Houses Claimed by the Sea

 In Coastal Life, Features, Something to Talk About

Photos Courtesy of Cape Hatteras NPS

With a deep sigh and disappointed shake of the head, many an Outer Banks local has broken stride in the middle of a beach walk to bend down and scoop up a piece of trash. “Leave no trace” and all that jazz, right? There are many laws on the books about littering, but enforcement is another issue.

“Let’s just say you’re walking on the beach, and you dropped a soda can and littered,” Dave Hallac ponders. “You could be given a citation or a violation notice for littering. But we can’t force you to pick the can up.”

Instead of a soda can, though, what if it’s your entire refrigerator on the beach? With pieces of your kitchen cabinets, dining room walls, bedroom furniture, attic insulation – and much, much more – churning in the surf?

beach debris

Hallac, who serves as the National Park Service’s Superintendent of Cape Hatteras National Seashore and the Outer Banks Group, endured that scenario in May when the sea claimed a pair of beach-front homes in Rodanthe during prolonged storms. Stories and videos of the collapsed homes and the subsequent cleanup efforts made national news, with Hallac and the OBX featured in outlets such as the Washington Post, New York Times, and The Weather Channel.

While the dramatic images fascinated folks in faraway places, worries over homes falling into the Atlantic Ocean are nothing new for Dare County officials and local town managers. They must navigate a complex landscape of federal, state, and local regulations while dealing with the interests of local and absentee property owners. Yet, at the same time, these barrier islands continue their relentless shift to the west.

“We never aren’t talking about it,” says Bobby Outten, who serves as both the County Manager and County Attorney for Dare. “It’s not the first house that fell in Rodanthe, and it certainly won’t be the last. It’s a problem we have on the coast in Dare County from Duck to Hatteras Village.”

There’s just one problem with all those conversations.

“Kind of the blanket statement is, it’s complicated,” Duck Town Manager Drew Havens says.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Isabel in 2003, Meredith Guns still vividly remembers the scene outside the Sea Ranch Resort. The deep pilings did their job during the devastating storm, keeping the upper floors of the hotel stable and supported. But the wind and waves blew out the first floor and its shops, gym, and restaurant.

“The whole first floor was gone – it was just laying on the beach,” Guns recalls. “I mean, it was just bizarre: exercise equipment, clothes, plates, napkins…”

Guns has worked for the Town of Kill Devil Hills for 26 years and currently serves as the Planning Director and the Damage Assessment Coordinator after storms come through. While KDH has dealt with houses being claimed by the sea in the last quarter century, there’s been a big difference in those responses: the federal government has been involved after an emergency declaration.

If a major hurricane causes enough damage, including destroyed homes, officials will seek an official disaster declaration from the President. But, of course, that gets the Federal Emergency Management Agency involved and triggers a whole other response regarding disaster relief and cleanup.

“When that happens, the Town has an umbrella agreement with the county for debris collection,” Guns explains. “We have an annual contract that gets bid out with these huge companies that do debris removal, and when something’s declared, the county immediately enacts the contract.”

In other words, a major storm that leaves behind major problems generates a major response.

The problem, of course, comes when it’s not a federally declared disaster. For instance, the homes in Rodanthe this past May crumbled after a series of high tides and wind and rain from nor’easters. They were an isolated incident and didn’t trigger FEMA’s help.

“In my 26 years here, we haven’t had a house that fell in outside of a declared disaster,” Guns says. “So that makes it a little bit iffy: Is it the homeowner’s responsibility because the house fell in, or is it the responsibility of the Park Service or whoever manages the beach? That’s a call we haven’t had to make.”

It’s an important question. Long before “climate change” became a household phrase, the Outer Banks was experiencing it: Inlets were being opened and closed by hurricanes. High tides and storm systems were eroding beaches. And the gradual creep of the barrier islands from east to west was taking place.
Beach-front homes built decades ago found themselves in the surf zone.

“To be fair,” Hallac says, “there’s a whole other story to be told from the homeowner’s perspective. It’s a challenging situation. It’s mostly just a result of significant erosion in these areas. Nobody wanted these things to happen, but it did.

“So one of the things that I’ve been doing is reaching out to try to work with homeowners and say,’ Hey, this is likely to be a problem. What can you do to mitigate the problem to stabilize your home?’ We’ve been in the mode of just trying to connect with the homeowners and encourage them to do something from a prevention status.”

Ben Franklin famously reminded an audience in the 1700s that “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” The advice rings particularly true in this instance.

As Guns put it, “It’s no joke when you’ve got to pick up a (destroyed) house.” The trick comes in taking action before it falls into the sea – but that, too, is complicated.

Photo Courtesy of Cape Hatteras NPS

In the aftermath of the Rodanthe homes falling, Hallac held a meeting in the Village with more than a hundred people. The message itself was simple:
“I told everybody, ‘The goal is not to be prepared to clean up the house after it collapses. The goal is to prevent the house from collapsing,’” Hallac says. “We are stressing that avoiding this is the No. 1 priority because once the house collapses, the nightmare has arrived.”

There are four options for dealing with homes in the surf zone: move them, remove them, extend the beach, or do nothing and let nature take its course.

Dare County finds itself amidst another beach nourishment project this summer and fall for this reason. There’s “More Beach to Love,” as the slogan goes, for beachgoers and homeowners.

“That’s the primary benefit of beach nourishment is property protection,” Havens says. “It helps protect against ocean overwash. I would never use the word ‘prevent’ because you can’t. The ocean’s going to go where it wants to go. But you can protect property.”

Duck’s 1.6-mile-long beach nourishment project five years ago built up dunes that have “been pounded on but are still in place,” Havens says. Focusing nourishment efforts on the hotspots where the Town narrows means Duck officials can breathe a little easier about their beach-front homes, none of which are in real areas of concern, Havens adds.

That’s why the nourishment projects, despite the cost and the necessity of doing them every five or so years, are so essential to do and budget for.

“The Northern beaches have been able to hold off Mother Nature for a while with beach nourishment, and now down South, we’ve got a wide beach in Avon and are working on Buxton,” Outten says. “In the areas we’ve nourished, thankfully, we don’t lose houses.”

Officials realize that’s a temporary solution, though. Southern Shores Town Manager Cliff Ogburn considers his town lucky to have beach-front homes safely set back from the dunes, but it’s still a regular conversation.

“When that day comes, and it’ll come – even with beach nourishment, eventually the erosion is going to get to some of these houses – you hope you’ve got cooperative homeowners and you’ve got a plan in place,” Ogburn says.

When nourishment isn’t enough, moving or simply removing houses comes into play.

As the Dare County Planning Director, Noah Gillam has “day-to-day conversations” with homeowners, potential buyers, and developers about ocean-front properties. Many conversations focus on the gamble or risk-reward scenario of being on the beach. Unfortunately, the best option for many current homeowners with threatened properties is to move them. Several homes in Rodanthe were moved just this summer.

Some, Gillam explains, were able to shift further westward on their existing lot, while others managed to move to different lots on the west side of the beach road.

“Our encouragement is for any of these current owners if they can afford it, to relocate their house westward,” Gillam says. “They got themselves out of immediate danger.”

Regarding Dare County’s beaches in the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, the National Park Service is a significant player in the conversations about threatened houses in the surf zone. Gillam and Hallac formerly communicated with some 24 homeowners in Rodanthe and Buxton in the past few months about issues the Dare County Building Inspector had found that could impact the seashore.

Hallac explains that it could be as drastic as the structural stability of the whole house or lesser concerns about a deck or septic system that the encroaching ocean might jeopardize. Beach nourishment in Buxton has offered what Hallac calls “a pretty significant Band-aid” for those homes. But Rodanthe continues to struggle with the area’s most rapid erosion rate, averaging three meters yearly but reaching as high as four meters a year in some areas.

Hallac admits that he doesn’t hear back from everybody. Still, the folks he does converse with care about the situation and are eager to find solutions.

“It’s just that solutions are expensive,” Hallac says. “To move a home is not cheap, and to move a home and find a new location for it is even more expensive, but several of the homeowners have and are in the process of moving their homes right now. We’re extremely pleased that some of our neighbors have recognized just how precarious the situation is and are moving to create a more sustainable situation.”

Another issue is trying to force someone to move a home or to spend the money to tear down an abandoned house before it crashes into the sea. Several town officials spoke of some homeowners’ cost-benefit analysis: I could spend thousands of dollars moving my house or collect up to $250,000 from the National Flood Insurance Program after my home is destroyed.

The most significant complication is the array of local, state, and federal regulations that come into play along the Outer Banks. Ultimately, the beaches on the Cape Hatteras National Seashore are controlled by the National Park Service. In addition, there are county zoning regulations, environmental health regulations, and Coastal Area Management Act (CAMA) rules in play.

In the individual towns of the Northern Beaches, CAMA regulations call for a 60-foot setback from the first line of stable natural vegetation. And the “public trust beach” starts at the bottom of that first line of stable natural vegetation, so even if someone owns an ocean-front lot, they don’t actually own the beach in front of their home. The state does.

“By law, the beach is a public trust,” Guns explains. “You can’t prevent someone from crossing it. You can’t prevent someone from walking on it. You can’t make improvements on it.”

But towns also can’t tell a property owners that they have to do something with their home before it falls into the ocean. A little more than ten years ago, Nags Head attempted to declare houses that had encroached onto the wet sand beach – in other words, now in the public trust – as nuisances that posed an imminent danger, but a bevy of high-profile lawsuits followed.

Cherry v Nags Head essentially found that only the state – not the town – could force property owners to take action. Nevertheless, Sansotta v Nags Head eventually led to a $1.5 million settlement for the property owner. The home’s fair market value.

“Sansotta, that lawsuit pretty much tied the hand of local governments to do much of anything,” Outten says. “That lawsuit basically said the local government doesn’t own the land upon which it sits and therefore can’t require someone to move a house ahead of time.”

And, if a town has taken steps to force someone to leave, like declaring the property uninhabitable or denying needed permits for repairs, “You’ve effectively kicked them out, and you have to buy the house,” Outten continues.

Photo Courtesy of Cape Hatteras NPS

Adds Ogburn: “Towns have minimal housing authority. If your house anywhere is in danger of collapse or is unsafe or condemned, we can apply that to get the house habitable or safe again. The other route is we can take it, but we have to pay fair market value, and that’s not popular at all because these houses, even the ones getting ready to fall into the ocean, they still have some decent value.”

So many steps are taken to prevent a home from falling into the ocean because the cleanup process presents just as many challenges.

“If a house collapses and lands on the beach, it’s that homeowner’s responsibility to clean it up,” says Gillam, the Dare Planning Director.

The problem comes in enforcing that idea in a variety of cases.

What happens when multiple houses wash in at once?
“’Well, that’s not a piece of MY house. Why am I responsible for picking that up?’” Gillam offers in that example. “A 2×4 looks the same as any other. It’s not like individual pieces of lumber are stamped with the homeowner’s name on them.”

And most common, what happens when a house collapses into the sea and starts getting carried away by the churning waves?
“Oftentimes, the current running along the beach can be quick, but even if it’s just two or three miles an hour, and one of these houses collapses, usually during rough seas – you can do the math on how far that debris is transported in just 10 hours,” Hallac says. “What we found in both these circumstances (with the Rodanthe houses) is that within a couple of days, we had debris all the way down to Avon a solid 10 to 15 miles, again on National Seashore beaches.”

Remarkably, NPS officials continued the cleanup process months later, even though a concerted local cleanup effort was attempted. The owners of one of the collapsed homes did deploy contractors to clean up.

“There continues to be small debris on the beach for approximately four miles from those homes,” Hallac says. “Small pieces of tar paper, carpet padding, drywall, pieces of faux wood blinds, textile materials from comforters, mattresses – hundreds of thousands of pieces between the size of maybe your fingernail and the palm of your hand. The Park is actually trying to purchase a beach rake that would be capable of basically sifting the upper layer of sand to remove all that debris.”

The final cleanup costs may yet be passed on to the homeowners or their insurance companies once the NPS legal team takes a final look.

“My No. 1 priority is to try to protect the beaches, so we’re really focused on that, and then we will make a determination after tallying our costs of whether or not we’re going to be seeking some reimbursement for the costs that we incurred to protect the seashore,” Hallac says. “This is quite honestly a nightmare situation. It’s the last thing that you would hope would happen to a national park and it’s certainly taken up a lot of our time.”

The towns face similar challenges. When he got to Duck, Havens learned of past storms that had left swimming pools on the beach: “The homeowners ended up cleaning those up because ultimately, they want to replace their pool. And we say, ‘Sure, we’ll give you the permit to do that, but you need to take care of the old one.’”

At the same time, each town is responsible for maintaining its beaches.

“If my neighbor had a bunch of shingles blow off his roof, I’m not going to call and say, ‘these are on my property, come clean up your mess,’” Havens explains. “It’s my mess now.”

Adds Ogburn: “Once the house washes in, you’re responsible in that it’s your house, and you are responsible for cleaning up the mess that your house made. But the legal responsibility is not that clear. And so if someone’s not a responsible person, doing the right thing for the right reason, it’s really hard to make them clean up their mess. So sometimes it’s just easier for the towns to do it.”

In other words … it’s complicated. And so town officials, county officials, the National Park Service, and homeowners will continue their conversations and do their utmost to keep Mother Nature at bay.

“As the outcome becomes more apparent over time, Park Service staff and our staff have done some things with notifications, lining up contracts to prepare,” Outten says. “We’re not looking five years from now – something’s going to happen in the next season, likely, given the precarious nature of a couple of them now. We have the plans in place to move forward expeditiously should another one fall in the future.”

Steve Hanf is a former professional sportswriter for daily newspapers who now teaches journalism classes at First Flight High School.

Steve Hanf
Author: Steve Hanf

Steve Hanf worked as a sportswriter for 13 years in North Carolina before finding a fun second career in the classroom. He currently advises the newspaper and yearbook programs at First Flight High School and loves his new life on the OBX.

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