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Taken from the front page news
Will Dauphin Island's beach
disappear behind seawalls?

By BEN RAINES, Staff Reporter
Published: Monday, January 23, 2012, 6:07 AM
Updated: Monday, January 23, 2012, 8:54 AM

Unless state officials update Alabama's coastal construction regulations, the rushing hiss of waves rolling up on a sandy Gulf beach may become a thing of the past on much of Dauphin Island.

Wednesday afternoon, that ancient sound was replaced with the sharp slap of waves hitting seawalls in front of two houses on the west end of the island. The two walls, one constructed just three months ago, are the first and only seawalls on the Gulf beach and are already causing increased erosion on the shoreline, according to scientists.

State and federal officials said they are powerless to prevent other homeowners from building similar walls to protect their homes. The problem: Alabama's coastal construction rules were written so long ago that much of the land they were designed to protect disappeared underwater years ago due to chronic erosion. And, the way the rules were written, officials now have little if any authority over construction on the existing shoreline.

Dauphin Island beach house
The Gulf of Mexico laps against a seawall constructed in October. While offering some protection to the house behind it, the wall has already caused significant beach erosion, scientists said. Sandbags heaped along the west side of the wall show were Gulf waves have begun to flank the structure. Officials say outdated regulations mean more walls could be built. (Ben Raines/Press-Register)
Typically, a suite of state and federal rules administered by the Alabama Department of Environmental Management and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers control structures built in the environmentally sensitive area at the water's edge. Not so for the two seawalls, which were built in February 2010 and October 2011. State officials said they lacked jurisdiction over the construction of the walls because they were behind the state's so called "Construction Control Line" or CCL. The CCL is an invisible line that runs along the Alabama coast and was established to prevent construction in areas such as sand dunes. No construction is allowed south of the line, which was established in 1979, according to former ADEM officials.

The problem is that Dauphin Island has eroded so much since 1979 that the line is now way offshore and underwater. In effect, that means the state has virtually no authority to stop construction of seawalls a few feet from the water's edge along the Gulf beach.

"Absent the lot being seaward of or intersected by the CCL, construction of a wall on private property (not in a wetlands) is not regulated by the ADEM Coastal Program rules," ADEM spokesman Scott Hughes said in an email.

"The department's direct authority is limited to location of the lot relative to the CCL."

In ADEM's view, the walls "were placed on lots that are located two lots landward of the Gulf of Mexico," and well north of the CCL, Hughes said, referring to two rows of waterfront lots that eroded away years ago.

Corps of Engineers officials said that federal authority for building on beaches begins at the mean high tide line, regardless of the state CCL.

At the time the walls were constructed, there was a thin sliver of sand in front of each house. That band of sand between the houses and the incoming waves was wide enough to build above the high tide line. Corps officials said that meant the walls were considered "retaining walls," not seawalls, and did not require federal approval or permits. But erosion since October of last year has left both walls standing in the Gulf of Mexico much of the day, even at low tide.

"I do not know of any state law that prohibit this type of construction as long as it does not intersect the CCL," said Phillip Hinesley, head of the coastal section of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. "If the houses intersected the CCL this would not be allowed." Asked whether ADEM might review the location of the construction control line, spokesman Hughes responded, "The department reviews and updates our regulations as needed to ensure they are consistent with federal requirements and are protective of human health and the environment."

Dauphin Island beach house
There are now two seawalls in front of houses on Dauphin Island's west end. Some worry they are the first of many, and could threaten the survival of the natural shoreline on the barrier island. (Ben Raines/Press-Register)
John Carlton, with Thompson Engineering, worked at ADEM when the CCL was established. "The control line is supposed to help protect the beach and dune system, protect the area where sand is moving back and forth building dunes and all that good stuff," he said. "The regulations are so outdated it isn't funny anymore. Some states do routine reassessments periodically. Moving the CCL is something ADEM has never wanted to do."

Former Dauphin Island Sea Lab director George Crozier said that ADEM's position was ridiculous. "They're hiding behind the act that they have never changed or moved the construction control line. The regulations should be routinely updated," Crozier said. "ADEM has created a horrific precedent. People will be building these walls up and down the beach. You can already see how these two have greatly increased erosion along the shoreline."

Coastal engineer Scott Douglass said such seawalls indisputably cause beaches to erode and ultimately disappear. "If you build a seawall on a receding shoreline, you are going to lose your beach. Those houses already have lost theirs," Douglass said. "They have destroyed their beach to protect their houses." Douglass predicted that other property owners on the island will build walls to protect their homes. "You'll end up with a series of staggered seawalls and you'll end up with a coastline much like the west coast of Florida was in the '60s and '70s," Douglass said. "It was a hardened shoreline with no beach."

Crozier said that seawall construction will also cost the public its ability to walk along the beach. Only the area below the high tide line is considered public property on most beaches.

When seawalls are built, that section of beach typically disappears, according to Douglass.

"And what are the turtles going to do?" Crozier said. "Are they going to build little ramps and hope the turtles climb over the walls to lay their eggs?" Hinesley agreed that the seawalls do "not leave a lot of room for birds or turtles."

"The only thing we can hope for is that ADEM might consider redrawing the line in the near future," Hinesley said.

Fort Gaines Sand Island Light House Shell Mounds on Dauphin Island Dauphin Island History Dauphin Island Sea Lab Estuarium

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