The Outer Banks beach is an ever-changing, migrating sand dune system and, to some degree, most people understand that to be the case. Yet, some make a decision to purchase a piece of property on the Outer Banks beach without ever conducting any meaningful due diligence on the actual beach. The same people who typically scrutinize cash flow analysis and rental pro forma as a basis to a long term purchase plan often overlook the absolute necessity of developing an understanding of the vast differences in the various stretches of Outer Banks beach. Beach erosion, increased insurance premiums, and loss of functional usage can completely cripple an Outer Banks rental if the owner is relying on revenue. Thus, your research of Outer Banks real estate should begin with developing a thorough understanding of the strength of the underlying Outer Banks beach.
The sandbar visible from the pet-friendly beach is evidence of the strength of this beach.
We closed on our first vacation home in Nags Head in the spring of 1999. We were officially welcomed by hurricanes Dennis, which began August 24 and lasted through September 7, and, on the heels of Dennis came Floyd, which stretched from September 7 to September 17. It was an eye-opening experience, to say the very least.
The family that had reserved our home for their Outer Banks vacation that Labor Day thought better of making the drive from Ohio into a 70 mile-per-hour headwind. They were apparently smarter than I was. Hurricane Dennis had veered away from the coast and, with the cancellation, my wife, children, and I welcomed the extra week at the Outer Banks beach. Dennis completely threw the meteorologists for a loop. It made a complete circle off the coast and drove some of the strongest and longest-lasting waves with respect to erosion that we have seen since. It was locally referred to as “Dennis the Menace”, as it lacked the sheer news appeal of something sudden and horrific, but was relentless. Many of the Outer Banks beaches, and the homes on them, took a thrashing. The winds were not the main problem, just the never-ending high tide and wave action. Surprisingly, we consider ourselves lucky with respect to our first purchase in the Outer Banks.
I say we were lucky because the extent of damage to our property was that our pool was filled with sand. We saw the myriad of homes that were either completely destroyed, or that were condemned, and seemingly the entire beach was blanketed with caution tape. There was a section of Outer Banks beach in Kill Devil Hills that added sand during the back to back hurricanes. The fact that there were stretches of Outer Banks beach that had ocean front homes destroyed inter-spliced with sections of Outer Banks beach experienced accretion, the inverse of erosion, intrigued me.
At the time, we were contemplating the purchase of another oceanfront property, on which we planned to ultimately construct our Outer Banks dream home. I was having a hard time making an argument for any area other than Kill Devil Hills, for no other reason than what I had seen with my very own eyes. My focus had shifted from construction and land costs to Outer Banks beach research.
The Quest Begins
We began looking at historic shore migrations and current beach erosion rates and were absolutely alarmed at the major variances from one stretch of Outer Banks beach to another. How close you can construct to the ocean is largely contingent upon the erosion rates of your stretch of Outer Banks beach. Typically you have to be set back 30 times the erosion, as specified by CAMA, for a structure that is less than 5000 square feet. So if your stretch of Outer Banks beach is eroding at two feet per year, then you would be 60 feet back from the first line of stable vegetation on your dune. If you were losing three feet per year, you would have to be 90 feet back, and so on. There are certainly other criteria to consider when constructing on the oceanfront in the Outer Banks, but this was of particular interest at the time, as we wanted our new home to be as close to the ocean as safety would allow.
The whole family is invited to play on the Outer Banks beach.
Although there are some areas that have historically experienced low or no erosion, the two foot per year rate is applied to those properties as an overriding minimum. This chart clearly illustrates that certain areas experience greater erosion than others. What was of particular interest to me, and my ultimate motivation to explore the supporting science further, was the couple of small areas that show an historic accretion. It was the same area that held strong during the Dennis and Floyd activity.
Hurricane Isabel formed on September 6, 2003, and was at least a Category IV hurricane from September 9 through September 15. It diminished in force before making landfall, though it devastated parts of North Carolina, Virginia, and Maryland. The waves that were pushed out from Isabel during the time it was a Category IV slammed Hatteras Island and the Northern Beaches of the Outer Banks.
You’d Have to See It to Believe It
I was in a small plane circling Hatteras Island the day after Isabel made landfall; it was one of the most humbling experiences of my life. I saw where the Atlantic Ocean had breached the dunes in many areas, destroyed Highway 12, and cut a new 1700-foot-wide inlet on the southern section of the island. The most memorable image that I recall is very old pilings sticking out of the water in the new inlet. There had been an inlet there in the early part of the 1900s. It would seem that Mother Nature was not acting randomly: it had to be more than coincidence that the pilings from the old bridge were exposed in the new inlet. This was, in fact, far from a random occurrence.
Once we landed, I checked on our new property in Kill Devil Hills. The vegetation on the east side of the dune had a little sand on it from the foam blowing off the ocean, and our steps were buried with sand. At the same time, there were excavators cutting a trench to the ocean in an effort to drain Kitty Hawk. South Nags Head was almost completely underwater, and its pier was demolished. Hatteras was now two islands.
I had heard local rumors that the section of Outer Banks beach in Kill Devil Hills was “anchored” by something. I found a reference to a study that was conducted by Dr. Stephen K. Boss of the University of Arkansas. His group had researched a piece that appeared in Marine Geology in 2002. I communicated with Dr. Boss in an effort to get my arms around their study, which very much appeared to dovetail with what the residents already knew.
The study utilized seismic reflection profiles from the insular continental shelf off the coast of what is today’s Outer Banks beach. The intent was to identify sand sources for a potential beach nourishment initiative, which has since been defeated by local vote. The fact that there is no beach nourishment slated in the Outer Banks should compel someone to do their homework on the Outer Banks beach.
The study examined the ancestral Roanoke/Albemarle drainage system and approximates an estuarine system that probably formed during the post-glacial transgression. During the Ice Age, the ocean was many miles to the east of today’s Outer Banks beach .The swampy flood plain in between the ancestral beach and today’s Outer Banks beach was the focus area. It seems evident that the entire area was indeed a flood plain, but there were apparent wide channels, which are now subterranean, as well as underwater, and are comprised of different layers of soil.
It would appear that one artery cut through modern day Kitty Hawk and was close to where the inlet that was arguably used by the first settlers of the Lost Colony so many years ago. When taking a close look at the study in conjunction with a modern day shore migration map, it is easy to draw a positive correlation between the two. The ancient “river channels” would appear to align almost precisely with the areas of high erosion that we have today. No one has ever stated that this is anything more than a positive correlation, yet it is almost exact.
I felt very confident in the underlying beach of the area we researched and was very taken aback when FEMA changed the flood zones from AE to VE in September of 2006. We were in the planning phase of the Croatan Surf Club at the time and this change very much affected our planning and budgeting. In essence, the actual “wave velocity” is the biggest concern when flood mapping the ocean front in the Outer Banks. The insurance premiums for a VE flood designation are much, much higher than premiums on a similar property with an AE designation. Flood maps also dictate the manner in which someone must construct.
A Change Was in Order
We built the Croatan Surf Club to meet or exceed the highest VE standards. We did, however, begin to explore our options for appealing the flood mapping change that we felt was erroneous. We felt that we had a section of Outer Banks beach that should be reclassified as an X flood zone based upon the strength of the frontal primary dune and the overall high elevation of the lots. An X zone is superior to an AE with respect to wave action and risk. There was no X zone designation on the ocean front of any Outer Banks beach at the time.
FEMA has a process for seeking a correction to any data on flood maps, and, if successful, the request results in a Letter of Map Revision. The Mayor and town of Kill Devil Hills sponsored an initiative and we conducted a physical, topographical survey of the elevations of the dunes in an effort to prove that the LIDAR technology that was used to dictate the flood zones was inaccurate. Essentially, LIDAR takes a photo/radar transect every 70 feet or so from the ocean in an effort to measure elevation in relation to sea level. We felt the calibration missed the sheer size and magnitude of the dunes in Kill Devil Hills. The Wright Brothers used the dune across the street to conduct their experiments and tests and ultimately make their first heavier-than-air flight.
The state of North Carolina leads all others in flood mapping and is a recognized partner: one of the few states that are authorized to work with FEMA on mapping. It took Kill Devil Hills a year of working with the state and FEMA, but we were able to secure a Letter of Map Revision that recognized the strength of the beach for what it is: an X zone. Flood insurance is not even required in an X zone, though we maintain it.
There was a frame structure, which was constructed at grade, on the site when we purchased it. The Croatan Inn had witnessed much since it was constructed on the oceanfront 80 years ago. Additionally, the ship-wrecked clipper Irma which has resided in the surf for over 80 years since it sunk in 1925 is certainly further tangible testament to the underlying strength of the Outer Banks beach in Kill Devil Hills. There was a reason that the first ocean front structures were built in the location they were. It was indeed the strongest beach.
A testament to the strength of the beach is the wreckage that remains of Irma.
There are accounts that during the Ash Wednesday storm of 1962, residents sought shelter on the oceanfront dunes in certain areas. Instinct would dictate that you would move away from the ocean for shelter from a hurricane or Nor’easter such as the Ash Wednesday storm. Yet in actuality, this stretch of Outer Banks beach proved to be a sanctuary from the waves and the immense flooding that devastated the Outer Banks during what was arguably the worst storm to hit in modern times.
Make a FIRM Decision
Here are two websites (N.O.A.A. Tides and Currents and N.O.A.A. Shoreline Website) sponsored by N.O.A.A. that illustrate past and future sea level trends and specific information on all beaches. The strength of the Outer Banks beach has been, and will continue to be, the foundation of any buying decisions we make. Our newest venture, The Croatan Surf Club, located on the Outer Banks beach in the X zone of Kill Devil Hills, NC, is scheduled for completion by the end of April 2009.
If you are contemplating a piece of paradise for yourself, please do your homework!
If you are interested in contacting a broker who understands these issues, please contact us for more information today.
The Outer Banks beach viewed from the Croatan Surf Club
About the author: Bud Dean is a real estate developer and managing member of The Croatan Surf Club LLC, located on the Outer Banks beach in the X zone of Kill Devil Hills, NC. The Croatan Surf Club LLC is a member of the Outer banks Chamber of Commerce.