The Pollution Lobby: Shoreline for Sale Whatever happened to the Year of the Coast?
Governor Jim Hunt declared 1994 the Year of the Coast and publicly endorsed a long list of reforms to safeguard our coastal resources. To appreciate what’s happened since, come to exclusive Bald Head Island and behold its newest weapon against beach erosion — an enormous sand-filled fabric tube, stretching 300 feet from the dunes into the ocean.
Called a groin, this tube and 15 others spaced along 1.3 miles of Bald Head’s south-facing beach are supposed to slow the sand’s migration westward. Each one is nine feet wide and weighs 350 tons. As formidable as the groins are, they symbolize something even more formidable: the power of a wealthy elite to use political influence to divert coastal management policies to its own narrow interests.
Bald Head Island is one of the hottest pieces of North Carolina real estate. Located below Wilmington, at the confluence of the Cape Fear River and the Atlantic Ocean, the island comprises thousands of acres of tidal creeks, marshes, maritime forests and beaches — plus a championship golf course, tennis courts, and hundreds of condos and houses, with more going up each week. There’s no road to Bald Head; if you don’t own a boat, fork over $15 for the 40-minute ferry ride.
The island’s mayor is former Raleigh Mayor Tom Bradshaw, a Democratic fundraiser and former Secretary of Transportation. Another part-time resident, James Harrington, was a Republican Secretary of Transportation and chaired the Coastal Resources Commission under Gov. Jim Martin. Stuart Dickson, head of Harris Teeter supermarkets, and Thomas Storrs, retired NationsBank chair, have homes here. So do dozens of other corporate executives, state legislators, county commissioners, attorneys, doctors, bankers, developers.
These are North Carolina’s political cream. Campaign reports show that Bald Head landowners donated at least $800,000 to state-level politics from 1989 to 1995. Gov. Hunt received $100,500 of that amount. Attorney General Mike Easley got $50,600.
The most influential part-time resident — and the man behind the groin tubes — is 76-year-old Walter Davis, a Texas millionaire and powerhouse in North Carolina politics. Davis grew up in eastern North Carolina and moved to booming west Texas in 1952 to start an oil-transport business. His empire eventually included a Florida oil refinery, a Texas oil-and-gas production company, and such real-estate interests as Cary’s Kildaire Farms development. Before selling in 1983, he co-owned Bald Head Island.
“He’s tougher than hell,” J. Ed Thompson of Permian Basin Petroleum told the News & Observer. “And if he has to squash somebody to do what he has to do, he’ll do it. But I don’t remember anyone saying he’s dishonest.”
Nor is he uncharitable. He gave UNC-Chapel Hill $1 million for the Dean Smith Center and has donated to most schools in the northeastern part of the state. The library at UNC-Chapel Hill bears his name.
Davis is generous politically, too — in fact, he’s the single largest donor to North Carolina politicians. Davis and his wife gave $169,500 to influence state-level elections from 1989 to 1995, including $8,000 to Gov. Hunt and $12,500 to Attorney General Mike Easley.
“One of the main reasons that I give money, outside of the fact that I think they’re good people and deserve to be in office and will do a good job, is to get to talk to them,” Davis once told WUNC-FM. “You need to keep the door open. If you can’t talk to people, you can’t get anything done.”
When Davis saw the beach in front of his $400,000 Bald Head home disappearing, he had good reason to think the governor’s door would be open.
Bald Head’s South Beach is rapidly eroding due to natural forces. Regular dredging of Wilmington’s shipping channel, at the west end of the island, might contribute to the problem, although scientists disagree on this point.
With prime real estate eroding, Davis and Bald Head leaders advocated a simple though costly solution. First, dump the dredged sand from the channel onto Bald Head’s beach, a process called “renourishment.” (The island tried this in 1991, but in two years nearly all the new sand was gone.) Second, install “hard structures” to stop or at least slow erosion.
But unlike New Jersey and Texas, North Carolina has banned seawalls and other hard structures since 1985. Seawalls damage the coastline “by altering the natural dynamics of waves and sand,” says Duke University geologist Orrin Pilkey. While they might protect one stretch of beach, they generally worsen erosion on the downdrift side of the groin or seawall.
The state has made a couple of exceptions to protect public resources, such as at Fort Fisher. Now Bald Head wanted an exception to protect property in front of private homes.
“The geographic location of Bald Head Island presents a textbook case for some kind of structural retention of sand,” says James Harrington, who was Walter Davis’ partner in developing the island. He believes the channel sucks sand away from Bald Head’s beach and also prevents it from moving further west, so trapping the sand with groins wouldn’t rob any downdrift island.
During the early ’90s, Davis squabbled with the state about protecting his house with sandbags or a bulkhead. Then, in 1994, four things happened:
* Davis sued the state, claiming the ban on hard structures amounted to an unconstitutional “takings” of his property since he couldn’t stop its erosion.
* Bald Head’s government applied for a permit to renourish a long stretch of South Beach and install sand-filled groins.
* State regulators told the village it could renourish the beach but said the groins would violate the seawall ban.
* The village appealed the regulators’ denial of its groins to the Coastal Resources Commission, the policy-making body that hears appeals.
That’s when Davis decided to meet with the governor.
In a January 1995 letter to Hunt, Davis recaps the meeting: “I told you that the [state regulators] had not done any experiments with the use of hardened structures at the beach. They continue to be perfectly entrenched in the idea of letting our coast go out to sea.”
Hunt wrote back, promising to investigate and adding a handwritten postscript, “I will get some answers.” His then-executive assistant, Ed Turlington (whose uncle owns land on Bald Head) sent a copy of the Davis’ letter to Jonathan Howes, secretary of the Department of Environment, Health and Natural Resources (DEHNR), with a note: “Jon, Please call me about this.”
Hunt’s spokesperson Rachel Perry insists, “Walter Davis was treated no differently than any other citizen who brings an issue to the governor’s attention.” But in the weeks after Hunt and Davis met, things started happening. The Attorney General’s lawyer leading the state’s defense against Davis’ lawsuit met privately with Davis. Memos flew back and forth. State officials conferred. Each side proposed terms for settling, with one consistent theme: Davis would not drop the suit without assurances that structures could be installed to protect his property.
Finally, on March 21, the state and Davis signed a letter of agreement. Davis would withdraw his suit and Secretary Howes would recommend approval of Bald Head’s request for groins, reversing the earlier denial. “The area within which the groin field would be authorized . . . includes the lands immediately in front of and to the east of the Davis property,” the agreement said.
The next day, Howes sent a letter urging the Coastal Resources Commission to approve the tubes. A day later, the CRC voted to grant Bald Head an exception or “variance” to build its groin field.
State officials emphatically deny that Walter Davis’ campaign donations affected the outcome. “We’ll admit that he was able to get the variance because he was rich, but not because of political favoritism,” says Alison Davis of DEHNR. Walter Davis’ wealth bought him a high-priced lawyer with experience in arguing “takings” cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. By settling out of court, the state kept the seawall ban from being ruled unconstitutional, she explains. “We did not want to risk losing that rule.”
Critics say the variance will encourage other wealthy landowners to seek seawalls. Indeed, in March 1996, condo owners on Shell Island sued the state for refusing to let them install structures to block erosion.
Bald Head’s politicking didn’t end with the groin permit. The Davis agreement letter also stipulated that the state would help obtain sand to nourish the beach from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which dredges the Cape Fear River Canal. For the next nine months, Hunt and his top environmental officials lobbied the Army Corps for quick action.
In September 1995, Gov. Hunt wrote Army Secretary Togo West, with a scribbled postscript: “Mr. Secretary, this dredging is needed right away. Our valuable and historical Bald Head Island is beginning to wash away. Please do everything possible to start it as soon as possible!”
At one point in the fall, delays and financing problems with the beach nourishment threatened to scuttle the Davis agreement and restart court action. At another point, with the settlement still not final, Davis and his wife sent a $4,000 campaign donation to Attorney General Mike Easley — an action that brought editorial scolding when it came to light months later.
Finally in November 1995, DEHNR’s then-assistant secretary, Joan Weld, met with village mayor Tom Bradshaw and developer James Harrington. (Weld is a Bald Head homeowner and now the governor’s executive assistant.) According to Weld’s notes, the men wanted more state pressure on the Corps to make the dredging a higher priority. The notes say, “Harrington can get to Lauch [Faircloth] and Jesse [Helms],” the state’s U.S. senators.
The lobbying campaign climaxed several days later, on Dec. 6, when DEHNR Secretary Howes jetted to Washington to meet with Bradshaw, a staffer for Rep. Charlie Rose and top Army Corps officials. Three weeks later, the Corps approved the dredging. Several weeks later, Bald Head’s beach got 560,000 cubic yards of new sand, and by late May 1996 the 16 groins were in place.
According to conservationists, the energy state officials devoted to help Bald Head contrasts sharply with their lack of commitment to tackle real environmental crises. In public, Gov. Hunt talks tough about coastal protection, but where is the follow-through?
As part of the 1994 Year of the Coast, Hunt appointed a high-powered panel called the Coastal Futures Commission headed by Richardson Preyer, a former U.S. representative and federal judge. The commission spent a year studying a slew of issues and produced 106 pages of findings. “Contamination from a variety of sources,” the report said, “has closed once-productive shellfish waters, accounting for the loss of 18 percent of the state’s clam-harvesting waters. As urban development encroaches, important ecosystems such as wetlands, maritime forests and fish habitats continue to be damaged or destroyed.”
The highly trumpeted report outlined 200 recommendations for strengthening the 20-year-old Coastal Area Management Act. But even before its final release, developers attacked it. “The underpinning of all the draft recommendations seems to be that the quality of coastal waters is degrading,” wrote Paul Wilms, a lobbyist for the N.C. Home Builders Association and former director of the Division of Environmental Management. “In fact, the quality of the state’s estuarine waters is improving!” Wilms claimed many proposals were “without technical justification and unnecessary.”
That sentiment spread to coastal counties. To get the plan enacted, “the people we really needed were the local governments,” recalls a Coastal Futures Commission staffer. But “the Paul Wilmses of the world — the developers and others who were likely to oppose the process — began to run around and say, ‘Hey, look what they’re doing to you.’ By the time the report came out in September 1994, we had already lost the battle with local governments.”
Two years later, the state has done little to implement its proposals. “I don’t see a political will for pushing things onto another level,” says an employee at DEHNR’s Division of Coastal Management (DCM). “We’re just slowing the pace [of destruction] somewhat. There’s no protection of the coast going on.”
Roger Schecter, who heads DCM, says the report came out at a bad time — two months before the Republican’s 1994 election victories. The new House Environment Committee chair, New Bern Republican John Nichols, threatened to dismantle the state’s coastal-area management program. The GOP sweep “threw a lot of cold water” on new initiatives, Schecter says.
Conservationists don’t just blame Republicans. Rather, they say developers have polluted politics with campaign money and used their special access to convince politicians that new regulations will hurt economic growth.
As one measure of money from developers, the Institute for Southern Studies analyzed campaign donations from members of the Alliance for Balanced Coastal Management, a now-defunct anti-environment lobby. From 1989 to 1995, Alliance members gave $360,400 to influence state elections.
Money makes a difference. “The road map has been clearly identified,” says Todd Miller of the N.C. Coastal Federation, referring to the Coastal Futures Commission’s recommendations. “But because of the political giving, the mechanism for dealing with these problems has not been responsive.”
One key state body unresponsive to the need for bold initiatives is the Coastal Resources Commission, the 15-member board that regulates development in 20 coastal counties. Once considered innovative, the CRC enacted the 1985 seawall ban, one of the nation’s first. Then Republican Gov. Martin responded to lobbying by the Alliance for Balanced Coastal Management and stacked the commission with pro-development members — including Kent Mitchell, whose family bought Bald Head from Walter Davis. Seven Martin appointees are still on the CRC, and some Hunt appointees are even less friendly to the environment.
As a result, reforms upsetting to developers get sidetracked while some older policies are rehashed. “An incredible waste of time and energy has been put in the cycling and recycling of oceanfront hardening rules,” says Dan Besse, a former CRC member. “As long as [developers] could keep the CRC wasting its time on a settled issue, we couldn’t spend time on the pressing issues.”
One of the most pressing issues the CRC has avoided is development along the 4,400 miles of estuarine shoreline — where the mainland bumps up against the sounds, rivers and bays that make coastal North Carolina such an ecological treasure. Developers see waterfront property as a different treasure.
A brochure for a new Weyerhaeuser development boasts, “The Cypress Landing setting will include the click of golf balls being hit toward greens and bunkers overlooking the scenes of sunrises and sailors. Soon the sounds will include the musical flapping of rigging lines against masts bobbing from the bay breezes.”
Two aerial photographs of creek side land in Pamlico County, owned mostly by Weyerhaeuser, record the pace of development. The 1986 picture is bare of houses. Nine years later, houses dot the subdivided land, with piers lining the creek. Now the state is about to close the creek to shellfishing because of pollution.
Estuarine waters are far more fragile than oceanfront beaches. Construction puts sediment and pollutants into the bays and sounds. Marinas spill gas and oil into shellfish beds. Bulkheads destroy salt marshes. Fertilizers from golf courses cause algae blooms. Septic tanks fail, prompting new central sewage systems, which encourage more building.
To address mainland over development, the Coastal Futures Commission recommended identifying “Areas of Environmental Concern” that need extra protection. In those areas, the state would mandate buffers of plants and trees (which filter out pollution) between estuarine waters and new construction. But developers oppose such buffers, and the CRC has not acted.
Don Kirkman, an economic developer in Morehead City, says buffers would make it harder to build houses with waterfront views. “You’re essentially eliminating the market value of that piece of property,” he says.
CRC chair Ernest Tomlinson says he’d like to see the commission give estuarine development “priority attention.” But he adds that “lots of issues” compete for time, including steady pressure to “backslide” on the seawall ban. Tomlinson insists the CRC isn’t yielding to developers. He notes that it has started talking about new strategies to control growth through comprehensive planning. “Growth is moving far ahead of the ability to provide sustainable services,” he says. “We have got to start addressing that, or we are going to lose the whole ball of wax.”
Miller of the Coastal Federation says he only wishes the CRC would back its tough talk with solid action. “While the commission hasn’t done a tremendous amount of harm, it hasn’t done much good either,” he says.
And that’s a dangerous thing. Doing nothing means letting developers set the agenda at a time when it will take aggressive leadership to prevent more disasters like the Neuse River fish kill.
“Given what’s happening to the coast,” Miller say, “having a commission that’s ineffective is criminal.”