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Save a Resort or Save a Public Beach?

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WILMINGTON — At times, Mother Nature has a voracious appetite. On the northern tip of Wrightsville Beach, she has gobbled up so much beach front that Shell Island Resort could be her next big bite.

The ritzy, $22 million resort, comprising condos and a 9-story hotel, will be claimed by the Atlantic's waves unless it is fortified by a permanent seawall or other barrier, a move now banned by state policy. If an exception to policy is granted for Shell Island Resort, re-directing the waves to other coastal points could harm or destroy the public access portions of Wrightsville Beach. Waves are never stopped; they are diverted.

Technically, Shell Island's beach is public, but there are few parking spaces nearby, effectively making it a beach at the disposal of Shell Island's hotel guests and condo owners. The public enjoys the sand at waves at Wrightsville Beach proper, several miles south of the Shell Island development.

The N.C. Coastal Resources Commission last month rejected in a 6-5 vote, a proposal to build a massive sandbag wall to protect Shell Island. In 1985, the commission had adopted a policy that said since the state's coastline belongs to everyone, development should be a reasonable distance from the water's edge. They banned beach-hardening structures such as sea walls and massive sandbags, allowing only natural barriers such as dunes.

Shortly after that policy was enacted, Shell Island Resort was erected. Some 170 condos were sold for over $100,000 each. At that time, the resort was half a mile from Mason's Inlet. But, with 400 feet of coastline disappearing yearly, the resort and the inlet now face each other across only 240 feet of sand. The resort will be no match for the ocean's forces.

David McNaught, a coastal commissioner, says it was foolish to build the resort. It was erected at a known "hazard inlet area," where the shifting sands are unpredictable.

Commissioner Roger Crowe, who voted earlier in favor of allowing the wall, said, "You can't let a $22 million structure just fall in the ocean. It's not unreasonable for them to ask just to be allowed to save their property."

Crowe said variances have been granted for Fort Fisher and Bald Head Island.

The Shell Island Resort owners plan to submit yet another proposal for a temporary wall to protect their property. It will most likely come up for a vote in September, when about half the 11-member commission will be new appointees. Gov. Jim Hunt will be making those appointments, and they are sure to be watched by environmentalists and developers alike.

"We're trying," McNaught said, "to protect the beaches for the citizens who maybe don't have a quarter-million or half-million dollars to buy a home on the water. The question is, how sincere are people about protecting this policy?"

Dale Tucker and his friends enjoy Shell Island beach, and remember it in the days before the resort was built. Now they hope it falls into the ocean.

"Man, if there's a rock in the water they want to build off it," he said. "These beaches are supposed to be of the people. They're not supposed to be for somebody to buy.

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