New homes rise on hazard-prone beach as officials lobby for more federal protection

NORTH TOPSAIL BEACH, N.C. -- A crane swung a new roof truss into place above a house being built on this belt of sand last week, helping to expand development on what some experts say is one of the most dangerous islands to build on in the United States.

Construction has already produced a line of stilted houses along the beach of this barrier island in southeastern North Carolina, despite a law passed 30 years ago that barred it from receiving federal money for a variety of things, including federal flood insurance, money for roads and bridges, and federal help building dunes.

Congress saw big risks in putting money into this frequently shifting island and hundreds of other coastal areas around the country. However, the Coastal Barrier Resources Act signed into law by President Reagan in 1982 doesn't prohibit local residents from building on these strips of unbroken sand and soggy wetlands.

The law was based on the theory that few would risk developing areas that can't receive government help. It applies to 585 areas around the coastal United States that include more than 3 million acres. There, residents would be on their own.

The legal theory doesn't work in some places, including scenic North Topsail Beach. Twenty-one houses are currently being built, or are permitted, along the straight stretch of beach measuring about 10 miles.

Since 2005, 274 houses have been constructed, according to town records, usually 60 feet from the reach of high tide. Supposedly, that gives the owner 30 years before the ocean might lap at the house's pilings under state projections. The state factors in rate of erosion but not the rate of sea-level rise. Thus a big storm surge could come sooner and bite off a big chunk of beach or break right through the island, something that's happened before.

"I believe that North Topsail is the most hazardous barrier island in the nation," asserted Orrin Pilkey, a professor emeritus of Earth sciences at Duke University. "The level of irresponsibility in this community is just kind of breathtaking."


He said Topsail faces the regular challenges associated with barrier islands: the threat of storms, and the land's lowness and narrowness, less than 50 yards wide in some places. Other hazards include the sandpaper effect of the New River, which bursts into the Atlantic Ocean at the island's northern tip, which is constantly being eroded. The result has been several homes pulled apart in the surf.

Dividing land -- and neighbors

Those bad omens are partly why North Carolina officials now want to change the federal law to bring in federal help to fortify their town against future cataclysms like Superstorm Sandy.

Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) and Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.) have introduced legislation to redraw the boundary of the Coastal Barrier Resources Act to omit North Topsail Beach. Town officials have long held that the Fish and Wildlife Service mistakenly included the town in the law, saying that some infrastructure was in the works when the maps were being drawn in the early '80s.

The law requires that a "full suite" of infrastructure be in place to avoid inclusion in the risk-prone area, including sewer, water, roads and electric lines. There was not enough of this in place 30 years ago to spur a redrawing of the boundary near Topsail, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

"If you look at that part of our state, you can see there's been tremendous growth in changes," Jones said in a recent interview. "We are asking -- at least, the town leadership asked me -- to have a review of the boundaries and the decisions that were made 30 or 40 years ago. So it is a process of trying to get a hearing and give these people a chance to explain what their problems are. You never know what's gonna happen."

Part of the town is already exempt from the law. Federal maps show that two small pockets near the northern tip of the island are eligible for government assistance. A bigger section on the southern end of town is also free of the law's restrictions. Those areas were already undergoing development when the law was passed, and weren't included.

The inconsistencies create turbulence among neighbors, said Town Manager Stuart Turille. He noted that people subject to the law often pay $15,000 a year for private flood insurance. Neighbors who fall outside the boundary, which "ducks and twists" through the island, pay $3,000 or less for a policy through the National Flood Insurance Program, he said.

"It divides the community," Turille said.

'Don't make damn sense'

More importantly, in the eyes of officials, the law starves the expanding town of federal money for dunes and beach nourishment projects.

The town undertook a $32 million project this year to widen its 10-mile-long beach. It financed the first phase through private lenders to push seawater away from a line of homes near the New River inlet. It cost $500,000 and came just in time: High tides were eating away the beach under those homes. Now the beach is hundreds of feet wide, but it only protects the northern tip of town.

The final phases of the project stand to be more difficult to finance, unless Congress changes the law's boundary. Locals refer to the Coastal Barrier Resources Act by its acronym, pronouncing it "cobra."

"We desperately need shoreline protection," Turille said. "But we can't get federal loans or assistance in the areas still in CBRA, meaning we've got to leave our shoreline unprotected."

Town officials say the U.S. Department of Agriculture has agreed to loan them $16 million to widen the beach and build dunes along the southern part of town, which does not fall within the law's boundary. They believe the agency would finance the rest of the project if those sections now restricted by the law were suddenly eligible for federal help.

Town leaders, in turn, think that would spur additional development. And that would confront Congress with a decision to increase its financial responsibilities on a storm-prone island or risk greater losses as the effects of climate change threaten more development.

Taxpayers might also be faced with increased exposure to loss through federal flood insurance as homeowners exchange their expensive private coverage for cheaper public policies.

That would help Milton Pearce, a year-round resident who can't afford private flood insurance for his unit in a beachfront duplex. So the retired electrician goes without it.

"Down the street, they can get [federal] insurance 'cause they're not in a CBRA zone," he explained. "It don't make damn sense to me."

'Sacrificial sand'

But Pearce and people like him are islands on an island this time of year: Permanent residents are surrounded by empty houses that serve primarily as summer rentals. These investment properties, which are often built by developers and purchased by business-minded landlords, account for 80 percent of the homes in North Topsail Beach, said Deb Hill, the town's planning director.

"Generally speaking, if you can afford to buy an oceanfront house, if that's your desire, it would not be cost-prohibitive to have private insurance," Hill said. "Especially if they're investment properties."

Andy Coburn, associate director of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University, believes the proposed boundary change would essentially underwrite risky investment decisions that are threatened by erosion and rising sea levels. He likened it to a business subsidy.

"That's basically what the federal government is doing -- is coming in and bailing out a risky investment that is starting to go bad, or has gone bad," he said.

Coburn, who studies beach nourishment efforts, said the recent project in town that widened its northern section of beach represents a temporary reprieve from imminent damage to homes in the future. He predicted the new sand might last four or five years, and less if it's stormy.

"It's sacrificial sand," he said.

The Fish and Wildlife Service is open to changing boundaries that inadvertently included areas with existing infrastructure 30 years ago. It made many mistakes at the time by relying on outdated maps that may not have shown buildings and other development, according to one official.

As a result, FWS is undertaking a project to update the boundaries in more than 70 CBRA units. These are often small changes that adjust inaccurate boundaries, rather than wholesale deletions of CBRA units.

It has proposed modest changes to the unit encompassing North Topsail Beach that include removing 56 homes, 77 acres of developable land and 51 acres of wetlands from the CBRA system. It also proposes adding 10 acres of uplands and 179 acres of wetlands, according to the official. The unit currently has 6,000 acres.

"We're not proposing to remove half the unit or anything," the official said.

Abandoning 'numero uno'?

Minor changes could take place as FWS finalizes its proposal before submitting it to Congress next year. Lawmakers could then vote to accept the plan. Alternatively, they could consider the legislation by Hagan and Jones to omit most of the town from the boundary.

"It leads to less interest in buying and selling properties on the island," Turille said of CBRA. "It acts as a disincentive to the economic market. It discourages any future development."

To Pilkey, softening federal guidelines that discourage additional building amounts to a win for irrational decisionmaking. On average in North Carolina, he says, 1 foot of sea-level rise stands to inundate more than one-third of a mile of land. It also will exacerbate erosion and storm surge, both of which threaten to shorten the life of barrier island buildings.

"North Topsail, other things being equal, is gonna have to be the first island in North Carolina to be abandoned, I think," Pilkey said.

That could be forestalled by economic and political decisions, which might lead to the construction of protective barriers.

But if it were up to nature, he added, North Topsail "would be numero uno."

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