Protecting N.C. Highway 12 in Hatteras Village and Miles Beyond – What Can Be Done? - Shooting The Breeze


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Protecting N.C. Highway 12 in Hatteras Village and Miles Beyond – What Can Be Done?

Friday 23 November 2018 at 11:10 pm.


On Tuesday, November 13, a group of community and government representatives drove through several feet of recently dumped rainwater to meet in Hatteras village and discuss - appropriately enough - how to keep N.C. Highway 12 open for the long haul.

It’s no secret that N.C. Highway 12 has a number of “hot spots,” or sections of the road where storm surge or heavy rains regularly flood the highway, making it difficult to access.

The tri-villages, northern Hatteras, and northern Ocracoke Island have all been inundated with water at some point in the past few months, due to Hurricane Florence, Tropical Storm Michael, and a few non-tropical storms that brought buckets of rain regardless. In fact, one of the most commonly asked questions by locals after the aforementioned events was “Is Highway 12 passable?” and this question seems to be asked more and more, with every passing storm.

But as anyone involved with the push to replace the Bonner Bridge will tell you, (an endeavor that literally went on for about 20 years), fixing Hatteras and Ocracoke Island’s delicate highway isn’t easy. There are a number of figurative roadblocks that prevent us from installing a few bridges, or relocating the road, or doing another round of beach nourishment, and calling it a day.

But as anyone involved with the push to replace the Bonner Bridge will tell you, (an endeavor that literally went on for about 20 years), fixing Hatteras and Ocracoke Island’s delicate highway isn’t easy. There are a number of figurative roadblocks that prevent us from installing a few bridges, or relocating the road, or doing another round of beach nourishment, and calling it a day. 

This is exactly why Hatteras community leaders, NCDOT representatives, Dare County Board of Commissioner (BOC) Danny Couch and Chairman Bob Woodard, and Cape Hatteras National Seashore Superintendent David Hallac gathered in Hatteras Village on a November Tuesday to brainstorm, examine options, and figure out the next steps. It was an effort spearheaded by Hatteras Village Civic Association Chair Karla Jarvis, and attendees reported that it was certainly a worthwhile gathering.

“It was basically a broad discussion on what residents, organizations, and civic groups of Hatteras Island can do, and it had all the parties at the table from the DOT to the National Park Service,” said meeting attendee and N.C. Board of Transportation member Allen Moran.

“It was a valuable experience, and everyone came out of there encouraged for the long term,” said Danny Couch. “For the short term, we’ll have to stick to doing what we know how to do, which is move sand.”

Granted, the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) is phenomenal at cleaning up the highway after a storm. During several weather events in the past two months alone, the NCDOT had crews and equipment at the ready in case they were needed, and were subsequently clearing the highway in record time.

But clearing the road of water and debris can’t be kept up indefinitely, and there are other considerations that can make this solution ineffective as well. For example, while northern beach communities like the Town of Kitty Hawk can simply pump excess stormwater off the roads, FEMA regulations prohibit the same process on isolated sections of Highway 12.

“There’s some regulations through FEMA, and [as such], there’s some caveats there,” said Moran. “Basically, if there’s a certain number of homes that are threatened with water inundation, then you are allowed to pump until the water is at a certain level… But we can’t use that here [in areas without homes.] Thankfully, people’s homes aren’t being flooded in these sections of the highway, but we don’t have that exemption.”

The launching point for uncovering alternatives that could work was a N.C. Highway 12 Feasibility Study that was prepared for the NCDOT in February of 2016.

The study was “a preliminary step to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process to identify potential project scope, a range of estimated costs of completion, and project-specific concerns related to preserving the North Carolina (NC) 12 corridor between Hatteras Village and the unincorporated limits of Frisco, North Carolina.”

So it wasn’t a set to-do list, per se, but rather an examination of options when it came to both short-term (5 year) and long-term (50 year) solutions for stabilizing N.C. Highway 12 in this increasingly fragile area.

If you have a ton of extra time, and want to read the 58-page study in its entirety, you can find it here:

But here’s a quick overview of the options that were identified:

Short Term Options for a 5-Year Timeframe:

  • Short-Term Alternative 1: Road Relocation A - Alternative 1 proposed roadway improvements would begin at the western project terminus near Elizabeth Avenue and extend east for 1.5 miles on new alignment, tying into the existing N.C. 12 roadway approximately three-quarters of a mile south of Osprey Way. This alternative would shift the roadway approximately 100 to 120 feet north of the existing roadway, and would also include new dune construction.
  • Short-Term Alternative 2: Road Relocation B - Alternative 2 proposed improvements would begin at the western project terminus near Elizabeth Avenue and extend east for 1.8 miles on new alignment, tying into the existing N.C. 12 roadway approximately three-quarters of a mile south of Osprey Way. This alternative would require the shifting of the roadway approximately 200 feet north of the existing roadway for over 0.5 mile, then extend onto a 2,900-foot bridge structure, returning to over 0.5 mile of roadway before connecting with the existing N.C. 12. The project would also include dune construction.
  • Short-Term Alternative 3: Beach Nourishment - This alternative would leave the existing roadway in current location, and implement one cycle of beach nourishment and dune maintenance to protect the roadway.
  • Short-Term Alternative 4: Combination of Road Relocation and Beach Nourishment - Alternative 4 proposed improvements would begin at the western project terminus near Elizabeth Avenue with 3,000 feet of beach nourishment, 1,700 feet of which would be located in front of relocated roadway. Approximately 1.3 miles of roadway would be relocated on new alignment. The new alignment would tie into the existing N.C. 12 roadway approximately three-quarters of a mile south of Osprey Way.

Long Term Options for a 50-Year Timeframe:

  • Long-Term Alternative 1: Road Relocation with Bridge – This solution would implement a new roadway which would then extend onto a three-quarter mile, pre-stressed concrete bridge. One-half mile of relocated roadway would connect the bridge to the existing roadway approximately 700 feet west of the Frisco Bathhouse parking area
  • Long-term Alternative 2: Road Relocation with Bridge – This solution is also a relocated road / bridge combo, with a 1-mile pre-stressed concrete bridge which would extend from the Creed Hill Lifesaving Station south of Frisco to .5 miles north of Elizabeth Avenue.
  • Existing Alignment with Beach Nourishment – This solution incorporates 1.5 miles of beach nourishment from Elizabeth Avenue to approximately 600 feet west of the Frisco Bath House parking area. Beach nourishment and dune maintenance would occur at five-year intervals, however, the actual intervals would be greatly influenced by extreme weather events.
  • Long-term Alternative 4: Bridge in Existing Easement and Beach Nourishment - This alternative combines a bridge and beach nourishment, and proposed improvements would begin at the western project terminus near Elizabeth Avenue and extend 1,800 feet on new alignment with beach nourishment before tying into a 1.5 mile pre-stressed concrete bridge located next to the existing roadway within the NPS right-of-way. The bridge would tie into 1,150 feet of roadway connecting to existing N.C. 12 just east of the Creed’s Hill Lifesaving Station.

Sounds good, right? There are lots of solid options in the above list, which could potentially solve the flooding problem in northern Hatteras village.

But here’s where we get to the central problem, and one of the main focuses of the discussion group – Costs.

Let’s start with the bad news first, and get that out of the way – funding any improvements to N.C. Highway 12 is going to be expensive, as the cheapest alternative for a  potential 5-year fix is $5.4 million.

And this is just for one section of Hatteras Island – CHNS Superintendent David Hallac noted in a post-meeting interview that there were certainly other stretches of N.C. Highway 12 that require attention as well.

“The [area] we were really worried about after Hurricane Florence was Ocracoke Island,” said Hallac. “There was a section of more than a mile where dunes were completely overwashed, the road was damaged, and the island was chipped away on both sides.”

“I think it was a wake-up call that there’s no place to move the road anymore, because the island has narrowed so much, and we’ll have to put our heads together to find a long-term solution there.”

For argument’s sake, let’s say we ignore Ocracoke, the tri-villages, northern Buxton, and the stretch of Highway 12 near the Pea Island Visitors Center for a moment, (which will all need to be addressed at some point), and just concentrate on northern Hatteras village.

Even there, in this one section of the road, there are hurdles with obtaining funding for the short-term solutions, let alone the long-term ones.

It helps to understand the very intricate processes of the State Transportation Improvement Program and the new-in-2015 Strategic Transportation Investments Law. The purpose of the STI Law is to allow NCDOT to maximize North Carolina’s existing transportation funding to enhance the state’s infrastructure, and support economic growth, job creation, and high quality of life.

Per the feasibility study, STI established the Strategic Mobility Formula, which is a way of allocating available revenues based on data-driven scoring and local input. Proposed transportation projects go through a prioritization process where they are evaluated through an analysis of the existing and future conditions, the benefits the project is expected to provide, the project’s multi-modal characteristics, and how the project fits in with local priorities. Generally, the projects that increase capacity, safety, connectivity, and economic development score higher under the prioritization formula.

So essentially, the way that North Carolina earmarks money for transportation projects is heavily dependent on population and traffic volume – two things that the islands don’t have year-round.

“The biggest problem with all of the projects is the funding for them is based on prioritization, or a point scale,” said Moran. “Our local projects don’t score well due to traffic volume, population, and the number of residents. We’re behind the eight ball on that one.”

That’s the bad news.

But here’s the good news – the ball is now rolling.

“The next step is that the DOT is going to look into what kind of grants and funding options there are for all the various feasibility options, and then come back in a couple months, get back together, and see where are we [then],” said Moran. “We are all in agreement that something needs to be done and we need to start the ball rolling, no matter what the eventual solution is – likely a short term option in the interim until we can get a long term option going.”

And Couch and Moran both note that these prospective grants are out there, such as the grants that provided funding for the new Ocracoke Express Passenger Ferry.

“We’re looking at getting a couple grants to at least study the problem,” said Couch. “If you’re going to get any attention from the state of North Carolina, you need to have the documentation that states your position and your case.”

Couch notes that the recently completed Outer Banks Scenic Byway initiative certainly helps make the case for obtaining funds, too, as the Scenic Byway – one of only four National Scenic Byways in the state - links the Outer Banks to Down East and the Crystal Coast, Cape Fear Coast and beyond in a major way. “That is strategic in that it will give us some credibility into breaking the rural and urban divide.”

“We also talked about some sort of federal land grant, or land access grants,” said Moran. “The way it works is that North Carolina gets a set amount of money each year from the [federal government] for federal lands access, which we certainly qualify for.”

And perhaps the best news is that all of the parties involved want to move forward, and want to work together – which, consequently, they already do, really well.

“Dave Hallac has been a tremendous asset for all of Dare County, but especially Hatteras Island and the DOT,” said Moran. “As always, he is willing to help, and willing to do what he can.”

“The National Park Service is extremely pleased with NCDOT and extremely lucky to have NCDOT as a partner in transportation,” said Hallac. “The things they do to maintain transportation are heroic at times, and we are really lucky to have them as a partner.”

So there is a silver lining in that the problem with N.C. Highway 12 is being discussed on a broader level, and is maintaining the attention of all of the parties involved.

“[The discussion] started with all of us looking for immediate solutions to the water issues we have in Hatteras village, but it morphed into a broader, long range plan,” said Couch. “What are we going to do to make sure our children and grandchildren will be able to come and go, and thrive on the Outer Banks?”

“We’re going to have to deal with what Mother Nature is handing us, and it’s not going to be convenient,” he added. “But we can’t get away doing what we’ve been doing anymore, which is reacting to each individual storm event. We either start being proactive now or it’s only going to get worse.”

Now all we have to do is wait for the next steps, wait for the ball to keep on rolling, and start on the long road to finding solutions that will work now, as well as years from now.

“Everyone understands this isn’t a short term quick fix, but a process,” said Moran. “Beth Midget [and Natalie Perry Kavanagh] started the ball rolling for the Bonner Bridge years ago, and it’s just now coming to fruition, so it’s a perfect example of how you have to start somewhere to get the ball rolling.”

twelve comments


The best thing we can do is stop building dune lines which drastically increase erosion rates. Let the overwash flow, it is necessary and vital for a barrier islands survival.

Steve - 24-11-’18 14:31

Why dont we stop the tax payer ripoff going on in Rodanthe and bank the money until needed. On any given storm access to the Jug Handle Bridge will not be possible so it is a useless project.

Taxpayer - 24-11-’18 16:16
Steve H

In 2022 I retire and will move to Hatteras Island, a dream I’ve had since the first days I could dream. My dad was stationed on the OBX in the 50’s and that’s when my family made the connection. Do what you need to do, I’m coming down anyway. BTW, the $5.4 million mentioned is chump change in road construction. NC needs to open their dang wallet, Dare Country pays more back to the State than they get. But I’ll be there even if the clock gets turned back +70 years.

Steve H - 24-11-’18 22:58

There are so many people who love visiting/renting in this area . I have a 40 year love affair with it myself and would be willing to pay an extra charge upon renting as an established protection/replenishment fund to help ease the burden of area tax payers just so we can continue to visit.

Tracey - 25-11-’18 22:03
Michael Scott

First we must understand how these Outer Bank Islands function in a coastal geological way; that is in their natural state (with no man-made beach front dune/”dike”, and no man made structures), they transfer sand, in storm events, from the ocean front towards the sound and slowly migrate toward the mainland. In that process, they roughly maintain their width, and height above the present sea level. If you have not read Stanley Riggs’ book, The Battle For North Carolina’s Coast, I highly recommend you do so. While I do not like many of the conclusions in it, I recognize them, empirically and logically, to be true. We must also recognize Dr. Stan knows more about the geology of these Outer Banks than anyone. There are many helpful graphs and drawings but I found the numerous sequential landscape photos to be particularly fascinating and enlightening, and many of them I knew or witnessed the history of, intimately. The erosion rates in the last 80 years are shocking.
The oceanfront barrier dunes built by man in the 1930’s have served us well in the short term. They protected the road and infrastructure in minor storm events and most areas in major storm events until the last 25 years or so. They did it at a price to be paid later. Now we are paying and it appears to me we will be paying more and more frequently. The dunes protected our road and structures while they accelerated the erosion rate and also caused a lot of sand to be moved out of the system, which is the biggest loss. The island is now very narrow in many places and our road is now very close to the ocean or the sound (or wetland), and in some places both. In the area just north of Buxton, the road has been moved westward 3 times; there is now no more land to the west to move the road to, only marsh or the sound. The S turn stretch north of Rodanthe is very similar, but fortunately the State of North Carolina has plans to fix that problem in a long term way with the Jug Handle Bridge. I think the next Jug Handle Bridge will soon be needed between Buxton and Avon, or between Frisco and Hatteras or both. When I heard about the Buxton beach nourishment project, at $22 million, my first thought was it will not be worth the investment. I was glad to see the road protected and did not want to see my village lose any more tourist accommodations to the ocean (Buxton has the least amount of oceanfront of any village on the island). It was to be funded by the Occupancy Tax and to a much lesser extent, by the property owners most directly benefited by the new beach (fair enough), and surely someone had done the math. Still I was doubtful we could make it pay, and I knew the long term history of that beach well; sand does not hang around there long, especially if there is a dune. One week after the $22 million job was completed, we had ocean water across the road for numerous high tides and most of the sand in one area (sadly right in front of our highest occupancy units) was/is gone. The sand loss in many other areas of the recent nourishment is much less, but I fear the rest will soon be gone. Hopefully it will take several years. Fortunately the beach has gained sand through the summer, but we know what comes after summer. Will this investment pay? I think it is too soon to say and the analysis is complicated by the addition of Highway 12 protection added into the equation. Protecting private property should be the property owner’s responsibility, and yes I am happy to see the Occupancy Tax used also, to the fullest extent it can equitably be.
Protecting Highway 12 is the State’s burden (actually the burden of the citizens of NC – you and me). The funding of the Buxton Beach Nourishment job may have been a tactical error on the part of the County as it let our NC DOT “off the hook”, for a spell anyway. I think I understand the rationale – better to be pre-emptive and save our road/access/tourist season than to wait for DOT to respond after the main transportation link is severed. I would be very reluctant to criticize our County decision makers on this issue as I’m certain they gave it a lot of thought and had only the best interests of folks here on Hatteras Island in mind. I believe there is no doubt beach nourishment is a financially beneficial investment in many places, but nourishment maintained Beach Towns like Wrightsville Beach and Virginia Beach have some of the calmest average sea states on the coast. We on Hatteras Island have the roughest. All nourishment maintained Beach Towns, up and down the East Coast, benefit in the return on their investment by having every foot of their investment in sand utilized by, high density motels and other profit making properties/businesses landward of that sand, but not on Hatteras Island where 95% of our oceanfront development is in low or non-profit making, comparatively low bedroom count, rental houses. Of course these weekly rental houses do produce a lot of income for many support service companies and their employees. The Hatteras Island “rental cottage industry” has become the backbone of our economy (but most of these houses are not oceanfront). The hard question is can habitual beach nourishment pay here on Hatteras Island where we have so much less working for us and so much more working against us. I don’t think so, but I hope I am wrong.
I have heard it said numerous times that no beach nourishment means no beach for an increasing number of areas in Dare County, and with no beach, Dare County’s tourism business is dead. Partially true, sort of. First we must understand, even with no nourishment, there will always be a beach even in the most rapidly eroding areas – that is a sandy stretch along the ocean shore. If we have a dune, it may be a very narrow beach, and it may be cluttered with exposed septic tanks and houses in varying degrees of demise, but there will be a beach and when the dune is washed away, it will most likely become a wider beach. What about the loss of oceanfront houses? In most areas there is another row of houses that then become oceanfront houses. I have seen this happen in Buxton. Please note, most of the weekly rental properties on Hatteras Island are not at risk of being taken by the ocean. Most of our visitors stay in accommodations other than oceanfront and use other beaches (Hatteras Island is blessed with many beach options free to all visitors), but no tourist will come if our road is not open. I think this is an issue no other East Coast Beach Town has to face. Without our transportation link, our economy is dead. I watch in amazement at our hard working NC DOT fetching the over-washed sand from the west side of the road and hauling it back to the east side to rebuild the dune. We are stuck in the same pattern that always needs repeating. In each event, more sand is taken out of the system because of the dune. It does not take a PHD to see clearly how this dynamic island works naturally and we are working against it and running out of time ……. and sand. Sincerely,
Michael Scott
Buxton, NC

Michael Scott - 27-11-’18 02:12

Well said Michael Scott! More people need to realize that dune lines have been strangulating Hatteras Island for over 80 years. Yet the practice continues. Overwash may be an inconvenience, but it is vital to our survival.

Steve - 01-12-’18 02:34
Salvo Jimmy

Michael Scott,

Good analysis and I pretty much agree.

Especially the dunes. Seemingly a long term fix but in the truly real long term, just like nourishment, really short term. Just longer than nourishment..

Area at the North end of Buxton is about like the S-Curve in the 1970s resulting in the road move West there in the 1980s, and now a bridge.

Salvo Jimmy - 01-12-’18 16:12

Michael Scott,

The barrier island management philosophy of Dr. Stan Riggs, (which is the same management philosophy of the environmental lawyer groups that brought us the beloved Consent Decree), is not compatible with continued human habitation of Hatteras Island, whereas the current NC/Dare Co. philosophies are.

If you desire to remain a resident of Buxton NC, choose with whom you side wisely……

Dervildog - 01-12-’18 20:09

Devildog, it is not a philosophy, but proven facts that Mr. Scott speaks of..

Steve - 07-12-’18 01:13

I respectfully take issue with this statement:

Overwash may be an inconvenience, but it is vital to our survival.

Any and all overwash “fans”, as they are generally termed, would immediately be designated critical habitat for any number of the beach-nesting shorebird species on HI, which would then close said area to any and all human intrusion for the entire nesting season, usually from March through July/August.

For example, if an overwash fan was across Rt. 12, the road would be closed for the nesting season. Look no further than the dunes that are roped off and closed to human entry just north of Carol Dillon’s Outer banks Motel every spring, for a look at what would come if the dunes are done away with.

Dr. Stan Riggs’ “String of Pearls” vision for HI does not include a highway, and would not be conducive to humans living there.

In his own words:

”In the coming decades, Dr. Riggs predicted, major storms will turn many parts of the Banks into underwater shoals or flats that are above water only at low tide. If Highway 12 were abandoned and the islands allowed to find their natural equilibrium, he writes, the resulting villages would be “situated like a string of pearls on a vast network of inlet and shoal environments.”

They could be reached by ferries, as are two other islands on the Banks, Ocracoke and Bald Head.

Anyone who has plied the waters of the Pamlico behind the villages in question knows that without substantial and never-ending dredging, the “string of pearls” would not be reachable by ferry.

The ongoing saga of trying to get the NPS’ permission to dredge the existing HI-Ocracoke ferry channel from Teach’s south is instructive of just how that part would work out.

Be careful what you wish for.

Devildog - 07-12-’18 19:10


Devildog, it is not a philosophy, but proven facts that Mr. Scott speaks of..

Negative. Dr. Riggs’ barrier island management philosophy, (which thankfully is not in place anywhere that is habituated along the NC coast), is to abandon all highways, bulldoze the dunes and “let nature take its course”, as evidenced in the quote submitted above.

As of this writing, the NC coastline is managed under the NC DEQ philosophy, which includes dune creation, repair and strengthening to protect both private property and public roadways, all done through the CAMA permitting and regulation system.

To Wit:

Dune Creation and Stabilization

(Ocean Hazard Area only)
Sand dunes provide a natural buffer against the erosive forces of wind, water and waves. Sometimes it’s necessary to stabilize or strengthen existing sand dunes or build new ones to protect oceanfront buildings and roads. Dune establishment and stabilization projects must be thoughtfully planned and carried out to avoid damaging the beach and dune system.
Dune creation and stabilization projects must meet the general rules for ocean hazard AECs as well as the following standards {15A NCAC 7H Section .0308(b)}.

Dune Construction
NCDOT recommends placing dunes approximately 25 feet from the edge of NC 12 pavement, with potential variations from this distance in some locations. The proposed dune geometry is recommended to include 3:1 slopes adjacent to NC 12, a 15-foot top width, and 5:1 slopes facing the beach, varying in some locations due to elevation changes. A continuous dune structure in areas void of other barriers will provide some protection to NC 12 during storm events.
As the beach erodes due to long-term erosion, the shoreline moves closer to the dune and the dune is more vulnerable to wave action. NCDOT will maintain existing dunes where possible as opposed to building new dunes. The alternatives developed for this project consider the magnitude of the dune field as documented by NCDOT in 2009. Data documented in 2009 was the most recent information available at the time of this study. The need to reconstruct the dune with the landward relocation of the highway and to maintain the dune in place in combination with beach nourishment was also considered. It is reasonable to expect that the dunes will need to be maintained every ten years.

Beach Nourishment
Beach nourishment involves the placement of a large quantity of beach compatible sand along the shoreline for purposes of elevating the dry beach and advancing the shoreline toward the ocean (i.e., widening the beach), and replenishing the volume of sand lost over some period of time. Over the project’s design life, any beach nourishment component of a design option would be expected to meet the objectives of increasing the storm protection function of the beach.

All this is done in order to one, maintain the massive and financially beneficial NC coast tourism industry, and two, to protect the NC coast’s human inhabitants and their private property.

Here are some of the dollar figures that are generated by keeping the dunes and highways intact:

Socio-Economic Value of State Beaches and Inlets

Citizens of the State and visitors derive considerable benefits from the coastal region. Beaches and inlets support millions of beach recreationists every year, provide billions in economic value through business and tourism as well as residential and commercial property value. They also provide a direct source of employment and generate associated jobs in the coastal communities. The direct expenditures generated by the beaches and inlets amounts to $2.5 billion. When multiplier effects are added, these numbers rise to $6.1 billion supporting almost 65,000 jobs. The total State tax revenue from all these sectors is $188.4 million/yr. The recreational consumer surplus resulting from beaches and inlets is over $214 million.

Nowhere near chump-change, and also the primary driver to keep the HI dunes and Rt. 12 in operation.

And I will say this again: To adopt Dr. Stan Riggs’ barrier island management philosophy, while abandoning the current NC DEQ/CAMA philosophy, will quickly lead to the end of human habitation on Hatteras Island.

Devildog - 09-12-’18 22:58

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