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The nitty-gritty on building jetties

RALEIGH — Once again, the North Carolina legislature is debating the building of jetties along the coast.

Oh, wait. The experts say they are “terminal groins.” Whatever.

As I’ve said before, Capt. Robert E. Lee didn’t design any terminal groins at Fort Macon. He called them jetties. For 150 years, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers called them jetties.

Enough on the language.

For the past few decades, the state has mostly banned the construction of long strings of big rocks running out into the ocean.

The reason for the ban is because geologists agree that those jetties do exactly what they’re intended to do: They change the migration patterns of sand.

If you live on the northern end of Figure Eight Island, changing that migration pattern could be a good thing. The northern portion of the island has been eroding away at a fairly fast clip for the past several years.

Some folks with homes on the northern portion of the island have been among the most vocal supporters of repealing the ban on hardened structures.

They might finally get their way. The Senate approved a repeal a couple of years ago. But over in the House, former Speaker Joe Hackney wasn’t much of a fan of the legislation. It died there.

These days, Hackney is in the minority party. That gives supporters of the repeal hope that new legislation will pass both legislative chambers this year.

But what if you own one of those homes further down Figure Eight Island or somewhere else downwind of an inlet where a jetty might be placed? Remember, jetties don’t invent sand. They just help alter its natural movement from one place to another.

There may be places where moving that sand won’t harm anyone, where it will just mean that sand which would have migrated to uninhabited islands will instead show up along beaches with homes.

Elsewhere, legislators are endorsing a proposal that could, literally, rob some Peter to pay some Paul. Of course, when Paul’s home is about to fall in the ocean, and Peter’s looks fine today, it’s easy to dismiss that logic.

The policy argument becomes about saving homes and property tax bases today. The numbers aren’t small. In the town of Emerald Isle alone, the municipal tax base is $4.2 billion. A state study of jetties estimated that $320 million in property on Bald Head Island will be at risk of erosion over the next 30 years.

Still, supporters of overturning the ban don’t want to acknowledge that, on a long-term basis, building jetties may do nothing to alleviate that risk. It may just change the winners and losers.

Of course, once the state begins permitting and endorsing these projects, the losers may not be confined to the homeowners on the second mile of the barrier island. After all, when their sand starts disappearing, they can now blame the state.

And who will then be the robbed Peter?

Surely not the taxpayers asked to pay to pump sand on the beach.

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