Inlet out of this larger study that is being done of all the inlets in North Carolina and leave it with no protection from the state.”

If the local inlet hazard designation is lifted, “whatever layer of protection the state is giving to Mad Inlet is gone,” Weddle said. “What’s the big rush? What’s going on?”


‘Fix was in’

Following the Feb. 4 science panel meeting, Weddle followed up with an email to Lopazanski, citing a local hearing Nov. 6 about the proposed change.

“Mike, you conducted the public hearing on this issue at the Sunset Beach Fire House,” Weddle wrote. “You know that everyone in that room except the owner and potential developer of the private property in the Mad Inlet Hazard area opposed removing the Inlet Hazard designation from Mad Inlet and believed the fix was in.

“Using this worthless document as a pretext for the Division of Coastal Management to take up the issue of whether or not Inlet Hazard is the appropriate designation for Mad Inlet lends credence to the property owners’ suspicions.

“This is troubling, especially since you announced at the (Feb. 4) Science Advisory Board Meeting that the state initiated interest in the change of designation at the request of the town, but you did not tell the Science Advisory Board that the Sunset Beach Town Council had adopted a properly documented and voted-on resolution asking the N.C. Coastal Resources Commission to not change the ‘Inlet Hazard Designation’ for Mad Inlet.

“Would this information have changed the Science Advisory Board’s vote?  We will never know.  But this should give the CRC pause in rushing to action on this issue.”

At the Nov. 6 hearing conducted in Sunset Beach by the Division of Coastal Management, Sunset Beach developer Ed Gore spoke in favor of lifting the inlet hazard designation for Mad Inlet. He said it is appropriate, citing accreting sand there that he thinks will continue. Sammy Varnam spoke on behalf of Gore at the hearing.


‘Door is open’

Once the inlet hazard designation is lifted, Weddle said there will be loss of a state prohibition on any structure larger than 5,000 square feet in that area.

This prohibition is what stopped creation of a private bridge in the early 1990s from Sunset Beach to Bird Island, she said.

Without the prohibition, Weddle said the door is open for the potential for a private bridge to be built from Main Street, which runs parallel to the ocean, to access private property that has built up between the 40th Street walkover and Bird Island.

A federal Coastal Barrier Resources Act (COBRA) designation is still in place, however. The designation prohibits federal flood insurance for development.

The act also provides protection by prohibiting expenditure of most federal funds that encourage development.

In addition, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has designated the entire inlet hazard area at Mad Inlet as a VE (“high velocity wave action”) zone.

“This is the highest designation FEMA has for the most risky places to build,” Weddle wrote. “This means federal flood insurance in these areas (which is not available under the COBRA designation) would be prohibitively expensive should we lose the COBRA designation — think $25,000 a year. And without flood insurance, banks will not make mortgage loans.

“So we have layers of protection that probably make it financially infeasible to put in the infrastructure needed to develop the land between 40th Street and the Bird Island Conservation Reserve,” Weddle wrote. “But it means we all have to keep our eyes and ears open. Brunswick County is notorious for ‘oops.’  The developers’ mantra is all too often, ‘Don’t ask permission; ask forgiveness.’  “That high rise on Ocean Isle at Tubbs Inlet is an ‘oops.’ ”


Laura Lewis is a staff writer for the Beacon. Reach her at 754-6890 or llewis@brunswickbeacon.com.