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Seawalls, revetments, and other structures have eliminated ocean beaches even at low tide in a few locations, and narrowed the beach in many areas to the point where there is little or no dry beach at high tide (see Photo 5). When a seawall is placed between homes and an eroding beach, eventually the eroding shore reaches the seawall and the beach is eliminated. The elimination of estuarine beaches is so commonplace that several communities with Beach in their names no longer have a beach.
Photo 5. Galveston Seawall. (May 2003).
Photo source: ©James G. Titus, used by permission.
The importance of recreational beaches has led most coastal states to replenish some eroding ocean beaches with sand dredged from nearby shoals, or transported by truck from inland sources; this activity is known as beach nourishment. Several states have also enacted rolling easement statutes and regulations, which prohibit seawalls, revetments, and other hard shore protection structures. Because beach nourishment is a type of shore protection while rolling easements facilitate retreat, the combination of both approaches does not necessarily put a community onto a long-term path toward either retreat or shore protection. But together they ensure the continued existence of a recreational beach more effectively than either approach by itself: the rolling easement prevents the beach from being squeezed by a seawall at the landward edge, while the beach nourishment offsets erosion of the seaward edge.
The typical characteristics of rolling easements along eroding beaches may include:
- No shoreline armoring;
- A rolling design boundary (e.g. dune vegetation line), seaward of which the owners property rights are reduced;
- No new structures seaward of the rolling design boundary;
- Encouragement or requirement to remove pre-existing structures when erosion leaves them seaward of the rolling design boundary;
- Warnings about the policy to prospective buyers of coastal property;
- Provisions for public access (we address this issue in Section 2.2); and
- Indication whether beach nourishment and adding sand to dunes are allowed.
The relative importance of these features is different for ocean and bay shores.
Along estuarine shores, rolling easements are rare. As with rolling easements along the ocean, the key feature is the prohibition of shoreline armoring. One significant difference, however, concerns the fate of pre-existing structures. Homes on pilings could continue to stand on bay beaches or even in a bay for decades. If a community intends to retreat, then the rolling easement must require that homes be removed at some point after the land is submerged. But if the community is on the accommodation pathway, then the rolling easement might allow the homes to stand in the water indefinitely. (Access along estuarine shores is often a lower priority than along the ocean.)
Photos 6 to 8. Retreat. Houses along the shore in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, where regulations prohibit seawalls. Geotextile sand bags protect a septic tank buried in the dunes. Homes stand on the beach until the septic system fails. Top: June 2002. Middle: October 2002. Bottom: June 2003. Photo source: ©James G. Titus, used by permission.
Along ocean shores, at least seven states prohibit seawalls (and other shoreline armoring). Some flexibility is often necessary for homes left standing on the beach after the dunes erode out from under them (see Photos 6 to 8). Such homes are hazards and impair public use of the beach. Yet if they remain useable, officials find it difficult to order their demolitionespecially if the houses are still on private land, or if the beach is likely to be restored through natural or artificial processes. A rolling easement can require a home to be removed once it encroaches seaward of the dunes or once the land on which it sits is flooded at high tide; or it can provide for a waiting period during which the beach might be rebuilt or relocation of the home can be negotiated. Actual removal of the house may be precipitated by other factors: Erosion may leave a homes septic tank inoperable (see Photo 9), for example; or storms may destroy the home.
A stricter form of rolling easement is to ban all forms of shore protectioneven beach nourishment and other nonstructural shore protection. Along ocean shores, beach nourishment generally occurs wherever funding is available, based on the assumption that adding sand to a sandy beach protects private property while preserving the communitys most important environmental asset: the beach. In a few cases, ocean beach nourishment projects have been stopped because of their environmental consequences. And along estuaries, beach nourishment can significantly alter the coastal environment.If beach nourishment is impractical or undesirable, or if continued shore erosion is an essential policy goal, a rolling easement can prohibit all forms of shore protectionincluding beach nourishment.
 See, e.g., CCSP, supra note 3 , at 90 (photos along the Texas coast). See also photos before major beach nourishment projects at Miami Beach (FL) and Sea Bright (NJ) available from the Corps of Engineers.
 See, e.g., David A. Fahrenthold, In Maryland: Eco-Bills Come Due at Bay's Beaches, Washington Post, March 19, 2009 (Dares Beach, Columbia Beach, Mason's Beach, and Scotland Beach) and Josh Harkinson & Kate Sheppard, Buh-Bye East Coast Beaches, 35 (4) Mother Jones 40 (July 2010) (Chesapeake Beach, Pamlico Beach, and Tolchester Beach).
 For example, the Texas Open Beaches Act generally requires removal of homes seaward of the dune vegetation line, but administrative relief is possible for up to two years. The relief is not available, however, for homes seaward of the high tide line. See infra § 220.127.116.11
 E.g., Surfrider, Inc. v. Town of Palm Beach, Florida. Florida Division of Administrative Hearings Decision #08-1511 (Department of Environmental Protection Administrative Order #09-0729, July 15, 2009) (denying the town a permit for beach fill because of the project's potential to harm environmental and recreational resources).
Jeroen Speybroeck (and 12 others), Beach Nourishment: An Ecologically Sound Coastal Defence Alternative? A Review, 16 Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems 419435 (2006).
This page contains a section from: James G. Titus, Rolling Easements, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. EPA-430-R-11-001 (2011). The report was originally published by EPA's Climate Ready Estuary Program in June 2011. The full report (PDF, 176 pp., 7 MB) is also available from the EPA web site.
For additional reports focused on the implications of rising sea level, go to Sea Level Rise Reports.