Coastal Review: Duck chosen for living shoreline, NC 12 resiliency project

Aerial photograph for a proposed living shoreline and section of N.C. 12 elevated in Duck. [Vanesse Hangen Brustlin photo]

By Jennifer Allen,
Duck officials heard late last year that the Outer Banks town had been selected for a $1.85 million grant for a proposed living shoreline and N.C. 12 resiliency project.

The funding is through the Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities, or BRIC, program. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, which administers the BRIC program, announced the nearly two-dozen selected competitive projects in early November 2021, but as of Friday the town was still waiting on official word.

Town Manager Joe Heard told Coastal Review that he had received information Thursday suggesting that the town’s “official” BRIC grant award from FEMA likely will not occur until March 2022.

The BRIC program supports states, communities, tribes and territories as they take on hazard-mitigation projects with the goal of reducing risks from disasters and natural hazards by focusing on larger infrastructure projects. These projects are to enhance human health, provide ecological benefits and benefit a multitude of residents, according to FEMA.

During an earlier interview, Heard had explained that once the town gets the go-ahead, it can move forward with the plan to elevate a flood-prone section of N.C. 12 — the only north-south roadway through Duck.

Duck’s is one of 22 projects selected across the country for fiscal 2020. The projects are under one of seven categories: elevation, flood control, floodproofing, relocation, shelter project, utility and infrastructure protection, and wildfire management. The Duck project is in the elevation category.

Duck occupies a narrow swath of land between Currituck Sound and the Atlantic Ocean and is situated on the northern end of Dare County, adjacent to Currituck County. The town has around 500 year-round residents, but during peak season, the population can reach up to 25,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau and the town. North of Duck, in Currituck County, the population can be in the tens of thousands during peak season. The only way for those folks to leave Currituck County is on N.C. 12 through Duck.

N.C. 12 is “a low-lying highway where floods frequently impact residents, tourists and emergency services,” according to FEMA – and anyone familiar with the Outer Banks. The stretch of highway at the north end of Duck routinely floods, blocking traffic and emergency services, and is threatened by shoreline erosion.

The project

The town has proposed for the project installing a living shoreline to help protect coastal habitat and mitigate shoreline erosion, which threatens the roadway and private property, according to the BRIC application. “Flooding in the project area affects a short but critical stretch of NC 12.”

“The project Includes 988 linear feet of breakwater sills, protection of 21,234 square feet of existing marsh, 12,168 square feet of marsh restoration, and 920 linear feet of riprap revetment,” the application states. The proposed revetment Is to prevent erosion and protect the roadway and adjacent private property, help reduce wave energy, and prevent debris from accumulating in the roadway.

Heard explained that the living shoreline is intended to stabilize the section of the Currituck Sound shoreline along the roadway. The town obtained a substantial grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation for the living shoreline. The engineering design is complete and ready to be permitted.

The town also plans to add a bicycle and pedestrian pathway along this area. Duck had a fourth and final phase to complete of its sidewalk and bike lane project through the village. Coincidentally, it’s the same quarter-mile stretch that would tie into an existing crosswalk north of the area, Heard said.

Nature-based solutions to improve stormwater runoff conditions are to be put in place, specifically, an infiltration trench between the roadway asphalt and the concrete sidewalk. The town obtained a grant from the Dare County Tourism Board for this project.

“So we had these two components (living shoreline and sidewalk projects) that were already locked in, but when the BRIC came up, suddenly, we’re now looking at larger numbers — a capability to accomplish something much more significant than those two projects by themselves,” he said.

To apply for BRIC, the living shoreline and pedestrian path projects were rolled into another project to elevate that section of Highway 12, Duck Road, in that same area, “that had been identified as the single most vulnerable piece of public infrastructure by that Western Carolina study,” he said.

About 1,260 linear feet of N.C. 12 will be elevated. Heard added that the town didn’t think that the road work would happen for another decade, but BRIC was an opportunity to accomplish elevating the road and the other projects at the same time.

The town also plans to use subsurface infiltration chambers, which will provide a place to store runoff that will be filtered as it infiltrates the native sandy soils, avoiding direct discharge to the sound, the application states.

“Basically everything east of the project area rises up significantly, it’s part of a large dune, that goes up substantially,” Heard said. There was a lot of runoff from the streets and property in that area and right now it’s just a sheet of water flowing across the road, directly into the sound.

The underground component planned for north of Olde Duck Road would capture stormwater and gradually release it as the water table allows, Heard said. It’s like a system that was installed at the southern end of town more than 10 years ago, “that really made a substantial difference” in an area that flooded consistently. “And we’re looking for the same type of results here.”

Heard added that native plants are also part of the plan to help filter any remaining roadway runoff.

“That’s one of the big benefits of that as well. It’s not just recreating habitat, these plants will help filter that water before it goes into the sound,” he said.

Aerial photograph with the proposed projects on the stretch of N.C. 12 in Duck. [Vanesse Hangen Brustlin illustration]
By raising the roadway, installing the living shoreline and making the sidewalk improvements, the project will mitigate threats and loss associated with erosion and damage to critical Infrastructure, roadway infrastructure replacement costs, interfering with emergency vehicles and hospital access, blocking storm evacuation route, and disruption of safe pedestrian and bicycle travel, according to the application.

First steps

Heard explained that Duck had gone through several steps in applying for the BRIC program. The project and grant itself are the result of three town planning efforts in 2020.

One was when Duck did a vulnerability assessment in partnership with the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University in February 2020. Heard said that the assessment identified the town’s most vulnerable assets, which included this section of N.C. 12.

Then in June of that year, work was completed on the Outer Banks regional hazard mitigation plan, which includes Currituck and Dare counties as well as Dare’s local governments, Duck, Kill Devil Hills, Kitty Hawk, Manteo, Nags Head and Southern Shores — a total of eight governing bodies.

“And again, that was a project where we spent over a year identifying what some of the hazards are and the risks that all of our communities deal with,” Heard said.

In addition, each community created its own plan.

“We do have a sub plan that focuses just on Duck and the things that we hope to accomplish to make ourselves a more resilient community,” he said.

The third project took place in August 2020, when work was completed on Duck’s comprehensive land use plan.

Heard said the land use plan was a little over the year in the making.

“We interacted with the community in a variety of ways during that process to try to get input from property owners, citizens, business owners, and different stakeholders in the town,” he said.

Christian Legner, the town’s public information and events director, distributed a survey that received more than 800 responses, which was “off-the-charts” engagement Heard said for the town to only have 500 or so year-round residents.

The survey enabled town officials to “feel very confident that the types of goals, objectives and actions that we identified in that plan were the will of the community. It gives us a lot of confidence that we were heading in the right direction,” Heard added.

Not long after, Heard said that town officials became aware of the BRIC program and learned that many of the town’s planned projects were eligible.

The town worked with the North Carolina Department of Public Safety to apply for BRIC.

“We lumped it all together into a single, cohesive coastal resiliency project that would elevate the road, have the living shoreline, have the bike path and sidewalk, and we also have some stormwater management improvements in there as well that’ll help with water quality,” he explained.

Heard said he believes the project was selected because of its use of nature-based solutions, and because the road elevation would help keep N.C. 12 from becoming flooded and unpassable.

If N.C. 12 floods in that area during the peak tourist season, based on figures from Currituck County, well over 60,000 people could be stuck.

“This little weak spot would impact all of those people’s ability to evacuate and their ability to receive emergency services were extremely important. We’re hoping to prevent the type of situation that would cause that by doing the road elevation,” he said.

Heard explained that the town hopes the project, which would fulfill key goals in previously approved plans, will also improve water quality, recreate lost habitat and increase resiliency. It could also be an educational opportunity.

It’s a highly visible stretch of road, Heard said, and particularly with the bicycle-pedestrian pathway, the public can get a close look at the work.

“We’ve got a great opportunity to educate the public about what the project is, what it’s doing,” Heard said, especially with the living shoreline part of the project, “we really want to educate people about this type of nature-based alternative. We want to let people know and give them good visible examples of an alternative. “

The town began in the fall working on the interpretive information and for the educational angle that explains the development and purpose of the project, “And hopefully give them something to think about if and when they’re looking at a similar issue along their own shoreline. They might choose to look at this rather than a bulkhead.”

The project can be an example for other communities, he said.

“To a great degree, we’re on the forefront of coastal communities that are dealing with coastal resiliency and those issues,” he said, adding there’s interest from agencies and organizations “in getting more and more examples on the on the ground, or I guess, in this case, in the water.”