State of the Beach/State Reports/NC/Erosion Response

From Beachapedia

Home Beach Indicators Methodology Findings Beach Manifesto State Reports Chapters Perspectives Model Programs Bad and Rad Conclusion

North Carolina Ratings
Indicator Type Information Status
Beach Access108
Water Quality67
Beach Erosion10-
Erosion Response-7
Beach Fill7-
Shoreline Structures5 8
Beach Ecology5-
Surfing Areas38
Coastal Development{{{19}}}{{{20}}}
Sea Level Rise{{{21}}}{{{22}}}


Erosion response is a measure of how well a state's policies and procedures limit the extent of shoreline armoring, unsafe coastal development, and costly beach nourishment projects, and conduct preemptive planning for sea level rise. Evaluation of this indicator brings attention to the states that are taking proactive roles in natural beach preservation and hazard avoidance. Through the formulation (if not already in place), implementation, and strict adherence of the specific criteria within the indicator, states can overcome two fundamental obstacles to alternative erosion response practices outlined by the Oceans Studies Board (2007):

  1. A lack of knowledge and experience among decision-makers regarding alternative options for shoreline erosion response, the relative level of erosion mitigation afforded by the alternative approaches and their expected life time, and the nature of the associated impacts and benefits.
  2. The current legal and regulatory framework itself, which discriminates against innovative solutions because of the complex and lengthy permitting process that almost always considers these options on a case-by-case basis.

For example, are statewide oceanfront construction setbacks used to site new development, and are these based on the latest erosion rates? When existing development is damaged during a storm, does a state prohibit reconstruction or provide incentives for relocation? Before permitting shoreline stabilization does a state require: that there is demonstrated need via geo-technical reports with content standards; that alternatives to armoring including managed retreat/relocation are fully explored; and that potential adverse impacts and cumulative effects are taken into account? Does the state conduct sea level rise vulnerability assessments and develop adaptation plans to mitigate impacts? If a state can answer 'yes' to most of these questions, then its rank is high. If the answers are mostly 'no' then its rank is low.

Also see the "Policies" discussion of the Shoreline Structures section of this report for more information on North Carolina's erosion response.

Possible quantitative measures for this indicator include the number of new structures located within setback areas, number of damaged structures reconstructed in identified erosion zones, number of instances where alternatives to 'hard' shore protection were employed, the number of shoreline structures permitted under 'emergency' provisions, and the number of permits for shoreline structures reviewed, approved or denied. We have found that such information is rarely available.

Policies and Guidance

North Carolina uses oceanfront setbacks as a response to known erosion hazards. North Carolina's oceanfront construction setback factors are calculated using the long-term (approximately 50 years) average annual shoreline change rates for the sole purpose of establishing oceanfront construction Setback Factors, and the Ocean Erodible Areas of Environmental Concern (OEA AEC), which were initially established by the Coastal Resource Commission (CRC) under the Coastal Area Management Act (CAMA) in 1979 .

Oceanfront shoreline change rates have been calculated using the end-point method since the first study completed in 1979. This method simply uses the earliest and most current shoreline data points where they intersect any given shore-perpendicular transect line. The distance between the two shorelines (shore-transect intersect) divided by the time between the two establishes the rate. The use of current mapping and spatial analysis technology make this process repeatable and precise; ESRI's Geographic Information Systems (GIS), and USGS's Digital Shoreline Analysis System (DSAS). To explore shoreline change rates (or erosion and accretion rates) simply use the Google Map provided to zoom in/out, and click on green (accretion) or red (erosion) transect lines to see the rates (feet/year).

Oceanfront construction setback is measured landward from the first line of stable natural vegetation, or a static vegetation line when applicable. Setback distance is determined by two variables; (1) size of structure; (2) a setback factor based on shoreline position change rates. As specified in Rule 15A NCAC 7H .0304(1)(a), the minimum setback factor is 2, unless the shoreline is eroding at a rate greater than 2 feet per year. Therefore, when the shoreline is accreting (moving seaward), or eroding at a rate less than 2 feet per year, the default setback factor is 2. More info.

Threatened/damaged homes in north Buxton. Photo: Don Bowers

If the cost of repairing damages to a house will be greater than half the physical value of the house itself (just the house -- not the lot, deck or furnishings), then the repair is considered rebuilding, and requires a permit before construction is begun. The construction must then meet all current regulations, including setback requirements.[1]

For a more user-friendly overview of these policies check out the NCDCM Coastal Storms website.

The CRC met on September 24, 2008 and voted to make changes in the state's static-line and ocean setback rules. Under the revised rules, municipalities can apply for an exception to the static line if they meet certain criteria, like having a long-term beach nourishment plan in place. An exception allows setbacks to be measured from the actual vegetation line, as long as homes are built no larger than 2,500 square feet and are not built closer to the ocean than adjacent structures. CRC staff has acknowledged that changing static line rules allowing redevelopment of older homes currently controlled by the static line might actually make development safer by allowing compliance with current standards and would make many Brunswick County homesites buildable. A good summary of the new rule changes can be found here. These rule changes became law in August 2009 after the General Assembly adjourned without modifying them. Wrightsville Beach and Carolina Beach persuaded coastal regulators in late August 2009 to relax oceanfront development rules. The move allows the two towns to use the same rule used on natural beaches, namely the current location of the dune line, to determine how far back from the first line of stable vegetation new structures have to be. The modification will also allow existing structures that couldn't meet the state's new stiffer setback requirements to be rebuilt if destroyed by fire or a hurricane.

On March 24, 2010, the CRC approved static vegetation line exception requests submitted by the communities of Atlantic Beach, Pine Knoll Shores, Indian Beach/Salter Path, and Emerald Isle. Here's an explanation of the changes.

In February 2015 Lumina News reported on another effort to modify beachfront development policy by changing from the existing static line/exemption approach to a policy, subject to one review and approval from the coastal commission, of allowing local communities to draw a development line which would follow the current row of oceanfront houses, barring any outliers sitting closer to the shore. The potential new policy is being deliberated by the Coastal Resources Commission.

Another potential regulatory change that could affect numerous residents of barrier islands who live near inlets is a proposal (reported in the Wilmington Star on October 11, 2007) to dramatically expand the size of most inlet hazard areas. This could lead to more stringent setback requirements and size limits for thousands of oceanfront property owners.

The Carolina Beach Town Council unanimously adopted a resolution at their December 9th, 2014 meeting in support of new rules under consideration by the State Coastal Resources Commission regarding a "development line option" for towns that have an active beach nourishment plan in place. Currently, structures that have a footprint of 5,000 square feet or less have to be built west of a 60' setback line that is measured from a static-vegetation line in the dune system. Structures with a footprint larger than 5,000 square feet must be built behind a 120' setback line. The proposal is to eliminate those multiple setback lines and establish a single "development line" for developments of all types and size.

The North Carolina Beach and Inlet Management Plan (BIMP) is a joint project by the Division of Water Resources and the Division of Coastal Management. Management of the State's inlets and beaches is presently achieved through multiple programs managed by the Dept. of Environment and Natural Resources and its divisions.

In September 2015, the North Carolina General Assembly directed the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), Division of Coastal Management (DCM) to “study and develop a proposed strategy for preventing, mitigating, and remediating the effects of beach erosion” (S.L. 2015-241, Section 14.10I.(a)). The law requires DCM to report the results to the Environmental Review Commission, the Chairs of the Senate Appropriations Committee on Natural and Economic Resources and the House Appropriations Committee on Agriculture, Natural, and Economic Resources, and the Fiscal Research Division, by Feb. 15, 2016. Between October 2015 and January 2016, DCM developed this report by reviewing relevant literature and previous studies in North Carolina, by visiting an experimental structural approach to mitigating beach erosion in South Carolina, and by drawing upon 40 years of experience in shoreline change analysis and permitting beachfront development and engineering projects.

Following are excerpts from the report's Executive Summary:

Based on a review of historical N.C. studies, lessons learned from other coastal states, DCM experience and public comments, the following strategies should be considered:

  1. Identify data and knowledge gaps in erosion hazard assessments and modeling, and the potential effects of these gaps on policy and decision making; and support additional data collection to establish subregional sediment budgets.
  2. Formalize beach management at the local and subregional levels; for example, encourage beach communities to develop local beach management plans and necessary inter-local agreements; invest in local beach management staff, partnerships, and monitoring efforts; create or maintain dedicated sources of beach management funding; and explore opportunities for regional collaboration with neighboring communities.
  3. Employ sensible construction setbacks to account for beach erosion and shoreline migration, taking into account the life expectancy of the structure, the range of mitigation options available, and the feasibility of their implementation.
  4. Regularly evaluate the combined budgetary needs for erosion response projects, taking into consideration the prevailing and expected cost-share percentages among funding entities; and establish stable and predictable funding sources sufficient to meet statewide needs.
  5. Maximize the amount of beach-compatible dredged material that is beneficially used in mitigating beach erosion.
  6. Continue to streamline permitting for beach projects at the federal and state levels as a way to decrease permit processing times, permitting costs, and emergency situations.
  7. Provide dedicated state agency staff support and technical assistance for local and regional beach management efforts.

As evidenced from past efforts, a state-level beach management strategy is needed to better understand local and regional sediment budgets, maintain a healthy ecosystem, protect the public’s right to access and use the beach, protect property rights, and afford property owners (both public and private) with storm protection. Any new strategy should focus on continued investments in beach nourishment as the preferred alternative for mitigating beach erosion. The two largest obstacles associated with this approach are having dedicated, predictable funding sources and the identification of long-term supplies of beach-compatible sand resources.

In May 2010 a report Inlet Hazard Area Boundaries Update: Recommendations to the North Carolina Coastal Resources Commission was published by NCDCM. The report recommends amending the IHA boundaries for the State’s 12 developed inlets (Tubbs, Shallotte, Lockwood Folly, Cape Fear River, Carolina Beach, Masonboro, Mason, Rich, New Topsail, New River, Bogue, and Beaufort). No changes were recommended for five of the original IHA boundaries developed by Priddy and Carraway (1978). Current and proposed inlet hazard area maps can be found on the NCDCM Website.

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. The primary purpose of the resolution was to develop a dedicated funding mechanism for the Beach Inlet Management Plan. Along with federal funding, the potential revenue streams mentioned in the resolution include state and local sales tax proceeds and funds generated by North Carolina's saltwater fishing license program.

Twenty-eight of North Carolina’s renowned scientific and public policy beach experts spent two days together in March 2009 working to develop a plan to save N.C. beaches. They concluded that it will take energetic leadership pursuing a highly coordinated set of management actions to safeguard our public trust recreational beaches for future generations. Summit participants released a set of findings and recommendations that call on local, state and federal leaders to move forward together with consistent actions to better protect North Carolina’s oceanfront beaches. Read more in N.C. Coastal Federation's 2009 State of the Coast report.

A law enacted in summer 2003 is intended to address the problem of the state's eroding coastal waterways and creeks. The "Living Shorelines" law was introduced by North Carolina State Rep. Keith Williams on behalf of the North Carolina Coastal Federation, and was signed into law by Gov. Mike Easley in August 2003. The bill authorizes the state Coastal Resources Commission to develop a general permit for living shorelines projects. The new law also included a provision that puts into law the longstanding regulatory ban on seawalls and other hardened structures on the beach. The N.C. Coastal Resource Commission has long prohibited new stone seawalls, groins and jetties, as they encourage erosion of public beaches.[2]

Wrightsville Beach established a building line or "line in the sand" in 1939 that prohibited construction east of the line. In 1981 the "building line" was defined as a property line, meaning that town setbacks of at least 7.5 feet applied to oceanfront property. In November 2005, the town took a giant step backwards by directing staff to draft a new ordinance allowing decks to be built in the 7.5-foot beachfront setback zone. In February 2006, the town Board voted to retain the 1939 building line.

In late November/early December 2009 about a third of a mile of Highway 12 in the area of North Rodanthe and the S-curves was relocated about 23 feet to the west of the pavement that was badly damaged in a prolonged northeaster that occurred in mid-November 2009. The $439,600 storm-induced "managed retreat" project was scheduled to be followed by a $388,000 project to reconstruct and replace sandbags that disappeared or were damaged in the storm. Old, damaged bags will be removed and replaced with 800 bags of sand 15 feet long and 5 feet wide. The new sandbag area at the S-curves will extend an additional 350 feet to the south. Another $1.4 million project to add sand to the beach in the area of the S-curves began before Thanksgiving 2009 and was suspended during the Thanksgiving holiday and the highway reconstruction. 200,000 cubic yards of sand will be transported from behind the Oregon Inlet jetty to widen about 2,000 feet of beach. That project was expected to continue through March 2010.

An article by Alex Baer titled "Private Property on Public Trust a Problem, but Whose?" appeared in the Outer Banks Sentinel on February 27, 2008. The article discussed the reluctance of towns and the state to demolish houses that encroach on public lands (below the mean high water line) as a result of coastal erosion or storms, although the law is clear that private structures are not allowed on public trust land. In Nags Head, for example, there is an ordinance that reads: "Any structure, regardless of condition, or any debris from a damaged structure which is located in whole or in part in a public trust area or public land constitutes a public nuisance." Even if homes are condemned, towns often give the owners an opportunity to rehabilitate or repair their homes. Another factor is whether the wastewater disposal system is functioning. In Dare County, the minimum setback between a proposed septic tank and the water line is 50 feet.

To address this in Nags Head, changes in town ordinances that take effect in fall 2010 will prevent owners of nuisance houses from making repairs so they can be reoccupied or rented out. The changes closed a loophole that had allowed repairs even though the town might have been working to remove a derelict property blocking the public beach. Before the amendments to town ordinances by the Board of Commissioners in July 2010, owners of nuisance structures still legally qualified for building permits. Starting in early October 2010, they won’t be able to get one.

In February 2012 the North Carolina Court of Appeals ruled that Nags Head had no jurisdiction to order the removal of “nuisance structures” blocking what is known as the public trust beach. In response, Nags Head, Dare County and other beach communities endorsed a resolution that argues the ruling calls into question local power to create and enforce ordinances regulating dogs, obstructions and driving on the beach, among other things. In April 2015 after a five-year legal battle, six oceanfront houses in South Nags Head that were declared public nuisances were demolished. A legal settlement called for the town to buy the houses on Seagull Drive for $1.5 million. This video shows the houses pulled down by bulldozers tugging on cables.

Carteret County filed a civil action in December 2007 against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to stop what the complaint calls “significant adverse impacts” to Bogue Banks by the Corps. The complaint was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina. The case against the Corps and associated officials challenges the Corps’ management of the sand it dredges for routine navigation purposes annually from Beaufort Inlet, known as the outer harbor, as part of the Morehead City Harbor Navigation Project. The dredged beach-quality sand is taken out of the beach’s natural ecosystem when it is dumped onto offshore disposal sites, according to the complaint filed in Raleigh. The county is requesting an order permanently enjoining – or prohibiting – the Corps from dumping the sand offshore and wants the court to enjoin the Corps from dredging Beaufort Inlet until the Corps prepares documents, required by federal law, that fully evaluate the environmental impacts of the Morehead City Harbor Project. The Carteret County Beach Commission, has been arguing this issue with the Corps for more than 10 years, according to beach commission Chairman William “Buck” Fugate.

Town officials in North Topsail Beach voted in March 2006 to use eminent domain to tear down eight duplexes said to pose a safety hazard to beachgoers and nearby homes. The beach in front of these homes essentially disappeared when Hurricane Ophelia struck in August 2005. As of May 2006, four sets of property owners had filed an injuction against the town to prevent the ordered demolition, and all of the property owners filed a joint lawsuit, asking for just compensation for their homes. The town offered $1,000 to each homeowner, while the plaintiff's attorney claims the structures have an insurance value of in excess of $800,000.

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 late December 2016 a judge signed off on a temporary restraining order prohibiting Topsail Beach from issuing building permits for a stretch of oceanfront properties at the southern end of town. The judge granted a motion filed on behalf of a group of nearly 40 Topsail Beach property owners to extend a temporary restraining order against the town. The extension is open ended. More on this.

A paper by Orrin Pilkey and William Neal, published by the Geological Society of America in 2009, makes an argument that North Topsail Beach is the state’s most vulnerable barrier-island community. The paper, North Topsail Beach, North Carolina: A model for maximizing coastal hazard vulnerability, states "that this very narrow, low, and duneless island community is the most hazardous on the U.S. East Coast" because of "the natural setting plus poor development and management decisions."

The NCDCM has an informative Coastal Storms Website. From here you can link to What you should know about erosion and oceanfront development where you will find a nice explanation of how erosion rates are determined and how they are used by the Coastal Resources Commission (CRC) to establish oceanfront setbacks. You'll also find links to Rebuilding After a Storm, common questions and answers about the repair or replacement of oceanfront houses following a major storm; and Protecting Oceanfront Property from Erosion, what oceanfront property owners can do to protect their homes. There you'll also find storm tracking information, as well as a wealth of other pre/post disaster preparedness information.

The Community Vulnerability Assessment Tool: New Hanover County North Carolina Case Study is a product created by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Coastal Services Center for the coastal resource manager. This project is an informational aid designed to assist communities in their efforts to reduce hazard vulnerability. It describes a newly developed methodology for conducting a community-wide vulnerability assessment, as it was applied to New Hanover County, North Carolina. In addition to demonstrating the vulnerability assessment methodology, the case study illustrates the use of geographic information system (GIS) technology as a valuable resource for conducting hazards-related analysis. Further, as part of this project, major weather and erosion events affecting Hanover County between 1962 and 1998 were summarized.

Tips for rebuilding eroded dunes, such as those destroyed along the East Coast by Hurricane Isabel, are featured in a 32-page publication from the North Carolina Sea Grant. The Dune Book (September 2003) explains how erosion occurs and describes several effective dune management practices along developed shorelines where people, buildings, and roads are already in place. The book describes effective types of live plants for securing and building dunes and the optimum time and method for planting each species.

North Carolina’s Coasts in Crisis: A Vision for the Future by Riggs, et al at East Carolina University is a "White Paper" produced for coastal managers, agencies, business owners, politicians, residents of and visitors to the coast. It provides recommendations for how to deal wisely with the issues of global climate change, more intense tropical storms, and sea-level rise so that we can adapt to the coming changes rather than be overwhelmed by them.

Drowning the North Carolina Coast: Sea-Level Rise and Estuarine Dynamics (2003) is a publication from North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources, Division of Coastal Management and North Carolina Sea Grant. The Conclusion states:

Thus, shoreline erosion is an ongoing natural process within the North Carolina estuarine system, resulting from the short- and long-term coastal evolution. While various methods are available to combat erosion and land loss, none are permanent solutions, and all have significant environmental trade-offs. Recognizing and understanding the complex causes and dynamic processes involved in shoreline erosion is the first step towards minimizing the impact of erosion and managing our shoreline resources and economic investments. Ultimately, to both preserve our coastal estuarine resources and maximize human utilization, long-term management solutions of estuarine shoreline erosion problems must be in harmony with the dynamics of the total coastal system.

The North Carolina Sea Level Rise Risk Management Study (NC SLRRMS) was initiated in February of 2009 and is expected to conclude in June 2011. The overarching goal of this study is to inform State and Federal policy makers on the subject of the sea-level rise impacts and foster development of risk management policy.

EPA has published a summary document Governments Plan for Development of Land Vulnerable to Rising Sea Level: North Carolina (2009).

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.

The Beach Plan (now the Coastal Property Insurance Pool (CPIP)) was first created in 1969 to provide wind damage insurance to homeowners on North Carolina's barrier islands who couldn't obtain coverage on the open market. The program's coverage has expanded over the years to more counties and situations and as of December 2008 included 170,000 coastal properties valued at $72 billion. As of late 2008, the Beach Plan charged premiums 5 percent or 15 percent above what regular insurers offer, depending on the policy. Under changes due to take effect in February 2009, the plan's policies will be 15 percent or 25 percent above what regular insurers can offer. Deductibles on Beach Plan policies will increase from 1 percent of a home's value to 2 percent. The changes attempt to return the Beach Plan to the coastal insurer of last resort and encourage more traditional insurance companies to issue policies in the region.

Meanwhile, Insurance Commissioner Jim Long signed an agreement with homeowners insurance companies in December 2008 allowing an overall statewide average increase of 4.05 percent in rates beginning May 1, 2009. That rate increase is deceptive, however, since rates in Carteret County will increase as much as 30 percent. Insurance companies had asked for even steeper increases.

In January 2009 a special North Carolina legislative study committee recommended the maximum coverage on a home insured under the Beach Plan should be cut in half. The committee urged that the maximum coverage be cut to $750,000 from its current $1.5 million. The committee also recommended limiting the amount of money an insurance company would have to pay out without recouping the money from its policyholders statewide. The panel, called the Joint Select Study Committee on the Potential Impact of Major Hurricanes on the North Carolina Insurance Industry, plays an advisory role in legislation. The suggestions being sent to the full legislature to consider when it reconvenes in late January are designed to shore up the plan, whose coverage has grown exponentially over the past decade, and to encourage the insurance industry to write their own policies in the region.

Gov. Beverly Perdue approved legislation in August 2009 that attempts to fix the state's coastal property insurance program by setting up a plan that would pay for massive claims generated by a future large hurricane or natural disaster. Reforms to the Beach Plan in the bill allow state regulators to place a surcharge on every property insurance policy in the state should hurricane damage claims exceed $2.4 billion. The law also reduces the maximum value for which a home can be insured by the plan from $1.5 million to $750,000. Under the new law, the state insurance commissioner could tack on an extra charge to every property insurance policy if the plan lacks enough money to pay claims. The maximum surcharge could result in an extra 10 percent on the average annual premium. The surcharge wouldn't take effect until all of the state's property insurers first pay $1 billion in assessments. Policyholders with Beach Plan coverage also could see a higher deductible and would be covered less for contents inside a home. The Beach Plan liabilities now exceed $70 billion.

In August 2008 the Carteret County Shore Protection Office graded themselves on beaches:

Beaches (A-) – NCBIWA gave this an “incomplete” (note: in 2009 NCBIWA gave beaches a "B" grade) because challenges remain to make restored beaches last longer. I would give ourselves an A-. Just under a decade ago, we were licking our sandy wounds after a spate of hurricanes in the 1990s impacted Bogue Banks – namely Bertha, Fran, Bonnie, Dennis, and Floyd. Since then, we’ve placed roughly 10 million cubic yards of sand along the island at a total cost of close to $80 million, formed a management system in the Beach Commission & Shore Protection Office, and are continually learning from any shortcomings to build a better mousetrap for next time. Unprecedented achievements and the beaches/frontal dunes look great by just about anyone’s standards. The only glitch (and an important one) is the management of sand resources at the Morehead City Harbor Project. There has been legal action filed against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers regarding this topic. Otherwise, the grade for beaches would have been higher at this juncture. There are big challenges ahead however.

As part of its Living Coasts Program, The Cooperative Institute for Coastal and Estuarine Environmental Technology (CICEET) announced in January 2009 that it had awarded $1,212,000 to researchers working in North Carolina and New York who are evaluating the costs and benefits of different approaches to erosion prevention in sheltered coastlines. Each project is focused on understanding the environmental and economic tradeoffs of alternative erosion control measures.

Led by the North Carolina NERR and NOAA’s Center for Coastal Fisheries and Habitat Research the North Carolina project focuses on three regions along North Carolina’s coast. Investigators are quantifying ecosystem service tradeoffs resulting from habitat alteration, and designing demonstration projects based on alternative shoreline stabilization techniques. During the two-year project, they will develop an approach to evaluate ecological and socioeconomic costs and benefits of shoreline erosion and protection alternatives. This project will complement existing work to investigate natural and stabilized estuarine shorelines, forecast the response of estuarine intertidal habitats to sea level rise, and develop a predictive model of shoreline erosion for a large military base.

A flood-mitigation grant program funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the state has financed raising about 100 homes in storm-prone Dare County over the last 20 years. More.

Coastal Barrier Resources Act

The federal Coastal Barrier Resources Act (CBRA), passed in 1982, was designed to "minimize the loss of human life, wasteful expenditure of federal revenues, and the damage to fish, wildlife and other natural resources" by denying federal support for everything from sewer construction to flood insurance in undeveloped or little-developed coastal areas such as barrier islands. CBRA does not restrict development in these areas, but it indirectly discourages development by denying the use of federal funds for development projects or redevelopment after storm or flood damage. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service administers this program, which identified 1.3 million acres of coastal land to be covered by the act. Unfortunately, pressure by property owners and developers in these areas has lead Congress to pass dozens of exemption bills which exclude certain areas from CBRA, thus thwarting the intent of the Act.

The Coastal Barrier Improvement Act (CBIA) was enacted on November 16, 1990. The CBIA resulted in reauthorization of the CBRA of 1982. The CBRA establishes the Coastal Barrier Resources System (CBRS) to protect areas such as undeveloped coastal barrier islands. There is a discussion of CBRA on NOAA's web site that concludes:

"Although the removal of federal funding assistance has discouraged development in some coastal barrier islands, development has continued in other areas despite designation as a unit of the CBRS. CBIA is not intended to prevent or regulate development in high-risk areas; rather the intent is to direct that federal dollars not be spent for development in these areas. Activities conducted in areas adjacent to CBRS units may adversely impact these sensitive areas; these activities are not regulated under CBIA. In addition, CBIA does not restrict the use of private, local, or state funding within CBRS units. Some coastal states have initiated legislation that limits state funding of certain projects."

A report released in March 2007 reviews the extent to which (1) development has occurred in CBRS units since their inclusion in the system and (2) federal financial assistance and permits have been provided to entities in CBRS units. GAO electronically mapped address data for structures within 91 randomly selected CBRS units and collected information on federal financial assistance and permits for eight federal agencies. GAO found multiple federal agencies have provided some financial assistance to property owners in CBRS units that is expressly prohibited by CBRA; some assistance allowed under CBRA; and hundreds of permits for federally regulated development activities within the unit. GAO recommended, among other things, the four agencies that provided prohibited loan guarantees or insurance policies to CBRS units first verify and then cancel those that are in violation of CBRA.

On April 7, 2009, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released to the public its Report to Congress: John H. Chafee Coastal Barrier Resources System Digital Mapping Pilot Project. The report, which was directed by the Coastal Barrier Resources Reauthorization Act of 2000 (P.L. 106-514), highlights the benefits of updating Coastal Barrier Resources System (CBRS) maps with more accurate and precise digital maps to better protect people, coastal areas and natural resources. A 2016 report is now available.

FEMA has now developed a fact sheet on CBRA. The fact sheet outlines the responsibilities and restrictions that various programs within FEMA have under CBRA.

On June 3, 2009, an article in www.carolinacoastonline reported on potential changes to the CBRA areas in North Carolina that would delete some areas from CBRA designation and therefore allow government funding, potentially including flood insurance and beach fill funding:

"Because of the Coastal Barrier Resource Act, there are pockets of areas in North Topsail Beach that are currently ineligible for government funding, such as federal flood insurance, but that could change. The US Fish and Wildlife Service has recommended revising errors in the CBRA maps. If the proposed revisions are made, 56 houses and 76 acres could be removed from the zones in North Topsail Beach. If the changes to the CBRA zones are approved by Congress, the entire northern end of the town, from just south of the Topsail Reef northward, will be designated non-CBRA. However, there will be some land at Galleon Bay that will fall in a CBRA zone but no structures will be affected in that area.

North Topsail Beach is not the only town affected by the proposed changes. There are revisions for five states included in the Fish & Wildlife pilot study report. Of those states, North Carolina has nine different areas that could see changes. The maps were adopted by Congress but were not precise and in some cases they were “drawn without any surveys of the boundaries of the previously constructed development, only estimates from large scale maps and photos,” according to Spenser Rogers from NC Sea Grant.

In 1990, Otherwise Protected Areas, mostly state and federal parks or wildlife areas, were added to the maps. In 2000, Congress directed Fish & Wildlife to conduct the pilot study and convert the paper maps of 1982 and 1990 to more accurate digital maps. If the pilot study report is approved by Congress, federal funding could become available to receive federal funding in some areas that have previously been excluded."

Efforts to remove North Topsail Beach from CBRA continued in 2013.

In late 2014 Rep. Mike McIntyre sponsored House Resolution 3572, which would revise the boundaries of certain Coastal Barrier Resources System units. Wrightsville Beach, Masonboro Island and Lea Island could be affected. When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service mapped the CBRA zones in the 7th Congressional District, areas already under development at the time were mistakenly included, such as units L07, L08, and L09 – in Lea Island, Wrightsville Beach and Masonboro Island. The bill would update the zones to remove 127 acres and about 30 homes from those zones. Besides North Carolina, the bill would affect areas in Florida, Rhode Island and South Carolina. It also would add protections to about 891 acres of undeveloped coastal barrier areas. More on this.

Climate Change Adaptation


North Carolina has been identified by NOAA as one of three states with significant vulnerability to sea level rise. Possessing the largest estuarine system on the U.S. Atlantic coast, with an extensive barrier island chain, the State has over 2,300 square miles of coastal land vulnerable to a 1-meter rise in sea level. This article is a good primer on the subject and illustrates some of the effects of sea level rise that North Carolina is already experiencing. Recognizing the serious threats climate change will bring to its coastlines, the State and its coastal management agencies have increasingly adopted a wide range of mitigation and adaptation strategies. Especially in the Southeast, North Carolina has in many ways emerged as a leader in recognizing and responding to climate change.

One of the strongest points of the state’s coastal management program is the extensive collection of erosion data, sea level rise inundation mapping, and numerous studies examining the dynamic processes occurring along the coastline. North Carolina’s coastal zone policies, while not explicitly addressing sea level rise, do implicitly provide a means for the state to adapt to changes in the coastal zone. The major drawback to the State’s adaptation efforts is lack of a centralized adaptation committee to oversee and direct the state’s climate change response strategy. Along these same lines, there is no single guidance document clarifying specific actions the state should take to adapt to climate change. Legislative loopholes and enforcement issues have also, at times, rendered coastal management policies useless. Nevertheless, North Carolina has the ability and proactive outlook to effectively adapt to climate change in the coming years.


In 2002 the North Carolina General Assembly passed the Clean Smokestack Act (SB 1078), marking the State’s first consideration of emissions reductions. The Act sought to improve air quality in North Carolina by imposing strict limits on nitrous oxide and sulfur dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants, and forced the Department of Environmental and Natural Resources (DENR) to study options for reducing CO2 emissions. The DENR and Utilities Commission submit an annual update of the Act’s implementation. See: 2010 Clean Smokestacks Act Report (Final Version), June 1, 2010. In 2003, the NC Energy Policy Council issued the first state energy plan since 1992, detailing 92 recommendations to act as the cornerstone for future State Energy Office and State activities. In September 2004, the Council approved 20 action items for 2004-05.

2005 represented an especially important year in terms of climate change recognition and response in North Carolina. To begin, the 2005 Session of General Assembly passed the Global Warming/Climate Change Act (HB 1191/SB 1134), establishing the Legislative Commission on Global Climate Change. The law’s three primary objectives included:

  1. To better manage the human activities that are apparently impacting global climate change;
  2. To take advantage of economic opportunities that may result from global climate change and the emerging carbon market; and
  3. To deal with the potential consequences of global climate change on the citizens, natural resources, and economy of the state.

Establishment of the State’s Legislative Commission in itself represented a major step towards centralizing the State’s climate change actions and discussions. In facilitating the State’s initial climate change discussions, the Commission focused mainly on broader climate change issues, including assessing the feasibility CO2 cap and trade and GHG emission reduction goals. The North Carolina Coastal Program also serves on the State Legislative Commission on Global Climate Change.

As recommended in the final Clean Smokestack Act report (2005), the State also formed the Climate Action Plan Advisory Group (CAPAG) as a public stakeholder advisory group to the DENR and the Department of Air Quality. Utilizing the expertise of five different working groups, CAPAG’s purpose was to develop recommendations for specific actions to help mitigate and/or prevent climate change, and included measures for reducing GHG emissions and sequestering/removing such gases from the atmosphere. In contrast to the Commission’s work, these recommendations would act as a concrete foundation for state policy makers when considering a future state-level Climate Action and Implementation Plan.

Released in 2008, CAPAG’s final report, Recommended Mitigation Options for Controlling Greenhouse Gas Emissions, represents the State’s current Climate Action Plan. CAPAG does point out that the report is “not intended to be a climate action implementation plan”, as it lacks the force of legislative action. The data, results, and recommendations contained within the report nevertheless provide valuable guidance for the creation of a legally binding climate action plan.

While the Report acknowledges the importance of climate change adaptation, and recommends the creation of Blue Ribbon Commission on Adaptation to develop a State Adaptation Plan, it does not include any specific measures or recommendations relating to this goal. Furthermore, as establishment of the LCGCC closely coincided with the Clean Smokestacks Act of 2002, much of the LCGCC’s work has been concerned with climate change mitigation and working to reduce GHG emissions. The Plan does, however, include a matrix of state adaptation issues such as climate change impacts on coastal resources (e.g., tropical storms, rising sea levels), forestry and agriculture, water quality and quantity (e.g., saltwater intrusion into aquifers, drought risk, flooding, storm water runoff), air quality, public health, economic issues, and other issues. See Stanley Rigg’s Recommendations to the NC LCGCC.

As part of its Climate Change Initiative, the DENR published its 2009-2013 Strategic Plan, which included both climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies. The Plan’s main priority is to respond to climate change using both mitigation and adaptation strategies to reduce vulnerability, increase adaptive capacity and improve resiliency of climate-sensitive resources.

In March 2010, DENR, along with the rest of the North Carolina Interagency Leadership Team, co-hosted Planning for North Carolina’s Future: Ask the Climate Question. The statewide climate change adaptation workshop brought together decision makers from across the state to learn how North Carolina can enhance its resilience to the projected threats and impacts of climate change. For more information on the workshop (including proceedings and slideshows), see here.

The website Climate Ready North Carolina: Building a Resilient Future has a link to the report Climate Ready North Carolina, Building a Resilient Future and several other climate change reports.


Passed by the North Carolina General Assembly in 1974, the Coastal Area Management Act (CAMA) establishes policies, guidelines, and standards to manage the natural ecological conditions of the coastal environment as well as to regulate development and preservation of the land and water resources of the coastal area. Rules that govern coastal development are public record under chapter 132 of the North Carolina General Statutes. Although neither CAMA nor the Administrative Code directly address sea level rise, both emphasize an understanding that the state’s shorelines are in a constant state of flux, and have a number of regulations in place that implicitly account for future sea level rise:

a) A ban on hardened oceanfront structures
b) An understanding of the significance and primary causes of coastal hazards in North Carolina, and acknowledgement that landforms (in particular beaches, dunes, and inlets) are in a permanent state of flux (section 07H.0302).
c) Oceanfront setbacks are based on long-term average erosion rates (section 07H.0306), with the DCM updating these rates for the State’s entire 300 mile coast every five year. By their very nature, setbacks tied to long-term erosion rates take sea level rise into account, as it is one of the drivers of shoreline change from which erosion rates are determined. For a more detailed account of this process, see the DCM’s Oceanfront Shorelines website. The Erosion Rate Maps for all 64 coastal segments through 1998 are available from the NCDCM website in Adobe Acrobat format. During 2004, DCM incorporated updated long-term average annual erosion rates into the state’s oceanfront development rules. The new erosion rate maps provide the most accurate depiction of shoreline change that the state has ever had.
d) New structures smaller than 5,000 square feet and fewer than five residential units must be set back the farthest landward of the following: a distance equal to 30 times the average annual erosion rate, the crest of the primary dune, the landward toe of the frontal dune, or 60 feet landward of the vegetation line. Structures larger than 5,000 sq feet must meet stricter setback requirements. In all cases, the minimum erosion rate is considered to be two feet per year.
e) A 30-foot buffer is also required along the entire coastal shorelines Areas of Environmental Concern, prohibiting most new development within 30 feet of the mean high water line except for development classified as water dependent. The regulations will minimize further development of land immediately along non-ocean coastal waters and therefore limit (beyond current limitations) the potential for damage and loss due to sea level rise and coastal storms.
f) Regulations stipulating new development along estuarine and public trust shorelines be located a distance of 30 feet landward of the normal water level or normal high water level, with the exception of water-dependent uses (section 07H .0209 D10).
g) The CAMA’s reference to normal high water or normal water level (e.g. section 07H .0106) as opposed to mean high water. Normal high water is the ordinary extent of high tide based on site conditions such as presence and location of vegetation, which has its distribution influenced by tidal action, and the location of the apparent high tide line.
h) The Coastal Resource Commission’s requirement that all local communities prepare and adopt a land use plan conforming to CAMA. As part of this condition, section 07B.0702 includes an objective that local land-use plans are to address natural hazards towards minimizing risks. An example of one such natural hazard is sea level rise.

i) In 2007, the North Carolina Administrative Code (Title 15A, Chapter 7, Coastal Management) was expanded to address changes in shoreline configuration. Specifically, the passage states that permits for development in Ocean Hazard Areas (Subchapter 7H Section .0300) “shall include the condition that any structure shall be relocated or dismantled when it becomes imminently threatened by changes in shoreline configuration.” For more information on rule 15A NCAC 07H .0306 - General Use Standards for Ocean Hazard Areas under chapter 132 of the North Carolina General Statutes, see here.

In some instances the state has even used a managed retreat policy to relocate structures away from eroding shorelines. One of the most famous examples of managed retreat involved the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, which was moved inland at a cost of $9.8 million, in response to a shoreline that had eroded 1,340 feet over 117 years. For more information check out a Surfrider Foundation Making Waves article from 1999 summarizing the decision to move the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, a victory for both the coast and the lighthouse. The Lighthouse’s relocation is also highlighted in this article on Managed Retreat.

The EPA summary document Governments Plan for Development of Land Vulnerable to Rising Sea Level: North Carolina provides an extensive overview of state and local land use policies. The report further analyzes these policies to project coastal development trends, in the process developing maps that distinguish shores that are likely to be protected from the sea from those areas that are likely to be submerged. The study notes that while beach-fill projects have occurred in places like Wrightsville Beach and Carolina Beach, North Carolina has also allowed shores in Kitty Hawk and elsewhere to retreat, forcing the relocation of shorefront homes. The county-specific response descriptions briefly summarize each county's sea level rise policy. In general, the study determined that if certain policy limitations are not remedies, CAMA’s planning program will continue to be largely advisory and will not contain the types of enforceable policies necessary to influence major land use decisions in a way to mitigate future hazards—including sea level rise.

The study also observed that North Carolina’s current sea-level rise response employs a combination of approaches that includes shoreline armoring, land elevation, and managed retreat. Nevertheless, the State remains without an explicit plan concerning the fate of most low-lying coastal lands as sea levels continue to rise. The study further notes the lack of specific sea level rise statues and initiatives, but understands that these impacts are indirectly addressed through the aforementioned coastal regulations. In examining the 20 coastal county plans and several municipal plans, the report also found that, despite CAMA guidelines stipulating inclusion of sea level rise, most local governments have all but ignored this charge. Furthermore, the plans that do address the issue generally defer to the state to take action after further study. See below for more information concerning this report.

Along these same lines, many communities along the Carolina coast resist the idea of managed retreat. The Riggings condominium development in Kure Beach provides a prime example of a coastal development ripe for inland relocation, yet refuses to move. Instead of accepting a $3.6 million federal grant that would have helped them relocate their oceanfront condominiums across U.S. 421, the development has repeatedly obtained sandbag permits since 1985 to hold back rising seas. In 2008 (23 years after installation) the sandbags were still in place. In January 2008 the CRC denied the homeowners' request for another extension of their sandbag permit. Yet another twist in this long-running saga occurred in January 2009 when a New Hanover County Superior Court Judge ordered the N.C. Coastal Resources Commission to reconsider an extension for the sandbags at The Riggings. CRC again denied a variance request at its April 29, 2009 meeting. An article Sandbags: Temporary or Permanent? The Riggings Case Study goes over the history and legal arguments in this long-running case. In the future, it is hoped that coastal communities facing severe erosion issues, such as Riggings, will instead be forced to relocate further inland.

In another regressive proposal, State Senator R.C. Soles introduced legislation (Senate Bill 599, Inlet Stabilization Program) that passed the state Senate in May 2007 and would have allowed the N.C. Coastal Resources Commission to permit the construction of a groin as a "pilot project" to evaluate the effectiveness of such a structure to stabilize coastal areas suffering chronic erosion problems. As introduced, the Bill represents a significant departure from state policy against the use of hardened structures that has been in place for more than 20 years. The consideration of this legislation resumed in May 2008 but never got out of House committee. In March 2009 a newspaper article stated that a "less restrictive" (more groins) bill was likely to be introduced in N.C. General Assembly in 2009. In fact, Senate Bill 832 was introduced and was approved by the state senate in late April 2009. In August 2009 the N.C. House approved a Senate bill requiring the Coastal Resources Commission (CRC) to study the "feasibility and advisability" of using terminal groins to protect threatened beachfront property around inlets. This bill seems to be a compromise between the "pro" and "anti" terminal groin forces.

Nevertheless State agencies continue to work towards implementing and adopting policies that account for sea level rise. The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), for example, has recognized the necessity of adapting to climate change, summarizing its climate change adaptation strategy in the 2009-2013 Strategic Plan as follows:

"Proactively prepare for and adapt to changes we can’t prevent. Develop a comprehensive adaptation strategy to effectively identify and address potential impacts to the environment and natural resources we are charged with protecting."

The Planning for the Impacts of Sea-Level Rise and Climate Change Workshop was held Jan 31-Feb 1, 2007 to discuss and identify potential sea-level rise modeling and mapping tools that would help North Carolina both mitigate and adapt to future sea-level rise. The Workshop identified 5 major concerns and needs:

  1. Tools should incorporate information ascertained through scientific research and modeling that can be easily applied by state and local governments and large land owners when planning future land use and deciding on policy and regulations that affect coastal resources;
  2. Tools should forecast expected habitat changes, especially potential loss of habitats important for ecological services;
  3. Tools easy to translate to decision makers;
  4. Tools to enable easy understanding of potential risks to people and development due to future flooding and related hazards;
  5. Continued engagement of NOAA and their research partners with workshop attendees via email and the Web.

More information on the workshop.

North Carolina’s Coasts in Crisis: A Vision for the Future by Riggs, et al at East Carolina University is a "White Paper" produced for coastal managers, agencies, business owners, politicians, residents of and visitors to the coast. It provides recommendations for how to deal wisely with the issues of global climate change, more intense tropical storms, and sea-level rise so that the State can adapt to the coming changes, rather than be overwhelmed by them.

The North Carolina Beach, Inlet & Waterway Association’s 2007 Annual Conference theme was titled Everything You Always wanted to Know About Sea-level Rise, but were Afraid to Ask (and Other Timely Topics). Presentations and discussions ranged from the prospects of future climate and sea level change to the impacts of the predicted changes on North Carolina’s coastal economy, storm frequency and intensity, and well being of coastal development. Jeff Williams, a marine geologist from the US Geological Survey, expressed skepticism that coastal communities would be able to continue to respond to sea level rise using beach nourishment given the limited sand resources available throughout most of the state. He suggested instead communities begin planning for strategic retreat from the coast.

North Carolina’s Coastal Habitat Protection Plan is in the process of being updated to address climate change impacts on various habitat types. For example, through the EPA Climate Ready Estuaries program, Albemarle-Pamlico region is currently pursuing a project to improve area’s resilience and adaptation capacity.

Sponsored by a collaboration between NOAA’s Center for Sponsored Coastal Ocean Research and local research institutions, the Sea Level Rise: North Carolina Pilot Project aims to enhance managers’ ability to analyze and use climate-relevant info in decision making through sustained science. The Project provides state and local decision makers, as well as the general public, about local and regional effects of current and future sea level rise. The Project also includes a landscape model focused at mid- and long-range temporal and spatial scales for watersheds in Eastern Carolina, allowing users to explore the hydrodynamics and wetland interactions these estuary regions are expected to experience in the next 10 to 100 years. Numerous maps and modeling tools were also created to aid coastal managers and decision makers. The project, began in 2005, culminated in July 2009 with the NOAA Workshop: North Carolina Sea Level Rise Project: Application to Management. Building on the Project’s objectives, the Workshop focused on the bridging the gap between scientists and managers, and transitioning research results into resource management activities.

The Project further funded five additional studies concerning climate change and sea-level rise along the coast. These projects included storm surge inundation modeling, and overall serve to advance the State’s understanding of sea level rise and storm surge impacts within the coastal zone. The studies will further help North Carolina develop a suite of predictive tools to facilitate management capabilities to mitigate these impacts. The studies include:

a) Climate Change and Intertidal Risk Analysis: Forecasting the Effects of Climate Change on the Biogeography of Foundation Species in Estuarine and Rocky Intertidal Ecosystems (University of South Carolina Research Foundation)

b) Ecological Effects of Sea-Level Rise on Coastal North Carolina Marshes (University of South Carolina, Vanderbilt University, East Carolina University, and the U.S. Geological Survey);
c) Modeling Estuarine Habitat Response to Rising Water Level (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, UNC Institute of Marine Sciences);

d) Shore-Zone Modification in Response to Sea Level Rise in North Carolina Estuaries (East Carolina University and University of Pennsylvania).

For more information about the Sea Level Rise – North Carolina Pilot Project, read the NOAA Workshop: North Carolina Sea Level Rise Project: Application to Management White Paper released October 2009.

The North Carolina Interagency Leadership Team, a group of 11 state and federal agencies, released Climate Ready North Carolina: Building a Resilient Future in 2012 to communicate to planners and engineers in the public and private sectors the potential effects and risks due to climate change and extreme weather along with strategies for considering those effects and risks in project planning, design, and implementation. The emphasis is on practical, economically feasible options that can be undertaken by state agencies and local, regional, and federal partners.

In addition to the numerous adaptation documents and recommendations presented above, North Carolina also benefits from an extensive collection of erosion and sea level rise data. The DENR and North Carolina Sea Grant published Drowning the North Carolina Coast: Sea-Level Rise and Estuarine Dynamics in 2003, detailing erosion processes and rates along North Carolina’s northeastern estuarine shoreline. The Report includes information about the influence of sea-level rise in shoreline dynamics, as well as a discussion of the evolution of the estuarine system. Highly detailed, extensive maps and figures of the coastline are also provided for visual references. The Report also recognizes that an understanding of short- and long-term processes will enable managers to better deal with the dynamic coast and its changes. Recently, in March 2010, the North Carolina Coastal Resources Commission’s Science Panel on Coastal Hazards released North Carolina Sea-Level Rise Assessment Report. The Report includes the latest rates of relative sea-level rise along the North Carolina coast, sea-level rise rate projections through 2100, as well as recommendations for improved sea-level rise monitoring within the State. An addendum was released in 2012.

The Geological Society of America Special Paper Eye of a Human Hurricane: Pea Island, Oregon Inlet, and Bodie Island, northern Outer Banks, North Carolina by Riggs, et. al. provides a very informative history of both the natural and human-caused changes to these barrier islands. The paper's abstract concludes:

"As the coastal system responds to ongoing processes of rising sea level and storm dynamics, efforts to engineer fixes are increasing and now constitute a “human hurricane” that pits conventional utilization of the barriers against the natural coastal system dynamics that maintain barrier-island integrity over the long term."

The Office of Emergency Management conducted a North Carolina Sea Level Rise Risk Management Study: Potential Impacts, Risk Assessment and Management Strategies. The goal of the Study was to educate state and federal policy makers on the subject of the sea level rise impacts, in addition to fostering the development of risk management policy and evaluating potential changes in coastal flooding hazards due to sea level rise and changes in storm frequency and intensity. The Study was to include future flooding vulnerability up to 2100, with several sea level rise scenarios considered at each 25 year time slice. The study products also were to include a series of SLR inundation maps and a final report describing the identified hazards and risks. Preferred mitigation and adaptation options were also to be identified and discussed with guidance on applicability in various environments. Unfortunately, politics got in the way, and the following events unfolded, as described by Alexander Glass and Orrin Pilkey in Earth Magazine:

"In 2009, the North Carolina Coastal Resources Commission (CRC), a body that controls and regulates coastal development in North Carolina, tasked the 13 members of its advisory Science Panel to “prepare a report, based on a review of the published literature, of the known state of sea-level rise for North Carolina.” The report was also to include a summary of the latest projections of sea level through 2100.

Based on the latest scientific studies done both locally and globally, the Science Panel found that by 2100 a 40-centimeter sea-level rise is certain, 100 centimeters is likely, and 140 centimeters is possible. Not surprisingly, these sea-level rise estimates were consistent with those found by science panels in other states.

The assessment, published in March 2010, stated: “The Science Panel is confident that the [sea-level rise versus time] curves presented constrain the plausible range of sea level by 2100 as accurately as is possible at this time.” The Science Panel did not advocate for any particular response or policy to be enacted. However, they recommended that a 100-centimeter sea-level rise should be adopted as the basis for any future coastal management plan.

The report ignited a firestorm of controversy.

The opposition charge was led by the NC-20, a private group of business and local government individuals from each of the 20 coastal counties in the state. Originally formed to fight proposed insurance rate increases, they quickly adopted the sea-level rise report as their main target. The NC-20 correctly perceived that if regulations for development were based on a 100-centimeter sea-level rise, the cost to developers and homeowners would be enormous.

Fearing that the CRC was about to make the 100-centimeter projection a guideline for future development and long-term policymaking, the NC-20 sprang into action by meeting with members of the CRC and state legislators. Through a flurry of activities ranging from staging public presentations by known climate change deniers, lobbying state and county legislators, and releasing misleading statements to the media, the NC-20 was able to successfully coerce the CRC into rejecting the 100-centimeter projection. At the time, the only good news was that the CRC did not repudiate the entire science report, as the NC-20 had urged. However, this initial struggle over the Science Panel’s report would prove to be only the tip of the iceberg.

An immediate result of the NC-20-created controversy was the halting of the production, by the North Carolina Office of Emergency Management, of federally funded maps of projected coastal storm-surge inundation, assuming higher sea levels in the future. This is alarming because northeastern North Carolina has been recognized by NOAA as one of the three regions in the U.S. that are most susceptible to sea-level rise. North Carolina has coastal plains that slope so gently that a 30-centimeter rise in sea level could push the shoreline back three to six kilometers, rendering it particularly vulnerable to future storm surges. The other two regions with extreme risk from sea-level rise are the Mississippi Delta and South Florida.

House Bill 819
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 only with beachfront construction setback laws, the bill morphed into a direct attack against the Science Panel’s recommendations to the CRC. By mid-2012, the bill stipulated that only “historic rates of sea-level rise may be extrapolated to estimate future rates of rise but shall not include scenarios of accelerated rates of sea-level rise unless such rates are from statistically significant, peer-reviewed data and are consistent with historic trends.” 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).

Scott Huler, a blogger for Scientific American, was the first to characterize the proposed North Carolina legislation as a move to make sea-level rise illegal, a tongue-in-cheek, albeit serious, characterization that quickly achieved national notoriety. Huler eloquently noted that North Carolina’s legislative “inquisitors” would come to be classified along with Galileo’s papal persecutors — as having been on the wrong side of history — and that the bill was akin to basing weather forecasts on what one’s grandfather remembers.

Perhaps the most widely disseminated, satirical, yet erudite, criticism was provided by comedian Stephen Colbert, who waxed that the North Carolina legislature’s move to give in to the NC-20 pressures was a “brilliant solution … if your science gives you a result that you don’t like, pass a law saying that the result is illegal. Problem solved.”

The comedic ridicule must have been too much for the North Carolina legislature. 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. Furthermore, it essentially mandates which conclusions about sea-level rise must be included in the revised report, specifically requiring a “summary of peer-reviewed scientific literature that address[es] the full range of global, regional and North Carolina-specific sea-level change data and hypotheses, including sea-level fall, no movement in sea level, deceleration of sea-level rise, and acceleration of sea-level rise.”

This requirement is alarming. The few papers cited by the NC-20 that claim sea-level rise deceleration, stability or even sea-level fall have been discredited or been found deeply flawed by the scientific community. Indeed, this is the reason why they were not included in the Science Panel’s original assessment. Of course, the exclusion of these dubious papers has been spun by the NC-20 to support their assertion that the Science Panel report was biased and purposefully stripped of opposing views. It seems that the state legislature is now asking for a “book report” of all literature, so that legislators and coastal policymakers get to decide what science is good and what science is bad. This new requirement raises the question of why they have bothered to involve an expert science panel at all."

The North Carolina Division of Coastal Management is currently working on an estuarine shoreline mapping project to map estuarine shoreline, shoreline types, and coastal structures, with the goal of eventually mapping the entire North Carolina estuarine system. Once completed, the project will serve as a comprehensive tool help monitor and manage sea level rise, wetland retreat and loss, coastal erosion, and coastal development impacts.

DCM maintains a digital database of shorelines that is used to establish beachfront erosion rates and inlet processes. A collaborative effort between DWR and DCM will catalog, archive, and make available relevant coastal information (e.g., maps, reports, scientific monitoring data) to create a resource that will facilitate beach and inlet management and the development of a Beach and Inlet Management Plan. The final draft of North Carolina’s Beach and Inlet Management Plan (BIMP) is currently under review by the DENR, and is expected to be released in the near future. The final BIMP will represent a major accomplishment, and should provide a comprehensive sea-level rise adaptation strategy. A summary of the BIMP development process is available here.

A flood-mitigation grant program funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the state has financed raising about 100 homes in storm-prone Dare County over the last 20 years. More.

Additional References

  • The Dune Book, a publication of North Carolina Sea Grant, contains good information on how beaches work, erosion types, dune vegetation, and dune management practices.
  • The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Climate Change Committee Report 2009 addresses the significance of climate change in North Carolina, including a brief review of climate change science, an assessment of climate change trends and likely impacts on North Carolina, as well as the potential to mitigate and adapt to those impacts. The report puts the scientific understanding and popular conception of global climate change into the perspective of North Carolina’s geography, and discusses specific vulnerabilities to the coastal region. Opportunities for the state to be proactive in working to mitigate the impacts of climate change, while preparing an adaptive strategy to increase resilience to expected change are also identified.
  • In 2007, DCM conducted workshops on topics including Sea Level Rise, Coastal Development Rule Updates for Marine Contractors and Barrier Island Development Issues.
  • North Carolina Coastal Federation's 2009 State of the Coast report
  • For a more detailed overview of North Carolina’s coastal regulations, visit The Division of Coastal Management’s Current Rules Governing Coastal Development.
  • Measuring the Impacts of Climate Change on North Carolina Coastal Resources was released March 2007 to the National Commission on Energy Policy.
  • The website of the Carteret County Shore Protection Office.
  • An image gallery of several North Carolina Beaches is available on the website of Western Carolina University's Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines.
  • Another link about beach erosion in North Carolina which focuses on the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is here. The site also links to other pages that give a nice overview of beach erosion-related issues.
  • The Coastal and Marine Geology Program of the U.S. Geological Survey has generated a comprehensive database of digital vector shorelines and shoreline change rates for the U.S. Southeast Atlantic Coast (Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina). These data were compiled as part of the U.S. Geological Survey's National Assessment of Shoreline Change Project.
  • North Carolina Sea Grant (NCSG) is another source of information on beach erosion-related issues. Their website identifies an extensive list of NCSG publications.
  • The NCDCM has an informative Coastal Storms website, including:

General Reference Documents

EPA's Risk-Based Adaptation website (under the heading of Climate-Ready Estuaries) provides several resources and tools to help users identify, analyze, prioritize and reduce their climate change risks.

An informative publication is Ten Principles for Coastal Development (2007) by the Urban Land Institute.

The Coastal States Organization (CSO) has published two reports relating to climate change adaptation. The first is Coastal Community Resilience: An Evaluation of Resilience as a Potential Performance Measure of the Coastal Zone Management Act (July 2008). (No link to this could be found.) Developed by CSO staff and CSO’s Coastal Resilience Steering Committee, the document demonstrates the value of resilience to coastal management and offers concrete recommendations for enhancing resilience at the state and local level. The second document is The Role of Coastal Zone Management Programs in Adaptation to Climate Change (September 2008)(PDF, 732KB). The report includes detailed results of a 2008 adaptation survey designed to obtain up to date information on the status of adaptation planning, priority information needs, and the anticipated resource needs of the coastal states, commonwealths, and territories.

In April 2009, the Heinz Center and Ceres announced the release of their Resilient Coasts - A Blueprint for Action, to outline steps to reduce risks and losses in the face of growing threats. The Heinz Center and Ceres produced the blueprint with a coalition of leading insurers, public officials, risk experts, builders, and conservation groups. The blueprint is endorsed by many groups, including The Travelers Institute, The Nature Conservancy, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Wharton School, and the Mayor of Charleston, South Carolina. The blueprint includes policy changes and common sense actions that could reduce economic losses from future storms and rising sea levels by as much as half along U.S. coastlines. The blueprint outlines specific recommendations, including: enabling planning for climate impacts by providing the necessary science and decision-making tools; requiring risk-based land use planning; designing adaptable infrastructure and building code standards to meet future risk; strengthening ecosystems as part of a risk mitigation strategy; developing flexible adaptation plans; maintaining a viable private property and casualty insurance market; and integrating climate change impacts into due diligence for investment and lending. The coalition urges the Obama administration, Congress, local leaders and the private sector to see that blueprint actions are implemented through regulation, investment, education, and other means.

In January 2010 the National Association of Counties released Building Resilient Coastal Communities: Counties and the Digital Coast which highlights many of the Digital Coast resources that counties use to address coastal flooding, habitat conservation and land use. More resources, tools and data are available through NOAA's Digital Coast website.

More recently, NOAA Coastal Management has developed a Sea Level Rise and Coastal Flooding Impacts Viewer as part of its Digital Coast website. Being able to visualize potential impacts from sea level rise is a powerful teaching and planning tool, and the Sea Level Rise Viewer brings this capability to coastal communities. A slider bar is used to show how various levels of sea level rise will impact coastal communities. Completed areas include Mississippi, Alabama, Texas, Florida, and Georgia, with additional coastal counties to be added in the near future. Visuals and the accompanying data and information cover sea level rise inundation, uncertainty, flood frequency, marsh impacts, and socioeconomics.

StormSmart Coasts is a resource for coastal decision makers looking for the latest and best information on how to protect their communities from weather and climate hazards. StormSmart Legal is a new addition to the StormSmart Coasts Network that provides information about property rights, regulatory takings, and permissible government regulation in coastal areas.

In December 2012 NOAA's Climate Program Office released a report Global Sea Level Rise Scenarios for the United States National Climate Assessment. The report was produced in response to a request from the U.S. National Climate Assessment Development and Advisory Committee. It provides a synthesis of the scientific literature on global sea level rise, and a set of four scenarios of future global sea level rise. The report includes input from national experts in climate science, physical coastal processes, and coastal management.

NOAA's Coastal and Waterfront Smart Growth website is organized into 10 chapters describing different elements essential for communities interested in implementing coastal and waterfront smart growth. By clicking on the individual chapters, you can get a description of each Coastal and Waterfront Smart Growth Element, how this relates to the Coastal and Waterfront Issues, Tools and Techniques you can use in your community, and Case Studies of successes. Each chapter contains a navigation box allowing quick access to the information and the ability to download the content of each page. A 2012 report by NOAA and EPA on Achieving Hazard-Resilient Coastal & Waterfront Smart Growth presents ideas shared by smart growth and hazard mitigation experts related to building hazard-resilient coastal communities.

EPA has a website devoted to preparing for rising sea level and other consequences of changing climate. The premise of the Greenhouse Effect and Sea Level Rise website is that society should take measures to make our coastal development and ecosystems less vulnerable to a rise in sea level. The papers on this site demonstrate that numerous low-cost measures, if implemented, would make the United States less vulnerable to rising sea level. A more recent EPA website is Adapting to Climate Change, but was removed by the Trump administration.

Coastal Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerabilities (USGS-NOAA, January 2013) emphasizes the need for increased coordination and planning to ensure U.S. coastal communities are resilient against the effects of climate change. The report examines and describes climate change impacts on coastal ecosystems and human economies and communities, as well as the kinds of scientific data, planning tools and resources that coastal communities and resource managers need to help them adapt to these changes. Case studies are presented for Chesapeake Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.

In December 2012 the Lincoln Institute released Coastal States’ Climate Adaptation Initiatives: Sea Level Rise and Municipal Engagement (Working Paper). This paper explores how states and municipalities interact to address sea level rise, providing an overview of the state of practice, some reasons for different levels of action, and some of the needs of municipalities. It includes recommendations for ways states can provide adaptation support to municipalities.

Coastal Risk Reduction and Resilience: Using the Full Array of Measures, (pdf, 1.2 MB) published in September 2013, discusses the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' capabilities to help reduce risks to coastal areas and improve resilience to coastal hazards through an integrated planning approach. Federal, state, local, non-governmental organization and private sector interests connected to our coastal communities possess a complementary set of authorities and capabilities for developing more integrated coastal systems. The effective implementation of an integrated approach to flood and coastal flood hazard mitigation relies on a collaborative, shared responsibility framework between Federal, state, and local agencies and the public.

The National Climate Assessment is an extensive report released through the U.S. Global Change Research Program and produced by a large team of experts with the guidance of the Federal Advisory Committee. The report is put out every few years, with the most recent one being the 2014 National Climate Assessment and the next report expected to be released in 2018-2019. It includes numerous studies on the impacts of climate change on different economic sectors and geographic regions in the U.S. An important and applicable portion of the report is the Response Strategies section, which lays out actionable ways that decision-makers ranging from the federal government to private-sector companies can take to mitigate and adapt to climate change.


  1. NCDCM
  2. Coast to Coast, A Coast Alliance Newsletter on Coastal Conservation, Winter 2004

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
2011 7 SOTB Banner Small.jpg