It seems like every few years, the islands are presented with a big initiative or change that naturally inspires debate, simply because it’s an endeavor that is potentially landscape-altering, and has never been introduced before.
Do a search in our IFP archives, and you’ll find tons of stories that fit this description. Notable examples include the onset of beach driving permits, (and all of the restrictions that came with it), or the switch from beer and wine sales to full liquor sales at local restaurants, which both occurred roughly a decade or so ago, and generated heated responses.
But if you think about the issues of the past, one of the biggest and most hotly contested stories was the replacement of the Bonner Bridge. Constructed in 1963, and operating well past its 30-year lifespan, the late 1990s and early 2000s were dominated by headlines about the best way to replace this delicate link to our islands. There were numerous initial options that ranged from a 17-mile structure that spanned from Oregon Inlet to Rodanthe, to an exact replica of what was currently in place, and there were tons of opinions on the best way to move forward.
Our incredible founder and Editor, Irene Nolan, followed the Bonner Bridge replacement story, and the ensuing debates, from start to finish. And while she passed away in 2017 before the new bridge came to fruition, she recognized from the get-go, (as she relayed to me), that “this is a story that everyone is interested in, so naturally, everyone has an opinion.”
She told me this early on during the Bonner Bridge discussions, (well before social media became a common opinion minefield), so it’s just another indicator of how she was ahead of her time, and truly understood how these big island changes affect us all.
Enter the Avon beach nourishment project.
This is a story that has a lot of similarities with its landscape-changing predecessors, as it is years in the works, and has garnered a lot of perpetual attention.
Roughly five years ago, Avon homeowners approached officials at the National Park Service, the Dare County Board of Commissioners, and the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) about how to address the huge erosion issue that was occurring in the central and southern regions of Avon village.
As recently as a decade or two ago, the homes along Ocean View Drive and the surrounding areas were protected by a double line of dunes that were well vegetated, and which ensured that the ocean couldn’t possibly encroach the oceanfront homes that were a solid 5-minute walk away, let alone cause flooding on N.C. Highway 12. But that is no longer the case.
Now, when flooding occurs on this stretch of shoreline, the water naturally flows over to N.C. Highway 12 and creates a saltwater barrier between northern Avon and the rest of the island. This happens during hurricanes to be sure, but it also happens during nor’easters, tropical storms, and strong northeast blows that happen to coincide with a big high tide.
So as an immediate solution, and to address Avon residents’ concerns, the community and the Dare County Board of Commissioners started eyeing a potential beach nourishment project.
Here’s a quick summary of why an Avon beach nourishment project was proposed.
I won’t waste your time by reiterating in detail why beach nourishment was chosen as the best option forward, but here is a quick synopsis. In 2003, the N.C. General Assembly banned any new hard structures on the beaches, such as seawalls and terminal groins, and Geotubes and offshore reefs were also not approved for use in North Carolina, making beach nourishment “the only available option,” per a February update from County Manager Bobby Outten. Also, Dare County has an established occupancy tax – which specifically goes towards a Beach Nourishment Fund – and the county has reportedly had success with a number of nourishment projects in the past, throughout the Outer Banks.
It’s also important to note that the goal of beach nourishment isn’t to protect homes and properties from flooding. It’s to protect the highway.
During 2011’s Hurricane Irene, N.C. Highway 12 was ripped to shreds in several locations north of Rodanthe. In 2003, Hurricane Isabel created a massive inlet in between Hatteras village and Frisco, cutting the southern corner of the island off from the rest of the world. (I still remember standing on the edge of a broken highway in Frisco, looking across a rapidly moving river of water, and seeing the remnants of northern Hatteras homes floating in the Pamlico Sound, with just the roofs and the top tier of sundecks visible over the water. It was pretty chilling.)
Buxton had its own nourishment project in 2017 and 2018, and the highway still floods when there is a storm, (or just a ridiculously angry ocean), no question. But the highway is intact, and N.C. 12 can generally be cleaned up and back in business after a day or so, without major structural damage, so the project is considered a success from the county’s perspective. Keep in mind, too, that beach nourishment is not a one-time project – maintenance is required every five years or so to keep it up to snuff, but luckily, once you have an engineered beach, you’re also eligible for additional funds – namely through FEMA – to help mitigate future costs.
Now let’s get to the debate.
At the IFP, we have received countless emails, phone calls, and social media comments about the proposed Avon beach nourishment project, and for good reason. As stated above, it’s a landscape-altering project that affects one of the largest segments of our population – Avon residents – so it’s justifiably a story that everyone is interested in.
The majority of our readers seem to be in favor of the project, on the whole. There is a general sense of “something has to be done, and if this is the best we can do, then so be it,” which is an overwhelming theme, especially when folks discover that more drastic changes – like a seawall – are not legally an option.
Whether or not to try a beach nourishment project to ease the flooding on N.C. Highway 12 is not the primary debate, it seems. Instead, the debate is centered on the proposed tax that will affect all property owners in Avon.
To summarize, per the project proposal, Avon property owners will pay approximately 50% of the beach nourishment project cost, and Dare County will pay the other 50% out of the Beach Nourishment Fund.
Dare County proposes to tax the properties on the oceanside of N.C. Highway 12 from Due East Road to Avon’s southern border at 25 cents per $100 dollars of the property’s Dare County tax value. The rest of the properties in Avon will be taxed at 5 cents per $100 dollars of the property’s Dare County tax value.
Is this a fair distribution? It depends on who is answering the question.
As a news source, our job is to relay information, and not to provide biased opinions on what should be or shouldn’t be. But considering that this topic has garnered dozens of comments at a February public meeting on the issue, as well as public comments at the March BOC meeting that passed a resolution to move forward with the paperwork to potentially form a special tax district in Avon, it’s certainly worth providing all arguments on the issue.
I’ve honestly been fumbling on the best way to present all comments, opinions, and sides of this tricky debate that includes arguments such as a tax between regions, resident versus non-resident status, and Avon residents versus everyone on Hatteras Island.
But thanks to you, our incredible readers, we have been able to get a detailed portrait of the many points and perspectives involved, through your invaluable feedback.
In that vein, and without judgement, here’s an overview of the points and counterpoints that have arisen since Avon beach nourishment has come onto our radar.
As I tell my friends, “as a reporter, my job is to not have an opinion… Unless you fill me with wine, and then I will have TONS of opinions, but they will mainly be about wine.” So I am not saying that any of these points or opinions are more valuable than others. I am just simply saying that they exist, and are part of the current conversation.
Debate Topic #1: Residents should pay more than non-residents
The “for” perspective: Dare County has specifically listed that one of the primary reasons for an Avon beach nourishment project is for the highway to stay intact, so that the county can continue to provide valuable services, like EMS and trash collection, which are utilized, year-round, by residents. In addition, a beach nourishment project directly benefits residents, who require an accessible way to conduct everyday activities, such as going to work or grocery shopping. Also, because the occupancy tax stems from vacation rental homes, non-resident property owners and their guests are already contributing more than permanent residents.
The “against” perspective: The majority of homes and properties most in danger of erosion are not owned by residents, but by property owners who have a second home to retreat to when N.C. Highway 12 becomes dangerously impassable. In addition, very few natives and lifelong residents built along the oceanfront, (which may have perpetrated the erosion issue), and instead, stuck to the “safer” areas that were well away from the beachfront. Avon residents are also the backbone of the tourism economy, and are responsible for the operation of stores, restaurants, and entertainment venues, which drives business to vacation rental homes on Hatteras Island to being with.
Debate Topic #2: All Avon properties should be taxed equally
The “for” perspective: Everyone in Avon suffers when N.C Highway 12 floods, and are cut off from accessing the southern portion of the island, as well as amenities like the post office and Food Lion. Flooding truly affects everyone in Avon, and even if an individual street or road is spared ocean overwash, a trip along N.C. Highway 12 is required to access essential businesses, or sometimes, to leave your driveway. Beach nourishment, (and the ensuing ability to reach local homes, businesses, etc.), will positively affect all Avon residents, and the cost should therefore be shared equitably.
The “against” perspective: Avon village, northern Avon, and other areas are not subjected to regular rounds of ocean overwash, and therefore do not incur the costs associated with repairs required after a storm. Several areas, such as Hatteras Colony or Avon village, are also subjected to soundside flooding on a regular basis, but because these events do not affect N.C. Highway 12, there are no current plans in the works about how to mitigate the issue. Properties that directly benefit from beach nourishment should pay more for the project, especially if the beach nourishment project does not incorporate remedies for soundside flooding concerns.
Debate Topic #3: Tax map should be divided into more than two areas
The “for” perspective: The proposed tax map for Avon, which determines whether you are taxed $.25 per $100 county tax value or $.5 per $100 county value, is based on two factors – whether you are within the project’s boundary, (from Due East Road to the southern village border), and whether you are on the oceanside or the soundside of N.C. Highway 12.
However, there are a number of properties within the $.25 proposed area that are on the oceanside, and are multiple lots away from the oceanfront, which have never been flooded. Some of these homes were constructed in the 1970s or 1980s, and have never been subjected to ocean flooding, and it is unfair that they have to pay a significantly higher tax simply because they are on the “wrong” side of the highway. In many cases, they are N.C. Highway 12 adjacent, and are properties that are literally 12 feet away from soundside homes, which are experiencing a significant discount simply because they are on the “right” side of the road.
The “against” perspective: Once you start dividing the map further, and compartmentalizing what properties should be taxed based on individual locations, it becomes an impossible splitting-hairs scenario. You then need to look at individual roads, property lots, proximity to the ocean, where ocean overwash occurs, (and where it may occur In the future, which is impossible to determine), and the end result becomes a complicated mess. The definition for defining a tax service district, like the district that will be required in Avon, is to identify the properties that receive the best and most direct benefit. In this case, it is the oceanside properties of N.C. Highway 12 which correspond with the project’s target area, as well as the project’s goals to protect the highway. Although some properties further back from the oceanfront may not flood now, creating more complicated tax brackets based on exact locale and historic or future flooding is not practical or even feasible.
Debate Topic #4: All of Hatteras Island and / or Dare County should be taxed
The “for” perspective: Avon may directly benefit from a lack of flooding, but for many visitors, Avon is not the destination, but simply a village to drive through while visiting the Outer Banks. N.C. Highway 12 access is certainly not limited to folks who live and stay in Avon, and considering that the Cape Hatteras National Seashore receives more than 2 million visitors annually, it is safe to assume that access along the highway in Avon is essential to allow visitors to traverse the island in its entirety, which includes southern Hatteras Island and Ocracoke. If N.C. Highway 12 is inaccessible, that means that everyone south of Avon also can’t get to required services and amenities up the beach, such as medical facilities, workplaces, or grocery stores.
In addition, Hatteras Island is a huge draw for northern Outer Banks visitors, as many folks who stay from Nags Head to Carova consider a day trip to Hatteras or Ocracoke an integral part of their vacation. Keeping N.C. Highway 12 open and accessible is beneficial to everyone on the Outer Banks, and not just Avon residents, and everyone in the county who benefits should be taxed accordingly.
The “against” perspective: There is a precedent here, which started with the first Nags Head beach nourishment project a decade ago, and which continued with local projects, including the recent one in Buxton. For all past beach nourishment projects, the town or village affected paid for half of the tax, while the county paid for the other half, and changing this could cause some devastating financial effects for all island residents in the future. For example, if a future beach nourishment project in Rodanthe or Nags Head is orchestrated, and it has been determined that all county residents should chip in, that means that Avon residents would have to also pay taxes for projects in those towns, even though they do not see a direct benefit. So if you force all county or island residents to pay for an Avon project, then everyone will be on the hook for any future projects down the road, throughout the Outer Banks.
In addition, in order to establish a special tax service district to fund a project, (which is required in unincorporated Dare County), you need to demonstrate at the start that the service district is specifically for the area that best benefits from a project. This would be hard to do, and hard to approve on a state level, if your “service district” includes villages that are miles outside of the project guidelines.
Finally, when the Buxton Beach Nourishment project was approved, only the newly established tax district in Buxton experienced a tax hike – not Avon or the other villages.
Debate Topic #5: No Dare County or Hatteras Island property owner should be taxed
Unfortunately, while this is a perfectly valid and justifiable point, there is no sense in chronicling a list of “for” or “against” augments, because finding additional funding sources is not feasible in the immediate future.
The National Park Service does not promote shoreline alteration projects, like beach nourishment, and one of the main reasons why it’s OK on Hatteras Island right now is because our superintendent, David Hallac, is amazing, and is continually attuned to the community’s needs. In addition, the folks at NCDOT are rock stars at getting our highway back to where it belongs after a storm, but they only assist in emergency situations, when there is significant flooding and damage to the roadway, (like 2011’s Irene or 2003’s Isabel.)
Dare County has reached out to numerous administrations since the first beach nourishment proposal in the late 1980s and 1990s, to no avail. There is a new administration in place, but starting the process of researching funds, grants, and allowances, etc., (yet again), will take years. And if you have spent any time in Avon in the past 12-36 months, you know that we don’t have years to wait, nor the income to address a more substantial problem when it steadily gets worse over time. As County Manager Bobby Outten put it during the February public meeting, a beach nourishment project has to be done as soon as possible because right now is as “cheap as it’s going to get.”
Simply put, when it comes to restoring our shorelines, we are on our own, as we have been for every nourishment project to date.
The bottom line
Keep in mind, dear readers, that if I missed a valid argument or debate topic, I genuinely encourage you to let me know.
I’m grateful for the folks who have called me with their concerns on this issue, and who have provided opportunities to further understand the debate. Your input shapes the story, because our community’s insight and reactions are what continually moves us forward in the best possible direction.
This was true when Irene wrote about ORV permits, beach closures, and the new bridge, and it’s true today as we discuss the future of Avon. Irene relied on her readers to guide the story, and heaven knows I’m not going to break a brilliantly functioning wheel.
You can email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I can update our future stories as needed with your valuable input.
There will certainly be more stories on Avon Beach Nourishment as the project grinds through the intricacies of red tape to establish a new service district, vote on the approval of said service district, and allow the project to come to fruition.
In the meantime, there is something to be said about being a part of a little slice of history – as we were during the Bonner Bridge replacement project – and having our voices heard.
I hope you’ll continue to share your feedback, your comments, and your debates and opinions, because it’s only through community input that we’ll get to create a better island.