CASE STUDY: North Carolina Water Access Study Committee Yields Major Results in Water Access Protection

Case Study
North Carolina Water Access Study Committee Yields Major Results in Water Access Protection

North Carolina

2006 to present

In 2006, the North Carolina General Assembly created the Waterfront Access Study Committee (WASC) in response to public concern over the loss of traditional waterfronts, increased residential development, and rising property taxes and market demand throughout the state’s coastal region. The committee held a series of public meetings to gather information on local land-use management, zoning and development trends, to explore and evaluate incentives to protect waterfront diversity, and to evaluate their feasibility. The committee submitted their final report to the General Assembly in April 2007. Recommendations on how to address North Carolina’s waterfront access needs included retaining and enhancing working waterfronts and public access; creating a present-use tax valuation for working waterfront property; developing methods for purchasing or transferring development rights; and new approaches to planning and zoning. In August 2007, the General Assembly established the Waterfront Access and Marine Industry Fund (WAMI) and authorized $20 million for the acquisitionand protection of waterfront diversity. The Fund is administered by the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries, which established four priority funding areas: 1) public docking facilities 2) public boat ramps; 3) fishing access; and 4) other marine industry facilities. The legislature also approved a tax break for waterfront businesses based on present use rather than their potentially higher development value.

The level of transferability for this type of project should be high. Legislative creation of a public waterway access committee can be accomplished elsewhere, and largely depends on political will and perceived need. Any state can choose to set up a special funding pool or grant program to build/restore/expand waterfront access sites. Any state can pass legislation to create a present-use value taxation assessment in its tax code. Any state legislative body can seek to establish or charge special task forces or studies.

Best Practices

  1. A trusted third party (in this case, North Carolina Sea Grant) staffed and facilitated the legislative study committee. Facilitation helped the large, diverse committee address complex legal and budget issues, and competing/conflicting interests. Sea Grant’s leadership engaged university law school professors and graduate students, who helped to inform committee recommendations by exploring key questions and issues related to state coastal waterfront and riparian law.
  2. A legislative study committee was created to research the issue and make recommendations before introducing legislation to address waterfront and access issues.
  3. Web-based information systems and email made the committee process transparent to the public.

Full Case Study Description
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, anecdotal evidence highlighted a decline in the number of North Carolina fish houses, marinas, boat repair services, fishing piers, and traditional public access points. The decline heightened concern about eroding access to coastal public trust waters and the loss of “working waterfronts,” as well as a spectrum of needs for boat launches, paddling put-ins, marinas, fishing piers and urban boardwalks. Population growth and ancillary economic and residential development had further exacerbated the issue. North Carolina’s population had increased by 31% since 1990, making it one of the fastest growing states in the nation. In several coastal counties, population growth ranged from 49% to 76%, with new residential developments along coastal creeks, rivers, and sounds. The commercial developments (e.g., retail, lodging, dining, exclusive recreational services) that occurred as a result of this growth also added pressure on water access.

Access issues moved to the forefront of public discussions in North Carolina in 2005 and 2006. A major symposium on working waterfronts and public access was hosted by North Carolina Sea Grant in New Bern, NC, in 2006. At the same time, a Sea Grant coastal law extension professional helped to clarify the issue for legislators. Other events, actions, and reports all combined to call public and legislative attention to the loss of traditional or public access uses along the shore.

The North Carolina Waterfront Access Study Committee 
As a result of growing business and public concerns, the General Assembly passed a bill (N.C. Session Law 2006-248, Part XLV, see Appendix A) on July 27, 2006, establishing the North Carolina Waterfront Access Study Committee. Signed into law August 16, 2006, the statute called for the committee to “study the loss of diversity of uses along the coastal shoreline of North Carolina and how these losses impact access to the coastal public trust waters of the State.” The General Assembly sought the committee’s guidance on potential solutions, including “incentive-based techniques and management tools,” to sustain riparian land-use diversity and public access along the State’s coastal shorelines.

The Waterfront Access Study Committee was tasked to:

  1. Gather information about local land-use management and zoning, current shoreline development trends, and local tax rates, including tax assessment trends for shoreline properties.
  2. Collect research and information from North Carolina and other states and jurisdictions regarding incentive-based techniques and management tools used to preserve waterfront diversity.
  3. Assess the applicability of such tools and techniques to the coastal shorelines of North Carolina.
  4. Prepare a draft report with a statement of the issues, a summary of the research, and recommendations to address issues of diversity of waterfront use and access in North Carolina.
  5. Hold three public meetings, one in each of the three coastal regions, to present the draft report and recommendations to the public and user groups.

The 21 members of the committee included representatives from state and local agencies, state commissions, local governments, an environmental organization, an economic development council, scholars, the building and realty industries, and commercial and recreational fishery trades. By law, the director of North Carolina Sea Grant was appointed WASC chair.

In addition to committee business meetings, three public meetings were attended by 275 people, with 68 offering formal statements representing the interests of commercial and recreational fishing, access-related business (such as boat builders, marinas and fishing piers), state and local government, boaters and paddlers, and other community organizations.

The Waterfront Access Study Committee analyzed a number of issues specific to North Carolina’s waterfront challenges. In the midst of the committee’s work, the results of a Sea Grant-funded research project determined that the state had lost one-third of its coastal fish houses (fish harvest collection and basic processing businesses) over the preceding five years, further spurring committee concerns and action.

Ultimately, the committee forwarded recommendations to the General Assembly in a number of areas. The top two recommendations of the report were specific to “retaining and enhancing working waterfronts,” and recommended that the General Assembly extend eligibility of present-use value taxation to working waterfront properties. It also recommended the establishment of a working waterfronts trust fund, or some other separate and distinct set-aside of state funds, to assist in the retention and enhancement of working waterfront land uses along coastal public trust waters of the State.

Additionally, the committee made specific recommendations for augmenting, amending or creating new programs in the following areas:

  • Retaining and Enhancing Working Waterfronts
  • Enhancing Public Access to Coastal Waters
  • Planning and Zoning Approaches to Waterfront and Access Issues
  • Purchase or Transfer of Development Rights
  • Fishing Piers: A North Carolina Heritage
  • Fees for Public Trust Submerged Lands and Easements
  • Meeting Environmental Compliance Costs
  • Need for a Comprehensive Socioeconomic Study
  • Cooperative State-Local Partnerships and Approaches
  • Educational Outreach
  • Further Study and Oversight

Impacts of the North Carolina Waterfront Access Study Committee
As a direct result of recommendations made by the WASC, the General Assembly authorized two important initiatives to address waterfront access needs: the Waterfront Access and Marine Industry Fund and a tax break for waterfront businesses.

In 2007, the General Assembly authorized $20 million for the acquisition and protection of waterfront diversity, known as the Waterfront Access and Marine Industries Fund, administered by the Division of Marine Fisheries. Four priority funding areas were established: 1) public docking facilities; 2)public boat ramps; 3) fishing access; and 4) other marine industry facilities. The fund was a one-year allocation administered through a competitive grants process.

More than 170 proposals were received, from which 13 projects were ultimately selected for funding in 2008 (some of which also drew funding from other sources). The selected projects were distributed geographically across three coastal regions. Six sites, totaling $6.8 million, are in the northeast; four, totaling $6.3 million, are in the central; and three, totaling $6.9 million, are in the southeast. The sites were selected to provide waterfront access to a variety of user groups, including commercial and recreational fishermen, pier fishermen, recreational boaters and the marine industry. In addition, several sites are in strategic locations for important state research and habitat enhancement efforts.

The selected projects are multifunctional and address many of the access issues identified in the 2007 Waterfront Access Study Committee Report. The Division of Marine Fisheries also met its goal of leveraging the $20 million Fund to draw an additional $20 million in support from other sources.

Some funded projects focus specifically on fishing piers as a significant part of North Carolina’s heritage, including Jennette’s Pier in Nags Head, a public access ocean pier that is a part of the State Aquarium and had its grand re-opening in 2011, thanks to $1.54 million from the fund. Others include a boat-launching facility on Morehead City’s Radio Island, which opened in spring 2011, and a protected docking area and boat slips for crabbers in Tyrrell County.

In 2009, the legislature also approved a present-use tax valuation for waterfront businesses such as fish houses where fishermen land their catch. The valuation of approved properties is based on present-use value rather than the potentially higher development value. This turns into a tax savings for these waterfront businesses, thereby increasing their chances of remaining economically viable and offering their services to the fishing community.

In the long run, the Waterfront Access Study Committee triggered a number of state efforts to address declining waterfront access. The North Carolina Department of Transportation increasingly coordinates with other agencies to enhance access development. The permitting processes for rebuilding waterfront facilities is being streamlined, and Boating Infrastructure Program Funding is being increased through boater fees. In addition, increased analysis on topics including Coastal Zone Management plans, the legality of “dockominiums,” and opening or closures of fish houses, are all helping track changes in waterfront access that need attention. In addition, a bill was introduced in the 2008 legislature to once again allocate $20 million dollars towards the Water Access and Marine Industry Fund. However, the bill failed to advance with difficult budget years since 2009. Since a change in the majority leadership in the North Carolina House of Representatives and Senate in 2010, no further proposals have surfaced. North Carolina Sea Grant has continued its review of fish houses, funding a Fish House Inventory Update in 2012 (which includes information on their use of the present use valuation tax). North Carolina Sea Grant also supported a study of North Carolina’s Down East communities in 2008-10, which led to an ongoing “Saltwater Connections” project.

Key Partners
The North Carolina Waterfront Access Study Committee
North Carolina Sea Grant

Lisa Schiavinato
Coastal Law, Policy & Community Development Specialist
NC Sea Grant
Fax: 919-515-7095

Louis Daniel, Director
N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries
P.O. Box 769
Morehead City, NC 28557

Gordon Meyers, Director
N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission
1751 Varsity Drive
1701 Mail Service Center
Raleigh, NC 27699-1701
Phone: 919-707-0010

Additional Information
Waterfront Access: Meetings Highlight Spectrum of Needs (pdf)

Spring 2011 news article in the News and Observer in Raleigh, N.C., about waterfront access protection efforts:

North Carolina Water Access Study Committee Final Report:

Coastwatch (North Carolina Sea Grant’s Magazine), Spring 2007 issue focus: Waterfront Access Meetings Highlight a Spectrum of Needs.

An Inventory of North Carolina Fish Houses, March 27, 2007, Barbara J. Garrity-Blake, The University of North Carolina at Wilmington, and Barry Nash, The North Carolina Sea Grant College Program at the North Carolina State Seafood Laboratory. Available online at: (scroll down to 2007)

An Inventory of North Carolina Fish Houses, Five Year Update, 2012. Barbara Garrity Blake and Barry Nash.

Last updated 25-Mar-13


  • Southeast

Geographic Scope

  • Statewide

Governance Structure

  • Dillon Rule


  • Loss of commercial and/or recreational access and associated user conflicts
  • Economic development
  • What will happen if we do nothing?
  • Loss or preservation of heritage (cultural, maritime, etc.)


Waterfront Uses

  • Public access (docks/wharfs/beach/park)
  • Pier/dock/wharf/lift
  • Boat ramp/lift
  • Commerical fishing
  • Recreational boating, kayaking, other recreational watercraft
  • Educational facility (museum, aquarium, interpretive center, etc.)

Digital Coast Snapshots
State Economic Indicators