RODANTHE, N.C. (WAVY) – Four in the past two years, and a virtual certainty that more will continue.
That’s the number of homes on this ribbon of land that have collapsed into the Atlantic Ocean.
Rodanthe has 80 oceanfront lots, and the vast majority are investment vacation rentals. Those property owners and Dare County officials have a very short list of options — either re-nourish the beach by bringing in sand to build it out, which is currently beyond the county’s financial means, or move the homes back from the pounding surf.
A team of geologists who study beach erosion here and elsewhere have come up with a third possibility – buying out all 80 property owners, preferably at or near their current overall assessed value of $43 million.
“It would be less expensive to buy those properties and tear them down, than it would be to try and hold the shoreline in place in front of them,” said Western Carolina University professor Robert Young, who grew up in Hampton Roads. “It has one of the highest erosion rates on the East Coast – 10 to 15 feet a year.”
In recent years, four oceanfront properties have become property of the ocean, which is part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore.
“When one of those houses tumbles on to the beach, it is falling into a national park, literally. And then it creates a seven-mile long debris stream of fiberglass insulation, roofing nails and septic tanks,” Young said.
And Young says just like the tides, the collapses will continue.
“If we get a storm during this tropical storm season, or a big Nor’easter this fall or early winter, more houses are gonna fall in and they are gonna rain debris down,” Young said.
But Dare County Manager Bobby Outten said a buyout program doesn’t look beyond the horizon.
“It’s a solution for those houses that are today imperiled, but it’s not a solution for those houses that are imperiled in five years or in 10 years, because the sand and the erosion is gonna continue to move to the west,” Outten said. “Just buying the oceanfront houses doesn’t solve the problem for what would then be the next row of oceanfront houses.”
Outten said bringing in more sand would be too costly.
“As we speak, we don’t have sufficient funds in our budget to do a nourishment project here in Dare County,” he said.
Outten said it would take about $40 million — and that’s just the first wave.
“$40 million, and then about $25 million or $30 million every five years thereafter,” Outten said.
Dare County will work with the Army Corps of Engineers to see if federal funds are available.
Outten said the priority must be protecting NC Highway 12, the only access to the area.
The vital roadway is vulnerable to ocean overwash.
And should either the local, state or federal governments involved here opt for any scale of a buyout program at all?
“For some reason, people who buy pieces of property on rapidly eroding shorelines that are vulnerable to coastal storms somehow have this expectation that somebody’s gonna protect that investment for them,” Young said.
Julie Clark is not one of those people.
The retired veterinarian brought her family to Rodanthe a couple years ago to rent a home in the north end. She fell in love with it and told the owner she wanted to buy it, and even though it wasn’t on the market, Clark convinced the owner to sell.
At Clark’s home — right next door to the iconic Black Pearl home and only a few lots away from the home featured in the movie “Nights at Rodanthe,” which has since been moved inland — you don’t look out at the Atlantic. Ocean. You look down at it.
“I’m in love with the place,” Clark said. “It’s just like a postcard.”
But Clark realizes that when you’re this close, you can already feel the ocean’s effects.
“In the middle of the night. I can feel it move, but they told me that’s what it’s supposed to do.”
We were there on a relatively calm day, about an hour after high tide. Waves continuously lapped up against the posts that support the home. Clark has learned that proximity comes with its own special costs.
“I’ve had to completely redo the septic tank once and pump it out twice because it was full of sand. You just don’t know what the ocean’s going to do.”
Clark said she’s going through the process of trying to move the home back as far as possible on her lot.
“I can actually move back about 50 feet, and I heard that’ll give me about another 10 years,” she said. “Some of the ones just adjacent to me have moved already.”
Beach re-nourishment is working in Avon, half-an-hour south of Rodanthe.
Clark has a second investment property there, and it’s not threatened in the same way because of a protective berm of sand.
Mike Harrington is Clark’s brother in law. He and her sister liked what they saw in Rodanthe at Clark’s house, so they bought an investment property in Rodanthe last fall, making a total of three homes for the family on the Outer Banks.
By the way, they’re from Washington. The state, not the city. Why buy homes 3,000 miles away from home?
“In the Northwest where we are, the season is a lot shorter and the water is a lot colder,” Harrington said. “Even if you get down to California, I don’t think the beaches are this nice. No offense … California.”
And during peak season, their homes rent for $5,000 to more than $12,000 a week.
Young, the geologist from Western Carolina University said property owners have an undeniable reality.
“You are going to retreat. There’s no doubt about that. The question is whether that retreat is gonna be in a managed fashion or in an unmanaged fashion,” he said, shaking his head.
Young’s research found it would be cheaper for Dare County to buy out the property owners instead of renourishing the beach over time. But Clark said no government owes her a buyout if she can’t move her house in time.
“It’s not their responsibility,” she said. “It’s our responsibility. We should have done our research.”
Outten said a buyout program by itself is not a solution.
Meanwhile, property owners are on the fence. Do they ride it out, or get out?
“It’s a cost-benefit analysis that an owner has to make,” Outten said.
Over the past 30 years, the manager of the Rodanthe Pier has seen it all.
“If you buy on the ocean, it’s inevitably gonna fall in at this rate,” said Leslie Robinson. “There’s really nothing that you can do about it. Mother nature always wins.”
But for the time being, that’s not deterring Clark.
“I think that everybody has that yearning to be near the ocean,” Clark said. “I love it, I mean, this is the best place in world.”