Three years later, wider beach is more than holding its own

By on August 24, 2014

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South Nags Head Aug. 24. (Rob Morris)

Just before nightfall three years ago, a rusty apparatus resembling one of Blackbeard’s cannons coughed up a thin mixture of sand and water. A short time later, a stream of slurry arched onto the beach.

It was May 2011, and the Town of Nags Head’s experiment in beach nourishment was under way.

No one had ever tried to pump sand onto the beach on any large scale along the Outer Banks, which takes more of a pounding than probably any shoreline on the Eastern Seaboard.

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But after more than a year of fast-tracking the project, Nags Head was moving forward with widening 10 miles of oceanfront.

Pumping wrapped up near the end of August just as Hurricane Irene was spinning toward the coast. And the project did its job, putting the brakes on storm surf and reducing it to no more than a nuisance by the time it reached the dune line.

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Now, the latest assessment of the project shows that it has held up far better than even the optimists might have expected.

A quarterly survey issued in June shows that 97 percent of the 4.6 million cubic yards of sand pumped onto the beach from offshore dredges remains in the system out to a depth of 19 feet.

The survey notes that the only down side so far has been too much sand.

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Earlier this year, the town had to ask for an exemption from the state’s Division of Coastal Management to allow homeowners to push back wind-blown sand migrating over the dunes and cascading toward houses and swimming pools.

Former Mayor Bob Oakes was the patient and determined force behind the plan for the town to “go it alone” after the federal government failed to provide financing for nourishment along the Outer Banks, which Dare County officials had envisioned for more than two decades.

At a cost exceeding $30 million, the project was a huge investment that even Oakes willingly acknowledged was a risk.

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The public was wary, too, rescinding in a referendum a 1-cent sales tax for a countywide shoreline management fund and voting down an appeal for a town-wide tax increase in 2007 to pay for Nags Head’s project.

After a variety of attempts to come up with a financing solution, including a failed petition campaign asking oceanfront voters to foot the bill, town commissioners came up with a plan to cover half of the cost with the balance coming from the Dare County Shoreline Management Fund.

With the latest survey clearly showing that the project is working, the decision to gather 2 cents in property taxes town-wide and considerably more in special taxing districts on the oceanfront seems more than fair.

The people who benefit the most pay the most, while the rest, who depend indirectly on a decent beach, chip in what amounts to about $5 a month on a $300,000 house.

If anyone is still complaining, it must be in the privacy of their own homes. Most have cheered on decisions by Duck, Kitty Hawk and Kill Devil Hills to embark on a joint project to widen their beaches.

But Nags Head took the gamble first. And so far, critics can find little to seize upon except random photos of the narrowest section of beach when the wind is from the east at high tide.

Even those look good next to the dreary images of toppled houses, exposed septic fields, broken pipes and ugly sandbags along South Nags Head three years ago.

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