Reprinted by permission of The News & Observer of Raleigh, North Carolina
November 20, 1997
The News & Observer
Shell Island again seeking sea wall
By CRAIG WHITLOCK AND TODD RICHISSIN; STAFF WRITERS
WRIGHTSVILLE BEACH -- In a move that would challenge North Carolina's strict policy on coastal development, the owners of the Shell Island Resort say they intend to renew a push to build a permanent wall to hold back the sea.
A shifting inlet has lapped within yards of the condominium hotel, which has become a hotly debated test case for North Carolina's approach to oceanfront construction. State policy forbids hardened barriers to protect private property from the sea, but Shell Island representatives said this week that they have no other choice to save their $22 million investment.
For two years, Shell Island's owners have insisted to state officials that they intended to dredge and relocate the inlet that is rapidly eroding the sand and imperiling the resort. But those plans have fallen apart because of opposition from a neighboring property owner.
The Shell Island owners now say a large sea wall probably is the only way to protect their property from the encroaching waters, which threaten to maroon or wash away the nine-story building at the northern tip of Wrightsville Beach.
The fate of the resort is being watched closely. Environmentalists contend that making an exception for Shell Island would set a precedent and seriously weaken the state's long-standing ban on sea walls and other barriers. They say it would encourage other developers to build in risky areas by the ocean.
Shell Island's owners say they plan to press the state for permission to build a sea wall anyway.
"The only thing that will control an inlet is a barrier," said Forrest DeShields, president of the Shell Island Homeowners Association. "Dredging is not going to work."
When developers sought permission to build the resort in the early 1980s, the state required them to acknowledge that they were building in a hazardous area and that North Carolina would not allow construction of a wall if the sea later threatened the property.
Although the developers signed papers agreeing to those conditions, the current owners of Shell Island said that they were unaware of the restrictions and that they think they have a legal right to to build a protective wall.
"I don't think that's true," DeShields said when asked if he had seen the original agreement. "The Constitution says you have the right to protect your property."
The state Coastal Resources Commission grudgingly voted 5-4 in January to allow Shell Island to build a wall of giant sandbags as temporary protection. The commission stipulated that the sea wall could stand for no more than two years after it was put in place. That means it must be removed by August 1999.
The clear understanding was that the owners of Shell Island would use the time to secure permits for the dredging project, which would rechannel Mason Inlet a half-mile north of the resort and diminish the erosion threat.
"A wall was not considered to be a long-range solution," said Eugene Tomlinson Jr., the commission chairman, who cast the tie-breaking vote to allow the temporary barrier. "The dredging was considered to be a long-range solution.
''I'd be very much surprised if they came back asking for a permanent wall, considering they were turned down twice and narrowly got the temporary barrier through on their third attempt.
"The bottom line is, we've got to hold the line on hardened structures."
Sea walls are common along the coast in Florida and New Jersey. Geologists say that while the walls may protect the property behind them, they worsen beach erosion in front of the walls and elsewhere.
The Shell Island Homeowners Association had hoped to dredge Mason Inlet in a joint venture with the owners of Figure Eight Island, an exclusive development of expensive homes just across the inlet. Figure Eight Island residents viewed the project as a way to get tons of sand to replenish their island's eroded beaches.
The two sides had discussed a plan to cut a new path for the inlet through the southern tip of Figure Eight Island. But the owners of a tract that would have been affected by the project rejected the idea, effectively scuttling the deal.
"The plan that was proposed last year has turned out not to be feasible," said William A. Rainey Jr., a Wilmington lawyer who represents the Figure 8 Beach Homeowners Association. "We were unable to negotiate an arrangement with the property owners, and without their approval we can't do it."
The undeveloped property is owned by the George Henry Hutaff Trust. The Hutaff family has been a major landowner along North Carolina's southeastern coast for generations.
Oliver C. Hutaff Jr., who represents the trust, didn't want to elaborate on his family's opposition to the dredging project. "I don't have any comment I want to make about that at all," he said in a brief telephone interview from his home in Kamuela, Hawaii.
Figure Eight Island now intends to pursue a separate dredging project to replenish its beach that does not involve either Shell Island or the Hutaff property. Rainey declined to disclose details except to say that the association probably will apply for a permit by the end of the year.
Meanwhile, Shell Island's owners are reconsidering their own plans. They are looking at alternatives for the type of barrier they want to build, including a field of giant boulders and a hard plastic sea wall.
At some point, however, they will have to go back to the Coastal Resources Commission for approval. And indications are that they can expect a frosty reception.
Some commission members said they were angry to learn that Shell Island had used a taxpayer-financed loan to build its temporary sea wall. Before the wall was approved, the resort's attorneys had told the commission that no public money would be used.
The News & Observer reported this month that the Shell Island Homeowners Association had received a $1.5 million federal disaster loan from the Small Business Administration after Hurricane Fran and had used at least part of the money for the sandbag wall. In addition, federal records show, the SBA made 14 low-interest loans totaling $115,200 to people who own condominiums at the resort.
The commission is scheduled to discuss the federal loans today at a meeting in Wilmington.
DeShields, the association president, said opposition to Shell Island is based on a mistaken perception that its owners are wealthy tycoons who care nothing about the surrounding beaches. There are 169 separate owners of units in the building, he said, and most of the units are rented to vacationers.
He also said Shell Island's battle against the sea has been expensive; $1.8 million has been spent so far on legal fees, consultants, environmental studies and the temporary wall.
To pay for it, owners of the units have been assessed more than $10,000 each, in addition to their regular dues, DeShields said.
Estimated Printed Pages: 4
photo; map; Shell Island Resort; staff
The waters of Mason Inlet lap ever closer to Shell Island Resort
at the northern tip of Wrightsville Beach. The property owners
say a plan to dredge the inlet and shift it northward has fallen
Staff Photo By Jim Bounds
Copyright 1997 by The News & Observer Pub. Co.
Record Number: 1997323104
©1999, Alec M. Bodzin for the Science Junction, NC State University. All rights reserved.
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