Rising Ocean Gnawing at Atlantic Beaches

May 15, 2023

Beach property owners looking for a handout, but it’s not coming.

Washington Post:

It’s been a rough stretch for Rodanthe, N.C., a scenic sliver of the Outer Banks where houses are crumbling into the ocean, owners are paying to move properties farther from the pounding surf and residents are pushing officials to do more to protect the fast-eroding shoreline.

At a town meeting early this year, Dare County’s manager, Bobby Outten, explained that the local government couldn’t begin to fund the type of extensive beach nourishment that would buy Rodanthe more time from the encroaching sea. But he did promise to undertake an engineering assessment so residents would know just how much it might cost to dredge offshore sediment and add a new expanse of beach.

In recent days, the county published those figures in a 35-page report, and they underscore the unenviable predicament facing Rodanthe — a quandary that scientists say other imperiled communities like it are sure to confront as seas rise and storms intensify.

A one-time beach nourishment in the area would cost as much as $40 million, the report found — roughly double the amount a similar study found a decade earlier. Maintaining that beach over 30 years would cost more than $175 million. The report details other potential options, such as installing structures to help slow erosion, but every path comes with a massive price tag.

“It’s a big number and it’s a lot of money, and we don’t have that amount of money,” Outten said in an interview. “We don’t have a method to fund a project of that scale.”

The balance in Dare County’s beach nourishment fund, which comes from a tax on hotels and vacation rentals and must go toward multiple projects in the sprawling county, stood at $6 million earlier this year.

Outten said that for nourishment to become a reality in Rodanthe, “there’s going to have to be some kind of a funding source somewhere, other than locally.” And yet, no significant influx of money from the state or federal government seems likely in the short term.

Around the time the county’s latest estimate was released, Rob Young, a Western Carolina University professor and director of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines, was finishing a different kind of estimate about Rodanthe.

In a Raleigh ballroom, Young told attendees at an Association of State Floodplain Managers conference that to buy out all the houses in Rodanthe within 300 feet of the high-tide line, using their current assessed tax value, would cost roughly $43 million, while avoiding repeated beach nourishments.

It amounts to about 80 structures, the vast majority of which are vacation homes and which, according to Young, make up only a small fraction of the county’s tax base. Meanwhile, his study found, “by removing these properties Rodanthe will likely have a viable beach for 15 to 25 years.”

As with beach nourishment, there is no funding for such an undertaking, and there is limited appetite among homeowners or elected officials. And Young is clear that his study isn’t intended to recommend any one approach.

But his point is that as sea levels rise and flooding plagues a growing number of places along U.S. coasts, communities should consider taking a step back in thoughtful ways — and at least do the math about what such an option would cost, especially when taxpayer money is at stake.

“There will be retreat,” Young told the Raleigh audience. “The question is, do you want that retreat to managed or unmanaged? Because right now, it is largely unmanaged.”

Young is among those who say Rodanthe’s struggles embody the thorny environmental, economic and emotional challenges that more and more coastal communities will face as increased flooding forces hard choices about what to protect along the nation’s shorelines and when to take a step back.

In Rodanthe, where four houses have collapsed since early 2022 and at least a dozen others remain in serious danger, erosion rates have hit a dozen feet per year in certain spots. As seas continue to rise and some property owners pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to move houses inland as far as possible, Young sees a place that should at least be pondering retreat.

“If we can’t have a rational discussion about relocation and buyouts of structures in a place like Rodanthe … then how can we do it anywhere?” Young said in an interview.

Outten, the county manager, said buyouts are an unlikely option for multiple reasons, among them the unlikelihood that property owners — many of whom rely on rental income during the summer months — would walk away. Buying scores of homes would also mean a hit to local property and occupancy taxes. And eventually, he said, officials might still need to take measures to safeguard nearby Highway 12, the main artery through the Outer Banks.

“At some point, you’re going to [have to] do a nourishment anyway,” Outten said. “Protecting the houses becomes secondary.”

Cynthia Doughty, who has lived in her oceanfront home on South Shore Drive for more than two decades, is holding out hope that the state or federal government will see fit to help fund a beach nourishment in Rodanthe.

Doughty has been out of her house since a storm last May sent the surf under her foundation and the county deemed it unsafe. She has since had the house relocated to a new foundation roughly 75 feet farther from the intruding sea, and she plans to move back in soon.

“I’m not going anywhere,” she said about the prospect of buyouts. She spoke of wildfires in California, tornadoes in the Midwest and other hazards that people in different parts of the country face. “I’ll deal with the ocean.”

Below, Andrea Dutton on the impending retreat from the Florida’s Keys.


7 Responses to “Rising Ocean Gnawing at Atlantic Beaches”

  1. rhymeswithgoalie Says:

    I recommend Gilbert Gaul’s 2019 book The Geography of Risk, which describes the incremental history of government subsidy of beach homes from small camp cracker boxes of the 1920s to today’s large expensive properties. Over the years inland taxpayers help pay for FEMA coastal flood support and the US Army Corps of Engineers rebuilding of beaches.

  2. rhymeswithgoalie Says:

    Mortgages have historically been granted based on the creditworthiness of the buyer, and in the decades that Fannie Mae has been buying up mortgages, the mortgage originator had no long term risk once it repackaged its mortgages.

    You can still get 30-year mortgages for the Keys.


    • jimbills Says:

      This is a long article but worth the read imo:

      The one option not acceptable to humans is to give up. We’ll just continue to pour more money into the coasts, especially taxpayer money, even when we’re certain it won’t help in the long run – at least until it’s well past the point that it’s obvious we should have given up long ago.

      In the Keys, the main problem they face short-term is housing affordability for their service industry workers. Housing plus insurance plus other costs have skyrocketed there the last 5 years. The wealthy are perfectly fine. Everyone else is struggling on until they finally decide they have to move.

      For years I have wanted to visit and camp in the Dry Tortugas National Park off Key West. I finally went there a few weeks ago. It takes well over a year in planning, and it’s not cheap. It was worth it, to me anyway, and I figure it’s not something that people 50 years from now (and likely sooner) will really get a chance to do. Anyway, on the ferry ride there, the tour guide pointed out a large collection of small anchored boats off the coast of Key West, saying that’s called affordable housing there, and that several of the ferry’s employees also lived in them. (Also, I did see that Seahaven housing area from the road mentioned in the article I linked.)

      • jimbills Says:

        error: I must have seen another section of new housing similar in style to the Seahorse Cottages. That development is too far off Highway 1.

      • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

        “The two-bedroom modular homes were assembled off-site and trucked nearly 100 miles down the Overseas Highway to Big Pine Key. The homes meet South Florida’s exacting building codes and are deed-restricted for 99 years.

        The Seahorse Cottages site’s owner, a nonprofit called Rural Neighborhoods, will lease the homes to families earning 80 percent or less than the area median income — or about $80,000, according to Fannie Mae.”

        Is that coming out of the Federal, State or County tax base, I wonder.

  3. Ron Benenati Says:

    Only solution – Managed retreat from the shore
    So you want a house where you can dangle you feet in the ocean from your living room?
    In my opinion, “Your choice. Your decision. It’s time you own it. Understand the word risk and accept your losses. It is not everyone else’s responsibility to rebuild your home and beaches and subsidize your luxury over and over.”

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