State staff favorably consider request for wheelchair beach mats at Carolina Beach

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CAROLINA BEACH, NC (WECT) – Accessing the beach in a wheelchair is difficult, to say the least. In an effort to make beaches more accessible to everyone, a local nonprofit group, Ocean Cure, installed wheelchair-accessible mats on the sand at the base of the Carolina Beach boardwalk in 2017.

The mats proved popular and made trips to the beach possible for those who typically couldn’t walk across the sand without specialized equipment, but in July 2020 the state issued a Notice of Violation to the city, telling them to remove them. The reasoning was that the rugs required a permit from the state, but since the rugs did not meet the guidelines set by the state, a permit would be difficult to obtain.

The state considers wheelchair mats on the beach a “development” and therefore they were in violation without having proper permits.

In response to the state violation, the City of Carolina Beach submitted an application for a Coastal Area Management Act (CAMA) permit, which was denied.

“On October 6, 2020, the Division of Coastal Management (“DCM”) rejected the CAMA Minor Permit application because 1) the proposed development extended seaward of the ocean hazard retreat as determined by the line of applicable development, and 2) the proposed development extends more than six feet offshore from the waterward foot of the frontal or primary dune,” according to state records.

But the efforts to keep the rugs in place would not stop there. Last year, Ocean Cure founder Kevin Murphy acknowledged the state’s concerns and said he planned to fight for the mats.

“One of the main factors we are fighting right now is NC Fish and Wildlife. We have been told that the beach mat is non-compliant and can only be six feet wide and six feet long, which that doesn’t even get past the safety lane. We’re using this time to go this high politically in NC to hopefully get the state regulations changed for the future and allow us to get it back to the way it’s always been and should be. We will fight this through the winter and hopefully continue to make our beach as accessible as possible to everyone,” Murphy said last year.

Now the city is applying for a waiver from the Coastal Resources Commission, and state staff are supporting the request.

In order to apply for a waiver, the petitioner must meet and prove four different criteria – for all four criteria the city and staff agree – but it is ultimately up to the Coastal Resources Commission to approve or deny the waiver. demand.

One of the criteria the city must prove is that strict enforcement of the rules leads to unnecessary hardship, which the city says it does and so do state personnel.

“Staff agrees that strict enforcement of the Commission’s rule prohibiting the oceanward development of the setback line or ocean hazard development line, and extending more than six feet seaward from the foot towards the water of the frontal or main dune causes unnecessary difficulties to the petitioner”, according to the waiver request.

“The proposed location of the beach mats on the city-owned public beach in the Central Business District and toward the water of the main vegetation line and dune has and will facilitate public access along the beach and ocean for those who need a wheelchair. to access. Although the nearby boardwalk was wheelchair accessible, wheelchair accommodating on and along the dry sandy beach and ocean was limited to those who could use and transport the city beach wheelchairs on the dry sandy beach,” staff said.

The current rugs, which are removed at the end of each season and before storms, consist of 3,000 square feet, far more than the state allows, or a six-foot-long by six-foot-wide rug. . The state also requires that any mat be placed near the dune line, not near the water.

According to the state, concerns about sea turtles and nesting birds are the reasons for these rules, however, sea turtle nesting in the boardwalk area is not typical.

“According to an affidavit from Nancy Busovne, president of the Pleasure Island Sea Turtle Project, in fifteen years only two nests have been laid near the site. None have been laid since construction of the Hampton Inn hotel was completed in 2016,” according to the city’s request.

The mats themselves are installed and maintained by Ocean Cure while the city has accepted responsibility for them and is the entity that actually filed the claims 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 carpet twice a day by sweeping the carpet and making adjustments, if necessary. Additionally, we use our live beach cam which allows for 24 hour recorded monitoring available on cloud storage,” Murphy said in a letter to the state.

Dozens of people also contacted the Division of Coastal Management in support of the beach mats when the state opened the public comment process after receiving the CAMA permit last year. And it’s not just residents, businesses, nonprofits, sea turtle advocacy groups and disabled veterans who have used the mats that have backed the demand.

“One of the greatest experiences since being in a wheelchair has been the opportunity to join my family on the beach, which was made possible by the mat that was placed so that I could roll independently in my wheelchair. rolling with my family on the beach for the 1st time. It’s a feeling of freedom and independence that can sometimes be taken for granted, but means a lot to those of us who have to use a wheelchair on a daily basis” , wrote James Howard, founder of Veterans and Athletes United.

The decision will ultimately rest with the commission, but DCM staff are considering approval of the waiver request.

“Staff agrees that the granting of the requested waiver 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 used area with few recent sea turtle nests and the increased access for visitors with disabilities would meet the legislative objectives of the North Carolina Coastal Areas Management Act. Staff agrees that there would not appear to be any significant adverse effects on public use of the dry sand beach, especially if mats are removed prior to storms. Beach mats also appear to have 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 filing.

The meeting will take place on February 18 and the public is invited to join the meeting in line. The derogation request is scheduled around 9:30 a.m.

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