State of the Beach/State Reports/NC

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North Carolina


In contrast to many other states, North Carolina's policies and amount of available information regarding erosion and beach fill is exceptional. North Carolina's longstanding ban on shoreline structures has recently been weakened with approval of a pilot program that will allow construction of up to four "terminal groins." There are additional worrying signs that more coastal armoring may be in North Carolina's future. Beach access information is good, but areas in the state have inadequate access and/or parking. The ocean water quality testing program is adequate, but water quality is impacted by sewer spills, storm drains and agricultural area runoff in some areas. The state's DENR Website, especially the website of the Division of Coastal Management (DCM) is an excellent source of information on beach health indicators.

North Carolina Ratings


(+) North Carolina has a statewide development setback standard that depends on the regional mean annual shoreline erosion rate, which inherently accounts for changes in erosion due to coastal hazards, sea level rise, and climate change.

(+) In mid-2015 NCDENR announced the availability of an interactive public beach and waterfront access map that can be accessed directly from your mobile device. Developed by division staff, the new mobile version of the agency’s popular online access site map provides information for more than 400 access sites along the North Carolina coast. The interactive map includes the location of each site, a site photo, number of parking spots and any applicable parking fees, restroom and shower facilities, and other amenities. To view the new mobile beach access map, visit

(+) In 2013, for the second straight year, loggerhead sea turtles nested and hatched in record numbers along North Carolina’s ocean beaches, including unusually high numbers at Bald Head Island and Oak Island. Loggerheads laid 1,247 nests along the North Carolina coast in 2013, compared to about 1,100 in 2012.

(+) In October 2009 the Governors of North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida and Georgia announced an agreement to work together to better manage and protect ocean and coastal resources, ensure regional economic sustainability and respond to disasters such as hurricanes. The South Atlantic Alliance will leverage resources from each state to protect and maintain healthy coastal ecosystems, keep waterfronts working, enhance clean ocean and coastal waters and help make communities more resilient after they’ve been struck by natural disasters.

(+) Developing a Management Strategy for North Carolina's Coastal Ocean (April 2009), prepared by the N.C. Coastal Resources Law, Planning and Policy Center through contracts with the Division of Coastal Management and the N.C. Sea Grant College Program, discusses five emerging ocean resource issues: sand resource management, ocean-based alternative energy development, ocean outfalls, marine aquaculture, and comprehensive ocean management.

(+) In February 2009 the N.C. Coastal Resources Commission and its advisory board unanimously passed a resolution asking the General Assembly to consider creating a state trust fund to help finance coastal infrastructure projects, including removal of structures encroaching onto public beach areas, beach fill, inlet channel realignment, beach access and dredging projects.

(+) Under new rules adopted by the Environmental Management Commission in January 2008, developers in 20 coastal counties will have to create wider vegetative buffers along waterways, expanding them from the current 30 feet to 50 feet for new projects. Developments that alter more than a quarter acre of land, up from the current one-acre threshold, will have to use cisterns or permeable pavement or other devices to keep stormwater from washing off the land.

(+) In 2007 the NC General Assembly appropriated $20 million for waterfront access projects in an effort to reduce the loss of public access to coastal waterways due to private development.

(+) NCAC 7H .0312, Technical Standards for Beach Fill Projects, which outlines new sediment criteria rules for beach nourishment projects, went into effect Feb. 1, 2007. It is the most comprehensive set of rules regarding beach nourishment for any coastal state.

(+) The state divisions of Coastal Management and Water Resources developed the state’s first comprehensive Beach and Inlet Management Plan (BIMP). The underlying goal of the BIMP was to assist stakeholders, the public and state, local and federal agencies in taking a more holistic, systematic approach to managing North Carolina’s beaches and inlets. Here is the final report from this effort. A follow-up project is the Inlet Management Study.

(+) Under the Coastal Area Management Act, each of the state's 20 coastal counties must submit plans to the state that show how they intend to grow and develop, while protecting the coastline and its natural resources. Many coastal cities and towns opt to submit plans of their own.

(+) North Carolina Beach, Inlet & Waterway Association gave North Carolina beaches a "B" and public access to beaches an "A" on their 2007 Report Card for the NC Coast.

(+) The N.C. General Assembly fully funded the N.C. Clean Water Management Trust Fund for the first time in 2005 by providing a $100 million appropriation.

(+) NCDCM staff estimates that although only 40% of coastal lands are publicly owned, about 95% of the beaches are publicly accessible. They indicate that there are coastal access points about every one-half mile in urban areas and every two miles in rural areas.

(+) The Coastal Resources Commission ban on seawalls was incorporated into law. The NC Coastal Area Management Act was amended to permanently ban these structures.

(+) In 2007, NCDCM enhanced public access to public beaches and coastal waters through $2.9 million in grants for 23 projects in 19 local communities for public access projects. The grants help pay for a variety of projects to improve access to coastal beaches and waters, including walkways, dune crossovers, restrooms, parking areas and piers.

(+) The creation of the new Mason Inlet created a sanctuary for birds on the north end. More than 500 least turns nested at the north end bird sanctuary in 2005, making it the largest natural nesting site for that bird in the state.

(0) From 1965 to 1998, the Carolina Beach fill program has cost $26.3 million and the Wrightsville Beach fill program has cost $16.7 million.

(0) The cumulative cost of sand replenishment to protect the coast of North Carolina from a 20-inch sea level rise by 2100 is estimated at $660 million to $3.6 billion.

(0) The populations of Camden, Currituck, Brunswick and Dare Counties have increased 20 percent in the last five years. The coast's population is expected to increase another 40 percent by 2030.

(-) Saying it would bring unnecessary regulation to eastern North Carolina, the Beaufort County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously in February 2011 to oppose a policy proposed by the state Division of Coastal Management intended to guard coastal communities against future sea-level rise. In April 2011, State Representative and real estate broker Pat McElraft and others filed House Bill 819 with the North Carolina legislature. Although initially concerned with beachfront construction setback laws, the bill morphed into a direct attack against the Coastal Resources Commission's Science Panel on Coastal Hazards recommendations to the CRC. This was followed in July 2012 by the Republican-led state General Assembly passing a law requiring that projected rates of sea level rise be calculated on historical trends and not include accelerated rates of increase predicted by a panel of scientists that advises North Carolina's Coastal Resources Commission. In other words, the realistic nonlinear sea-level projections provided by the latest scientific understanding of climate change would not be used for policymaking purposes and instead would be replaced with a simple linear projection (roughly equaling a rise of 20 centimeters by 2100). This draft language was widely ridiculed by several commentators 1, 2. The final version of House Bill 819, which became law in August 2012, doesn’t make sea-level rise illegal, nor does it limit sea-level rise to linear projections based on only historical data. Instead, the ratified version of the bill completely ignores the suggestions of the Science Panel altogether, showing that little to nothing in the report was actually considered. The new law requires no consideration of sea-level rise in any planning, and merely asks the Science Panel to prepare a new sea-level rise report and present it to the legislature by 2015. UPDATE: House Bill 819 expired in July 2016 and CMP drafted a sea-level rise policy based on the CRC Science Panel's 2010 Sea-Level Rise Assessment Report, but the policy will not be incorporated into the NC administrative code before 2020.

(-) There exists a climate adaptation plan called "Climate Ready North Carolina: Building a Resilient Future" but there doesn't seem to be any attempt to implement it.

(-) The town of Topsail Beach formerly had a dune ordinance which prohibited protective dunes from being materially altered. Protective dunes reinforce frontal dunes immediately landward of the beach. Under the ordinance, oceanfront property owners were not allowed to remove more than 1 cubic yard of sand from protective dunes per month. Under pressure from beachfront property owners, the town Commissioners in December 2016 voted 4-1 to repeal the ordinance. More.

(-) In July 2016 the Dare County Board of Commissioners unanimously approved a resolution that calls for terminal groins and jetties along the entire North Carolina coastline.

(-) The state's Coastal Resources Commission (CRC) was decimated in 2013 when the commission was trimmed from 15 to 13 members and all but four of its existing members were fired under a provision in that year’s budget bill. The dormancy of the CRC is a growing concern for those who care about the coast, especially given the commission’s agenda before the legislative actions. A major update of the commission’s work on sea-level rise, new rules on bulkheads and development of criteria for inlet management plans are all slated for review by the commission in the coming year.

(-) In late June 2011 a bill allowing up to four "terminal groins" to be built along the North Carolina coast was approved. This represents a serious backsliding from the state's long-held policy of not allowing hardened structures along the ocean shoreline. In February 2012 it was announced that four beach towns (Ocean Isle Beach, Holden Beach, Bald Head Island and Figure Eight Island) had begun the steps necessary to receive a permit to construct a terminal groin, a process that includes – among other things – preparing an environmental impact statement proving that other methods of erosion prevention aren't feasible as long-term solutions. North Topsail Beach considered a terminal groin but then decided against it.

(-) Gov. Beverly Perdue transferred $100 million from the Clean Water Management Fund to the state general fund in February 2009. That could leave some land-acquisition, wastewater improvement and stream restoration projects in the lurch. Some 192 water and sewer projects, many of them already under construction, were halted across the state in the wake of Gov. Perdue’s decision. This situation was further exacerbated in 2011 when the trust fund was first hit for $50 million annually in Gov. Bev Perdue's proposed budget, then shaved further to $12.5 million by GOP budget writers in the Legislature—an 88.5 percent cut.

(-) Approximately 441,448 acres of the state’s coastal waters are closed to the harvest of shellfish due to high bacteria levels or adjacent potential pollution sources. Approximately 43,188 additional acres are classified as Conditionally Approved and are temporarily closed after periods of heavy rainfall. The percentage of Hewlett’s Creek closed to shellfishing has increased from 54 percent in 1988 to 100 percent today. Pages Creek showed a similar increase, rising from 66 percent to 89 percent closed.

(-) Federal flood insurance has paid more than $500 million to repair hurricane damage in North Carolina since 1996. Builders have put up thousands of homes since hurricanes Fran in 1996 and Floyd in 1997, making the area one of the fastest-growing in the South.

(-) The state has lost more than 1 million acres of natural and rural areas to development over the past 10 years, as new homes, shopping centers and other developments swallow up 277 acres of natural or agricultural land every day.

(-) North Carolina's hog farms dump 13 million pounds of hog waste a day into open-air lagoons that are later sprayed on fields as fertilizer.

(-) There are 26 storm drains on the coast, and no sewage outfalls. However, nutrient pollution of rivers and estuaries from large-scale hog operations is still a serious problem.

(-) The state Division of Water Quality has stated that it has logged more than 500 wastewater releases in New Hanover County since 1997.

(-) Several Coastal Habitat Protection Plan (CHPP) initiatives were not included in the final 2005-06 or 2006-07 state budgets. The requested funds were for projects including an inventory of docks and piers ($750,000 has been appropriated for the initial phase of BIMP development), mapping submerged aquatic vegetation and mapping shell bottom.


  • Protect NC Public Trust Rights to Beach Access The goal of this campaign was to defend North Carolina's strong interpretation that the dry-sand beach--the portion of the beach landward of the mean high tide line to the foot of the dunes--is subject to the public trust and should be accessible to the public. In the Nies v. Town of Emerald Isle case, beachfront homeowners Diane and Gregory Nies have sued the Town of Emerald Isle because they want to exclude the public from the sandy beach in front of their home. The Town heroically has taken action to defend the beach access rights of North Carolinians by zealously advocating for public beach access rights to walk over and enjoy the dry sand, without encroachment, including beach equipment within 20 feet seaward of the dunes. The lower court and appellate court agreed with the Town, but the Nieses have appealed the matter up to the state Supreme Court. Surfrider Foundation filed an amicus brief in support of the Town. On December 14, 2016, the North Carolina Supreme Court dismissed the Nieses appeal and upheld the strong public access decision from the North Carolina Appellate Court.
  • Wrightsville Beach Smoking Ban The Cape Fear Chapter asked the Wrightsville Beach Board of Alderman to pass a smoking ban for local beaches after documenting an increase in cigarette butt litter and after two years it was finally passed as a ballot initiative! Cigarette butts are typically made from cellulose acetate - a synthetic fiber type of plastic. Tim Taylor, a member of the Cleaner Greener Committee, said creating a "smoke-free environment" for all of the town's parks and recreation areas – including the beach – would reduce litter and exposure to second-hand smoke. Cape Fear Chapter Chair Sean Ahlum has worked with volunteers to collect cigarette butts from the beach strand as part of the Surfrider Foundation's "Hold On To Your Butt" campaign. Sean reports that in one year, one family picked up 35,000 cigarette butts from the beach.
  • Building Heights Limited in Kill Devil Hills The Town of Kill Devil Hills, in North Carolina's Outer Banks, put limits on the size of buildings constructed on ocean front property. Proposed loosening of the regulations would have allowed larger construction projects along the town's eroding shorelines. The Outer Banks Chapter worked with a coalition of other concerned citizens to pass the new rules.
  • Access 33 Kept Open - Wrightsville Beach Public Beach Access 33 in Wrightsville Beach, which has been used by the public for over 40 years, was recently taken away. When an adjacent property owner recently realized that the access lies within its property line, the Public Beach Access was restricted from further use by the public. The Town of Wrightsville Beach decided not to investigate alternatives for saving the public beach access. The closure of Beach Access No. 33 created the longest gap between accesses within the town. Through public pressure and petitioning, followed by negotiations with the Town and homeowner the Cape Fear Chapter was able to come to a compromise. With the Chapter's assistance the town will purchase a permanent easement to keep Access 33 open. This agreement also avoids setting a dangerous precedence of closing a public beach access. More info.
  • The Cape Fear Chapter started a Beachscape coastline mapping program in October 2001 at Wrightsville Beach.

To see all of Surfrider Foundation's coastal victories and campaigns, go here.

State of the Beach Report: North Carolina
North Carolina Home Beach Description Beach Access Water Quality Beach Erosion Erosion Response Beach Fill Shoreline Structures Beach Ecology Surfing Areas Website
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