Commentary: The case for Currituck Outer Banks beach nourishment to protect county’s economy

Commentary: The case for Currituck Outer Banks beach nourishment to protect county’s economy

May 3rd, 2023

By Edward Cornet
Currituck County’s economy depends heavily on beach tourism, which generates about half of the county’s tax revenues. The Currituck Department of Travel and Tourism estimates that this saves every county family over $3,000 per year in tax payments.

Dr. Edward Cornet

However, beach erosion poses a significant threat to this source of revenue.

The county’s recently completed three-year beach study has identified areas of erosion that need immediate attention. By implementing a cost-effective beach nourishment program, the county can protect its economy and preserve tax benefits for its citizens.

As a physicist and retired professor in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Kenan-Flagler Business School, I have studied Currituck’s economy and beach erosion.

The engineering study’s data and interpretations are well-founded, and the future economic impacts of beach erosion are supported by county data.

Three key points must be emphasized:
First, beach erosion is a real but manageable threat to Currituck County’s economy. The most immediately threatened beach areas are those that contribute the most to the economy. Loss of pools and homes in these areas would damage Corolla’s beach brand for years to come.

However, only a few miles of the total 23-mile-long beach need immediate attention.

Most of the dune heights along the beach exceed the minimum FEMA standards, and the total sand volume along these 23 miles has remained stable, giving assurance that new sand brought in will provide longer-lasting protection.

Second, beach nourishment has proven effective for hundreds of East Coast beach tourist areas. Over 2,000 successful beach nourishment projects have been completed by local governments along the East Coast over the last 50 years. These projects provide the current guidelines for successful projects.

Sand is dredged from the sea bottom more than a mile off-shore and pumped through the surf zone to the public beach. This expands the dry sand beach seaward, and raises its elevation to keep it attractive to tourists.

The more gentle slope of the ocean bottom in the “breakers” area just offshore helps absorb the energy of those waves, especially during storms.

That helps prevent more rapid erosion of the public beach and dunes, protecting the oceanfront tax base from direct damage and preventing ocean overwash flooding of septic fields, roads and properties well off the beach.

Finally, beach nourishment is economically feasible for a tourism area like Corolla. In the heart of Corolla’s paved road area, a mile of beach hosts over 4,000 guests during a typical summer week, more than 60,000 each season.

These guests are housed in single-family homes with a tax valuation of more than $300 million per mile. Tourist spending and homeowner taxes generate more than $40 million dollars of tax revenues per mile of beach over a ten-year period.

Last year alone, total occupancy tax contributions were over $18 million. Of this, two thirds are designated by law for tourism projects, including beach nourishment. Thus, over $12 million was available last year.

The cost of beach nourishment for Corolla would be between four and six million dollars per mile based on recent projects. Although significant, this cost can be covered by adding a special tax district and supplementing it with a portion of the $12 million per year of Occupancy Tax designated for tourism projects.

This would allow the county to nourish a couple of miles of beachfront every year as needed to maintain its market attractiveness in perpetuity without increasing taxes on the mainland property owners while protecting the $3,130 tax savings for each mainland family.

In summary, the three-year engineering study shows that the beach erosion threat to Corolla is real but manageable if the County can begin the process quickly.

Tourism revenues can be used to maintain a wide, attractive public beach that protects beach-area property investments.

The cost can be covered by a modest diversion of Occupancy Tax funds designated for beach nourishment plus a special tax district on beach properties.

By taking action now, the county can protect its economy and preserve tax benefits for its citizens.

Edward Cornet, PhD, is a physicist who spent most of his business career advising International companies on high tech investments.  He served as a partner and board member of Booz Allen Hamilton an international management consulting firm.  Upon retirement he became  a Professor in the UNC Business School training MBA students in Business Strategy.  He has owned an oceanfront home in Corolla since 1993 that became his full time residence fifteen years ago.

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