Where White Oak River empties into the ocean, west of Emerald Isle, the town of Cape Carteret sits at a crossroads. NC 58, the road used by most beach-bound drivers, intersects NC 24, the inland road to Morehead City. West of town, a stand of mature red cedar trees, sculpted by ocean winds, runs along the river to White Oak bridge. But not for long. If the state widens the road to four lanes, these trees may have to go. From Thurman Upchurch’s vantage point, the growth is inevitable. “All along the coast, there is a huge antigrowth undercurrent,” the former mayor of Cape Carteret says. “People say they’ve got their place and they want to close the door. That’s unrealistic. Growth is going to take place. And there are going to be lots of secondary impacts.”

The biggest one is already seeping through the ground in some places. Raw sewage. “Ride from Atlantic Beach east to the end of Bogue Banks,” says Dick Bierly, president of the Carteret Crossroads Environmental Group. “There are areas where you can come down to standing water and you can smell it.” All of Bogue Banks, including Emerald Isle and Atlantic Beach, uses septic tanks.

Bierly also says the county desperately needs year-round businesses. “We have some of the poorest wages in the state. When people say `no growth’ they don’t know what they are talking about.” Good planning, he says, is the solution to what he calls a “disaster in the making.”

Two years ago, such a discussion between Bierly and Upchurch about growth problems would hardly have been this agreeable. Bierly, who also serves on the advisory board of the North Carolina Coastal Federation, says the health hazard of contaminated water wasn’t even on the radar screen for local officials two years ago.

But Carteret County is not alone. Neighboring Onslow, Pamlico, and Craven counties all face the same problemwhere to put all this sewage? The four counties sit on high water tables, and local waterways consist almost entirely of the mouths of major streams and rivers. State water quality experts say they will resist adding more sewage to waterways. That means even if the counties build a regional treatment plant, there will be no place to put the treated effluent.

Michael Luger, professor of planning and director of the new Office of Economic Development, caught wind of the situation earlier this year. As part of the Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise, Luger’s office brings university expertise to bear on state issues.

It seemed they were hung up on the idea of an ocean outfall to dump their sewage,” he says. “But it occurred to me we could really help them do some fundamental planning.”

Last September, Luger invited county commissioners and their county managers to a roundtable discussion. Two hours later he pitched an idea: he would arrange for graduate students to help lay the groundwork for a comprehensive land-use plan. The group agreed.

Led by staff at the Carolina Environmental Program, the workshop will be open to graduate students from city and regional planning, environmental science and engineering, law, and business. First, they’ll travel to the coastal counties to meet key players and get an idea of what infrastructure is already in place.

They’ll develop land-use scenarios that give a good idea of what growth could look like and what it should look like based on where the populace wants it to go,” Luger says. “Infrastructure is the biggest impetus to growth.”

The course will be directed by Deborah Amaral, adjunct assistant professor of environmental sciences and engineering, with input from Luger and Dale Whittington, professor of environmental sciences and engineering, and Richard Whisnant, assistant professor at the Institute of Government.

By the end of the class, students will offer coastal planners a variety of finance and infrastructure scenarios for managing growth on the coast. “We’re going to create a model that can be used all along the coast,” Luger says. “Every state along the seaboard has concentrated growth.”

Upchurch, now chairman of the four-county regional wastewater task force, says so far his group hasn’t received much help from the state. “They’ve told us what we can’t do,” he says. But he welcomes the idea of studying the issue one more time. “We have to back up and address how to organize and approach this,” he says, “or we’re going to fail.”

Christopher Hammond was a student who formerly contributed to Endeavors.