RALEIGH, N.C. — Coastal towns may be better off buying out beachfront property owners than spending years trying to protect those homes from floods, erosion and shifting sands, a study of North Topsail Beach, N.C., concludes.
The Western Carolina University Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines, in a study released Sunday, found that it would be cheaper to purchase 347 properties in North Topsail Beach that are at risk from storm surge, flooding, erosion and inlet migration than to spend millions over 30 years to protect them by constantly rebuilding beaches, maintaining sandbag walls, and building a barrier in the water, called a groin, to control erosion.
North Topsail Beach is a small town on a barrier island near an inlet, which are erosion hot spots.
The study puts the cost to purchase the properties at $30.1 million. Adding the lost property tax revenue, the cost to remove the buildings and sandbag walls brings the cost to $54.8 million over 30 years, including inflation and appreciation. Removing the buildings would save $57.6 million over 30 years by avoiding the fight to keep them from flooding or falling into the water.
Vulnerable seaside properties typically aren’t eligible for FEMA-supported property buyout programs that aim to get people and houses out of flood-prone areas. FEMA will help pay for properties that are primary residences. Vacation homes aren’t eligible.
Even without state or federal contributions, it would be worth it for coastal communities to consider buying and removing residences from areas in the greatest jeopardy, the report said.
In an interview, Robert S. Young, director of the Western Carolina program, said he wants the study to start conversations in coastal towns about what would be best for their communities. The report on North Topsail is one of a series the center plans to produce, he said. Others will focus on communities outside North Carolina.
“What we really hope it will do is give town officials across the state something to think about and something to talk about,” Young said. “Let’s have an open discussion about what is and isn’t feasible.”
A buyout of the most vulnerable properties would allow local officials to concentrate more attention and money on less threatened areas of the community, and would increase public access to the beach, the report said.
“If you can refocus all the administrative energy and emergency management funding to the 93% that is sustainable over the long term, that is really a positive argument for all of this,” Young said.
North Topsail Mayor Dan Tuman isn’t buying it. Tuman said he’s heard the buyout suggestion before, but does not think it would work.
“It works only if all the property owners agree and people are not going to agree,” Tuman said.
And Tuman said $30 million wouldn’t be enough to buy all the properties in a zone called the inlet hazard area, which is at a higher risk of erosion and flooding. The properties in that zone have a value of $100 million, Tuman said.
“I think he is unrealistic,” Tuman said.
Young said Tuman is talking about an area larger than the focus of the report.
Not all property owners would agree to sell, Young said, but the study isn’t meant to offer a plan for immediate action.
“The point is to say this should be one of the tools in the toolbox,” Young said. “Everyone should take it seriously.”