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Legislative fight over Oregon Inlet renewed

RALEIGH Ever since a powerful hurricane battered the Outer Banks in 1846, splitting Bodie Island from Pea Island, Oregon Inlet has been among the most treacherous stretches on the East Coast, marked by strong currents and shifting sands.

How to keep it navigable has vexed engineers, politicians and fishermen since the 1800s.

The General Assembly has once again weighed in by passing a bill, recently signed into law by Gov. Pat McCrory, creating a task force to study the possibility of the state purchasing the land from the U.S. Department of Interior to build jetties to stabilize the inlet to make it more navigable. The idea is that these solid structures, also known as terminal groins, would prevent sand from refilling the inlet.

It is, in all probability, a political long shot. The Republican legislature, which has been no friend to Democratic President Barack Obama, is in the position of having to ask for permission to purchase environmentally sensitive land – something the federal government has been loath to do in the past.

But the effort is cheered by Outer Banks business people who see hundreds of millions of dollars at risk in commercial and charter fishing-related jobs as sand has choked the Oregon Inlet’s passage between Pamlico Sound and the Atlantic Ocean – the only such access along a 130-mile stretch of coastline.

“This has been going on 40 or 50 years trying to get a resolution to get either a jetty or some sort of sand bypass system out there,” said Jim Tobin, whose Pirate’s Cove yacht club in Manteo has 195 slips.

“It’s a huge economic driver for northeastern North Carolina,” Tobin said.

The quest for a solution to Oregon Inlet is a long one.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, yielding to public demands, made the first of many studies in the 1870s, said North Carolina historian William Powell. The violence of its currents caused the state Wildlife Resources Commission to declare it as the most dangerous place in the state for boating, and the construction of the Herbert Bonner Bridge in 1964 made it worse. The land on both sides of the inlet was acquired by the federal government in 1958 as part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore.

Congress authorized the building of a 400-foot-wide, 20-foot-deep channel in 1970 with rock jetties and a sand bypass system. The projected cost of the project eventually grew to $108 million.

But the Department of Interior has blocked it. On one side of the inlet is the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, and on the other side is the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge. Environmental groups have worried that jetties would harm larvae, cause shoreline erosion and, according to a 2000 government report, harm the habitat for sharks, shrimp, Spanish mackerel, summer flounder and bluefish by altering the ocean currents.

“Oregon Inlet is one of the most dynamic inlets in the Eastern United States,” said Bill Holman, state director of the Conservation Fund. “It is going to continue to move. It is unlikely that building jetties there is going to stabilize it. It will also be very expensive. It is just going to be a very difficult place to maintain access to the ocean.”

Political leaders have tried to get the jetties built. They include Democrats such as then-Gov. Jim Hunt, former state Senate leader Marc Basnight, and then-U.S. Sen. Terry Sanford, and Republicans such the late U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms and then-Gov. Jim Martin.

Different stratagems have been attempted. Helms tried to get the land transferred from the Interior Department to the Corps of Engineers. Basnight included a provision in a Senate bill that would allow the N.C. Seafood Authority to condemn land needed for jetty construction.

“It has got measurably worse in the past two years,” said Harry Shiffman, who owns a boat-towing business. “It’s been closed more than it’s open.”

Shiffman said that around 1990, there were 225 trawlers in Wanchese Harbor, while today there are only six. Most of them have to go through Morehead City to reach the ocean. In 2005, there were 34 boat builders in the county and now there are only six.

For commercial fishing trawlers to make it through Oregon Inlet, Shiffman said, they have to hit the tides just right and go through on an angle.

“People say it’s the economy,” Shiffman said of the decline in fishing boats. “Well, it’s not just the economy. That inlet has done a whole lot for these marine-related businesses.

“We like to relate it to Raleigh,” he continued. “What if they couldn’t get to work a high percentage of the time? It’d be a mess. They’d be feeling the pain.”

The legislature’s newest effort creates a 13-member Oregon Inlet Land Acquisition Task Force to study the state’s options in acquiring land to preserve the inlet to keep it navigable. The measure was primarily pushed by Sen. Phil Berger, the powerful Republican leader of the Senate, and it has bipartisan support.

“Until we get into the discussions, it will be very difficult to say what the prospects are,” said Rep. Paul Tine, a Democrat from Kitty Hawk, who supports the measure. “The first step is to get to the table and see what can work and what can’t.

“It’s been going on for a while. This is just another attempt to see if we can’t get something done.”

Christensen: 919-829-4532
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