RODANTHE — Early in the last virtual meeting of the Threatened Oceanfront Structures Interagency Task Force Oct. 12, Cape Hatteras National Seashore Superintendent David Hallac provided details about a pilot program in which the agency recently used nonprofit conservation trust funds to purchase two endangered oceanfront houses in Rodanthe.
The plan sounded like it could be the kind of solution the task force had long been seeking: The owners agreed to the deal, and the National Park Service is keeping tons of debris from another inevitable house collapse from scattering into the Atlantic and for miles on the public trust seashore and nearby private property.
But comments on an Oct. 16 article in the Washington Post illustrate why the task force was assembled in the first place: to remedy government paralysis and address overlapping rights and inadequate regulations to protect public resources that affect private property, a contentious and complicated consequence of climate change involving money, power and unequal misfortune.
Since an oceanfront house in Rodanthe fell Feb. 9, 2022, three others nearby have collapsed onto the national seashore, where numerous structures still standing on 2 miles of eroded shoreline are also threatened.
“They knew the risks, now pay the piper,” commenter “cat whisker” wrote in response to the article. “Declare eminent domain and pull those houses down, no buyouts. Why should tax payers subsidize greed and stupidity?”
Others expressed similar sentiments.
“Your insurance is subsidized by the insurance of others, who do not live in high-risk areas,” “doggone 1” wrote. “Many of us who put a lot of thought into buying our homes resent those who obviously did not, and who now expect a bail-out of some sort.”
While Rodanthe is hardly the only beachfront community in the U.S., it is an early — and dramatic — illustration of the impacts of climate change on coastlines as sea levels continue to rise.
Much of the response and planning for climate impacts is being done on a local and state level, while integrating with federal programs and funding. Rodanthe is unusual in that it’s a blend of local, state, federal and private interests in one concentrated area that affects many thousands of visitors to a national park with vital natural resources and popular attractions.
Although Rodanthe has one of the highest erosion rates on the Outer Banks, the beach in front of the problem houses had been relatively wide and stable until recent years, when the beach erosion rate accelerated over a short span of time. Soon, it became evident that no level of government was equipped with the clear authorities or incentives to get people to remove their threatened houses before the ocean took them.
In two previous meetings held since March, the task force has discussed issues with federal flood insurance, private insurance, septic systems and grant programs, among others. The focus of the most recent workshop was on government’s role, its potential actions and limitations and its effects on private property protections and rights.
“We collectively found that few if any federal funding programs were available for property owners voluntarily or local governments to address erosion-threatened structures, through removal of the structure or relocation of the structures, especially where those structures were second homes or investment properties,” North Carolina Division of Coastal Management Director Braxton Davis told the task force.
The authority of the National Park Service “is very limited,” said Trish Cortelyou-Hamilton, an attorney with the U.S. Department of the Interior.
The ambulatory boundaries between mean low and mean high water are difficult to nail down precisely, making them difficult to enforce, she said.
“So there’s no rules or federal statutes related to requiring these folks to relocate,” Corelyou-Hamilton said.
And some houses were originally built much farther back from the beach, Hallac added.
“But for those 2 miles of Rodanthe, there’s this collision of private properties and our seashore boundary,” he said.
Corelyou-Hamilton said that litigation by conservative law groups like the Pacific Legal Foundation represent plaintiffs suing over regulatory takings under the Fifth Amendment at little to no cost to the homeowner. Often the goal is to further national case law, making potential resolutions or settlements more difficult.
To Corelyou-Hamilton’s point, Nags Head’s town manager Andy Garman said that the town has the authority to condemn an oceanfront structure and require repairs that make it safe. But the dilemma the town has faced is when the owners do the required repair, “many” have let the house sit on the beach.
“And we’ve had some for more than 15 years on the beach that are essentially uninhabitable the entire time,” he said.
Part of the reason the town’s hands are tied is because of a lawsuit that the town lost over its attempt to have an owner remove their house from the beach.
Even if there was additional authority, Garman said he would expect lawsuits to test it, meaning additional litigation over takings claims.
“So a lot of the burden has been put on local government to deal with these issues,” he said. “And having some sort of coordinated statewide approach — I know that’s the purpose of this group — would be much appreciated from our perspective.”
Other states have been grappling with houses collapsing on the beach, including in California where they fall off cliffs undermined by erosion. Some states have stricter measures in place than North Carolina when it comes to owner responsibilities for cleanup.
For instance, Hawaii, which experienced similar house collapses around the same time as Rodanthe, just passed new statutes that address debris removal and other concerns, North Carolina Coastal Federation Coastal Advocate Alyson Flynn told the task force. The Coastal Federation publishes Coastal Review.
In addition to setting up penalties, she said, the new laws also grant authority for the state to tap the private property value to cover costs of removal of illegal objects on public land, and provide drones to view the subject area.
Overall, the panel agreed that more innovation, collaboration and cooperation will be needed going forward.
“Local governments been given a lot of authority, but it’s basically been very piecemeal,” said Webb Fuller, a former Nags Head official and a member of the state Coastal Resources Advisory Committee. “And when local governments requested the state to come in and help us on stuff, the state has always been very reluctant to do that.”
Hallac said that the working group will provide a report summarizing the ideas, challenges and recommendations by year’s end.
Whatever the recommendations, private property and public resources, they will not be a one-size-fits-all solution, he said. Nor is there a bad guy to blame when a house collapses in the surf.
“Whether or not you end up in the ocean within a week, a month or five years, it’s just going to happen on beaches where there is a long-term trend of erosion — it’s going to happen,” he said. “And so to me, that has to be some level of threshold in government’s work, hopefully collaboratively with owners to find a solution.”