Increasingly, coastal communities in North Carolina are concerned with the large size of beachfront and near-beach houses. One reason for this is that neighbors object to these extremely large houses because they are essentially small hotels. The massive 24-bedroom house in Currituck County on the Outer Banks has drawn particular ire.
The root of our problem lies partially in our past response to hurricanes. Over the past several decades, hurricanes have ultimately been like urban renewal projects. Damaged small homes have become larger homes and larger homes have become mini-hotels and the small mom-and-pop cottages have largely disappeared.
Besides overcrowding, there is another very important factor in the controversy over building size, and that is the future response to sea-level rise. Eventually, like it or not, beachfront buildings in many North Carolina coastal communities will have to be moved back, abandoned or demolished. It will be easier to move or abandon small mom-and-pop homes than to move the McMansions. The larger McMansions combined with multi-story motels and other large buildings generate strong political and economic support to save the buildings with coastal engineering to hold the shoreline in place.
Beach nourishment will be used initially, but a 3-foot sea-level rise will make nourishment virtually impossible. A 6-foot rise by 2100 is considered a real possibility. Climatologists James Hanson and Eric Rignot believe that physical changes in the oceanographic climate of Antarctica could lead to sea-level rise as high as 10 feet by 2065.
The loss of the beach will inevitably lead to large seawalls. The negative impact of seawalls has been demonstrated all over the world and is the reason North Carolina, in a pioneering move, prohibited seawall construction in 1985. This prohibition is gradually weakening.
Ironically, beach nourishment is, in many cases, the reason why the density of large houses along North Carolina beaches is so high. Beach nourishment has encouraged beachfront development, which leads to increased potential for damage from both storms and sea level rise.
The ultimate example of the problem of the economic and political impact of large beachfront buildings is illustrated by the hundreds of miles of high-rise-lined shorelines on both sides of the Florida peninsula. There is no possibility of moving these buildings back and there is little possibility that the buildings will be demolished. Thus, eventually, after nourishment fails because of sea-level rise, they will protect the buildings with large seawalls on all sides, and the beach, the raison d’etre for the high-rise development to begin with, will never return.
Most of the world’s “great beaches” lined by high rises, such as Waikiki, Miami Beach, Rio de Janeiro, the Gold Coast and the French Riviera, are doomed, probably within this century. What do beach communities do without a beach? I have the feeling that in a couple of centuries, many of today’s beachfront high-rise buildings may be offshore fishing reefs.
The bottom line is that North Carolina should discourage McMansions and other large buildings at or near the beachfront. In addition, future beach replenishment projects, especially those funded by federal or state monies, should require agreements with the communities involved to not increase beachfront development density or building size. Unfortunately our coastal zone management program has yet to seriously address the rising sea.
Orrin H. Pilkey is the James B. Duke Professor Emeritus of Geology at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment.