(This editoral originally appeared in The News &Observer of Raleigh.)
If you’re headed to Atlantic Beach sometime soon for a few days of late-summer vacation, the latest hot novel may be high on your priority list. But if you live or own property there, you’re probably spending more time weighing the merits of a pricey new town sewer system. Actually, there is a broad public stake in the issue, which gives state government ample reason to become involved.
Atlantic Beach is popular with vacationers, including many from the Triangle who enjoy the 3-hour drive to the barrier island of Bogue Banks. The town is small — about 1,800 full-time residents — but as many as 40,000 people can live there during the summer. Most businesses and about half the homes use septic tanks for sewage treatment. Most of the large condo developments use so-called package treatment plants.
Still, septic system effluent has to go somewhere, and Atlantic Beach soils aren’t the best for the purpose. Wastewater that’s inadequately treated can wind up in ocean and sound waters, which is an environmental disaster in the making and could hurt tourism.
For those reasons, the town is considering whether to build a $60 million central treatment plant. Some Atlantic Beach residents, of course, don’t like the idea of their property taxes hitting the Carolina blue sky to finance the plant. And there is justified concern that greater treatment capacity would invite a rush of new development, beyond what’s already occurring along the coast.
The plant on balance shapes up as a good environmental step. But it would make sense if residents didn’t have to bear the full cost. Like most towns, Atlantic Beach probably would qualify for some state financial help. But the state would be smart to reinvest some of the tax proceeds that this tourist mecca generates to keep it attractive and protect the waters.
In return, Atlantic Beach should use its zoning power to put a lid on growth. Development itself is a big pollution source, and a flood of new growth would counteract some of the benefits of a treatment plant. It also could turn Atlantic Beach into an ugly, crowded place. That’s not the direction the state should steer the town, and it’s not a destination for people seeking a little summer’s rest.