The sea's solution for castles in sand

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Of all the forms assumed by land on this earth, none is more fluid and lively than the Atlantic barrier island.

Few places are more unstable for erecting our castles than these shifting sands. Yet few places are more popular. That's why we have national debates about the mammoth expenses of stabilizing beach cities from New Jersey to Florida against erosion. For sheer chutzpah, however, none of the mega-resorts matches what Ben Benson perpetrated around 1986, with the blessings of the state of Virginia, on Cedar Island, a seven-mile sand sliver just south of Chincoteague.

Benson, a young developer, had married Elizabeth Hall, whose grandfather already had sold off hundreds of tiny oceanfront lots on Cedar Island in the early 1950s.

The elder Hall envisioned a public bridge across three miles of bay and marsh, linking Cedar with U.S. 13. Laid out like Ocean City, Md., Cedar would bring "the exhilarating refreshment of an ocean vacation to countless new thousands of city dwellers," it was said.

The bridge, and O.C. No. 2, never happened, and within a few decades the westward migration of Cedar Island had left most of the lots well out to sea.

Enter the Bensons, with a modern-day pitch to hustle lots on the island again. Now it was billed as "private paradise . . . no bridge to allow day-trippers, tourists and unwanted crowds that will soon destroy the magic."

And erosion? The developer made it seem almost a plus. The island was likely to move out from under you; so Benson would sell you a lot that was narrow, but up to a few thousand feet long. As Cedar Island moved, you moved your dream home with it.

Of course there were doubters at the hearings held in 1986 to decide whether the Virginia Marine Resources Commission should permit the construction of dozens of beachfront dwellings on the largely pristine island.

Cedar Island was not just migrating, re-forming ever-landward in classic barrier island fashion, said scientists at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. It was actually losing sand, was in effect a dying ecosystem. In recent decades the beach in large portions of the island had begun to retreat 50 feet a year.

Would-be homeowners at the hearings said they understood all this, though most thought the institute, with its 50-foot erosion projections, was unnecessarily dramatic.

Against its staff's strong recommendations, the commission gave the go-ahead, and dozens of dream homes, many costing hundreds of thousands of dollars, were erected.

Last week, after the winter storm, I hiked over most of Cedar Island. There was surprisingly little damage, thanks to a wind that changed direction and blew offshore during the highest tide.

But the erosion I saw since a trip a few years ago was staggering. On all but the southern end, which seems fine, the protective dune system is gone. Cedar Island's cedar forests are dying, or down -- great windrows of trees, bark peeled as if by a logger's high-pressure hose, lie scattered across the island.

A few homes are virtually in the surf, and many more, including ones still under construction, are perilously close. Waves and high tides have strewn well casings and septic tanks around like Tinkertoys.

Since 1986, more than a dozen homes have been destroyed by storms or have had to be moved by machinery, says Chris Frye of the Marine Resources Commission staff.

Erosion rates in some places, Frye says, are running as high as 100 feet a year.

Since 1990 the commission has made owners relocate homes -- at costs up to $20,000 -- before the ocean gets so close that retreat may be impossible.

Some owners have bought -- or swapped for -- new lots on the less-eroded south end. Several found that moving back on their long lots as the island retreats is not as easy as Benson's sales pitch made it sound.

The erosion rate is too rapid, and on many lots, tidal wetlands preclude moving homes back more than a couple hundred feet.

"I have one owner who, even if he moves to the back of his [usable] land, can only buy a few years at most," Frye said. "His only hope is to move it and hope he finds a sucker to buy it quick."

You might think the owners would be ready to lynch Ben Benson, and indeed, one said she has given her house away in disgust to a local contractor in return for removing it from where it sits, several dozen yards to sea on a high tide.

Others are less inclined to give up, and they direct their frustration at government.

"I've lost a fortune out there, but I've no intention of leaving," says Ann Alexander, a Virginia lawyer. She says the "rude treatment" she has gotten from local and state environmental agencies "has just made me dig my heels in."

"They have allowed me to spend half a million dollars . . . a hTC substantial contribution to a poor county's tax base, and yet they treat me like the enemy."

Brian Murphy, whose home is nearly awash in the surf, says he is not wealthy like many neighbors. "That house was an investment for our four kids' college -- if it goes, we're in a pickle."

Yet, he says, if he had it to do over again, "oh, yeah, I'd do it. You been out there? It's beautiful; there's nothing else like it. And after all, the state did approve building lots there -- we went with that."

In fact, the Marine Resources Commission still routinely approves building even on the rapidly eroding parts of Cedar. Benson himself, who still owns substantial property, is just completing two homes on speculation that seem almost certain to be in the surf in a couple years.

This has created prospects for a most ironic taxpayer bailout by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The service already owns much of the island's back marshes, property donated by Benson years ago. Now it plans to acquire (( the whole island, and for starters has received a million dollars from Congress.

No one disputes the aim. Cedar's beaches and marsh are some of the continent's finest habitat for migrating shore birds, also prime nesting for the endangered piping plover.

But taxpayer money should not be used to buy out the eroding lots of Benson and other property owners, says Steve Mallette, a local environmentalist.

"There is a question in my own mind why we're buying," concedes Robert Miller, head of the Fish and Wildlife Service's real estate division for the northeastern United States. He says negotiations haven't gone far enough to know how much will be paid, but "we have a list now of 25 people willing to sell."

"It's simply amazing where people are being allowed to build, and even more amazing that they are building, and buying," he says. "There's an active market out there, and we have to compete in that market."

It's easy to throw blame in all directions for what is happening on Cedar Island. In a few decades the place seems likely to end up as what it should have remained all along -- a place for piping plovers.

In the process, we will have created substantial wealth for Ben Benson, made a brief seaside idyll for a handful of citizens and spent several million dollars of taxpayer money.

All because of abominably weak, misguided land-use policies applied to a sliver of sand that never should have been developed in the first place.

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