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WFAE reporter David Boraks explores how the way we live influences climate change and its impact across the Carolinas. You also can read additional national and international climate news.

Work group puzzles over how to deal with NC beach houses at risk of falling into the ocean

A photo shows a collapsed house on Ocean Drive in Rodanthe on May 10, 2022.
Cape Hatteras National Seashore
A photo shows a collapsed house on Ocean Drive in Rodanthe on May 10, 2022.

Coastal experts say North Carolina lacks the money and laws it needs to deal with hundreds of beachfront houses at risk of collapsing into the Atlantic Ocean because of sea level rise and erosion. A new state task force is looking for solutions.

On Monday, the state Department of Environmental Quality and Cape Hatteras National Seashore hosted the first meeting of a new working group formed last summer to recommend policies and programs for removing threatened coastal structures.

The group was organized after at least three houses fell into the ocean in Rodanthe on North Carolina's Outer Banks last year, spreading debris for miles.

"They're creating some impacts to aquatic species and shorebirds and their habitats, and they're interfering with public use of the beach," DEQ Division of Coastal Management director Baxter Davis said. "And unfortunately, in some cases, really no action is taken or available until after a house collapses and results in significant marine debris and additional impacts and costs."

Dare County Manager Bobby Outten told the group more houses are in danger. He said his office has explored many options for protecting or buying houses, without success, and there's not enough money to solve the problem.

"You're gonna have a whole bunch of houses in the next three or four years, and then you're back to your second row of houses that start becoming imperiled, and so on. And we don't have a revenue stream sufficient to do that," Outten said during Monday's virtual meeting.

Outten told Rodanthe residents in January the county doesn't have the money to rebuild the rapidly eroding beach.

A 2020 study by the DEQ's coastal management division found about 750 beachfront structures at risk in North Carolina, though beach projects in some areas have slightly reduced that number, Davis said. That's more than 8% of the state's 8,777 oceanfront structures.

Davis said his office has studied one potential solution: a state fund to pay for beach rebuilding projects. Texas has such a fund.

"We did look at the idea of, you know, a state beach nourishment fund, and whether a small portion of that can be available to local governments to competitively apply to address certain hotspots," Davis said.

'It's catching up with us'

Bill Holman, state director of The Conservation Fund, said North Carolina has bought itself time so far with conservative setback rules. Those rules require structures to be built a certain distance from the beach.

"But with rising sea levels, it's catching up with us. And so I think a good task for your working group is to really figure out what's the right balance of state and local responsibilities here. I think we need to put some kind of program in place, and then you have to define our roles," Holman said.

"And then (we have to) work with the governor and the General Assembly and see if they're willing to invest in it," he added.

Gavin Smith, a coastal resilience expert at North Carolina State University, said one program isn't going to be the solution everywhere.

"We've got to be thinking about and assessing the unique features of wherever it is — Rodanthe or Salvo or whatever the community is — and thinking about, are there parts that might be ideal for buyouts? Are there areas that we need to inject nature-based solutions? Or are there parts that need to think about, you know, elevating structures?" Smith said.

Most of the structures at risk are investment properties, owned by individuals or real estate investors and rented to visitors. Heidi Stiller, the south regional director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Office for Coastal Management, wondered if the state could require owners to buy additional insurance against collapse.

"A lot of what we've talked about today are public sources, but let's not rule out private, right? Sometimes private entities have to insure in case of a disaster. And so, maybe if folks are buying some of these super-vulnerable properties, they have to buy a policy that helps pay for removal and cleanup," Stiller said.

The interagency workgroup will meet again in May to talk about legal changes such as clarifying permitting disputes or liability for threatened or collapsed houses. The group hopes to release recommendations in early 2024.


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David Boraks is a veteran journalist who covers climate change for WFAE. See more at www.wfae.org/climate-news. He also has covered housing and homelessness, energy and the environment, transportation and business.