CAROLINA BEACH, N.C. (WECT) - Accessing the beach while in a wheelchair is difficult, to say the least. In an effort to make the beaches more accessible to everyone, a local nonprofit group, Ocean Cure, installed wheelchair accessible mats on the sand at the base of Carolina Beach’s boardwalk in 2017.
The mats proved popular and made trips to the beach possible for those typically unable to traverse the sand without specialized equipment, but in July of 2020, the state issued a notice of violation to the town, telling them to remove them. The reasoning was that the mats needed a permit from the state but since the mats did not meet the guidelines set by the state, a permit would be difficult to get.
The state considers the wheelchair mats on the beach a ‘development’ and therefore they were in violation without having a proper permit.
In response to the violation from the state, the Town of Carolina Beach submitted a request for a Coastal Area Management Act (CAMA) permit, which was denied.
“On October 6, 2020 the Division of Coastal Management (“DCM”) denied the CAMA Minor Permit Application because 1) the proposed development extended seaward of the ocean hazard setback as determined by the applicable development line, and 2) the proposed development extends more than six feet seaward of the waterward toe of the frontal or primary dune,” according to state records.
But the efforts to keep the mats in place would not stop there. Last year, Ocean Cure’s founder Kevin Murphy acknowledged the concerns the state had and said he planned on fighting for the mats.
“One of the biggest factors we are battling right now is N.C. Fish and Wildlife. We have been told the beach mat is not in compliance and can only be six feet wide and six feet long which doesn’t even make it past the safety lane. We are using this time to go as high up politically in NC to hopefully have State regulations changed for the future and allow us to put it back down the way it has always been and should be. We will fight this throughout the winter and hopefully continue to make our beach as accessible as possible for all,” Murphy said last year.
Now, the town is requesting a variance from the Coastal Resource Commission and staff from the state are supportive of the request.
In order to apply for a variance, the petitioner must respond and prove four different criteria - for all four criteria the town and staff are in agreement - but it is ultimately up to the Coastal Resource Commission to approve or deny the request.
One of the criteria the town has to prove is that the strict application of the rules causes unnecessary hardships, the town says it does as do state staff.
“Staff agrees that strict application of the Commission’s rule prohibiting development oceanward of the ocean hazard setback line or development line, and extending more than six feet seaward of the waterward toe of the frontal or primary dune causes Petitioner unnecessary hardships,” according to the variance request.
“The proposed location of the beach mats on the uniquely town-owned public beach within the Central Business District and waterward of the vegetation line and primary dune has, and will, facilitate public access along the beach and to the ocean for those who require wheelchair access. While the nearby boardwalk is wheelchair accessible, accommodating wheelchairs onto and along the dry sand beach and to the ocean was limited to those who could operate and transport the Town’s beach-wheelchairs across the dry sand beach,” staff said.
The current mats, which are removed at the end of every season and before storms, consist of 3,000 square feet, significantly more than what the state will allow, which is a six-foot long by six-foot wide mat. The state also requires any mat be placed near the dune line, and not by the water.
According to the state, concerns over sea turtles and nesting birds are the reasons for these rules, however, sea turtle nesting in the area of the boardwalk is not typical.
“According to an affidavit by Nancy Busovne, President of the Pleasure Island Sea Turtle Project, in fifteen years, only two nests have been laid in proximity to the site. None have been laid since the construction of the Hampton Inn Hotel was completed in 2016,” according to the town’s request.
The mats themselves are installed and maintained by Ocean Cure while the town has accepted the responsibility for them and was the entity that actually filed the requests with the state, he said.
“Once the mat is on the beach, our team continuously maintains the functionality of the mat. We physically maintain the mat twice daily by sweeping the mat and making adjustments, as necessary. In addition, we utilize our live beach camera which allows 24 hours recorded monitoring available on cloud storage,” Murphy said in a letter to the state.
Dozens of people also reached out to the Division of Coastal Management in support of the beach mats as well when the state opened up the public comment process after receiving the CAMA permit last year. And it wasn’t just residents, businesses, nonprofits, sea turtle advocacy groups, and disabled veterans who have used the mats reached out to support the request.
“One of the greatest experiences since I’ve been in a wheelchair was the opportunity to join my family on the beach which was all made possible by the matting that was placed so I could independently roll in my wheelchair with my family on the beach for the 1st time. It is a sense of freedom and independence that can sometimes be taken for granted but means a great deal to those of us that have to use a wheelchair on a daily basis,” James Howard, founder of Veterans and Athletes United wrote.
The decision will ultimately be up to the commission but DCM staff is looking favorably at approving the variance request.
“Staff agrees that granting the requested variance would be consistent with the spirit, purpose and intent of the Commission’s rules. The limited area of the proposed beach mats on a heavily trafficked area with few recent sea turtle nests, and the increased access for visitors with disabilities, would meet the legislative goals of the NC Coastal Area Management Act. Staff agrees that there would appear to be no significant adverse impacts to the public’s use of dry sand beach, especially if the mats are removed prior to storm events. The beach mats would also seem to have a limited impact on sea turtle nesting in this heavily developed and heavily used area, which sea turtles appear to avoid based on nesting history,” according to the commission’s agenda packet.
The meeting will be held Feb. 18 and the public is invited to join the meeting online. The request for the variance is scheduled to take place around 9:30 a.m.