Preserving working waterfronts

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CED Guest Author

Lisa Stifler is a Research Associate with the Community & Economic Development Program.

One area of community economic development in NC that is often overlooked is around the working waterfronts along the coast, sounds, and other waterways.  NC’s coast has seen a rapid increase in development over the past few decades, as the state’s beaches are a favorite vacation and retirement destination for many throughout the state and the country.

Although the building and development brings in needed revenue and tourism dollars for towns up and down the coast, it also creates a strain on the long-standing, traditional water-based industries in the state, including commercial and recreational fishing and boating.  These industries contribute signficantly to the state’s economy, offer employment opportunities, and are significant social and cultural aspects of the state’s history and heritage. 

The NC Legislature recognized this potential strain of development on access to NC’s public waters by convening a committee in 2006, which issued a report in 2007 (the report can be found here).   The report largely outlines initiatives that the state, counties, and municipalities can take to help preserve access to our state’s waters, including comprehensive conservation plans, zoning, changing taxation laws, and establishing a state trust fund.  Only a few other states have addressed the issue, mostly along the Eastern Seaboard and in the Gulf Coast, but Maine and Florida are the only two (other) states that have established programs that preserve working waterfronts.

In Florida, the Waterfronts Florida Program assists local governments in revitalizing their working waterfronts through technical assistance and financial support.  Maine offers a variety of grants and other resources geared toward different aspects of coastal preservation, including the Working Waterfront Access Program, which funds the purchase and preservation of critical coastal properties that provide access to and support commercial fishing activities.  In addition, two nonprofits in Maine, Island Institute and Coastal Enterprises, Inc., are active in the field.  Island Institute works with coastal communities by providing technical assistance, mapping services, and funding in identifying and protecting important commercial coastal property.  Coastal Enterprises offers a loan program for commercial fishermen and other marine-related businesses.  These efforts help leverage money, preserve and improve commercially important waterfront property, retain old jobs and create new ones, and preserve a significant industry.

In NC, some counties and towns have taken it upon themselves to address waterfront use and access issues through planning and/or zoning.  Following the 2007 study, the NC Legislature adopted some of the study’s recommendations and established the Waterfront Access and Marine Industry (WAMI) Fund, which provides funds to acquire or improve working waterfront properties or public waterfront access.  Sites were selected in 2008 for the $20 million appropriated by the legislature, and it does not appear that any additional funding was provided nor were sites selected in 2009.

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