Island life strains as coast builds up

Hatteras Island, the easternmost island on North Carolina's Outer Banks, is a geological oddity, a narrow and ancient strip of sand lying at the collision point of the warm Gulf Stream and cold Labrador Current. The convergence of these currents creates one of the world's most hazardous areas for shipping as well as one of the greatest sport and commercial fishing grounds.

Until very recently, Hatteras Island and its main community, the unincorporated Hatteras Village, was an isolated outpost inhabited by fishing families who settled there in the 1700s. These families have been joined by others who seek the increasingly rare combination of isolation and the sea - surfers, working artists, fishermen, watermen displaced from other coasts by development or pollution, and people who just want to be left alone.

But a different convergence - a collision of powerful historical and economic forces - may spell the end for the original families and the newcomers alike. Although tourists have enlivened and supported the local economy for decades, and developers have provided much needed jobs in the construction industry, Outer Banks residents say that a new real estate boom threatens to erase their communities once and for all.

"When the stock market began to fall, right after Sept. 11, 2001, we started to see a wave of new construction," says Jan DeBlieu, author of the 1987 book "Hatteras Journal," and current holder of the watchdog position Cape Hatteras Keeper, for the conservation group Coastal Federation. "There seems to be no restraint at all. It is like we are under siege."

Since the stagger of the technology stock market in 2000, there has been a tremendous boom in real estate investment and development on all US coasts. The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 accelerated the boom as Americans sought vacation destinations closer to home and developers rushed to accommodate them. A photo of rental houses and condominiums in the northern Outer Banks community of Corolla was used by the magazine National Geographic Traveler as an example of how uncontrolled development was destroying seashores around the US. And the trend has come to historic Hatteras Village, where, by late 2002, a half-acre lot sold for $875,000.

Dare County, of which the Outer Banks is a part, has some of the least restrictive zoning regulations on the East Coast. "The opposition to zoning has always come from our fishermen, who didn't want people telling them they couldn't have nets and boats or crab pots out in their yards," says Richard Midgett, a local developer whose family came to the Banks as early as 1722. For decades, the lack of zoning was part of the character of the Banks, attracting a diverse mix of people and businesses that gave the place a frontier quality.

In the modern business climate, the lack of zoning made the Banks a playing field for nonresident investors, who build what angry residents call "mini-hotels" or "rental machines." These houses are termed "single family dwellings" under Dare County law, but they may have as many as 16 bedrooms, 14 bathrooms, and in some instances, elevators and movie theaters. Some rent for as much as $9,000 a week.

In 2002, prominent developer Skip Dixon, of Nag's Head, and David Hoyle, a six-term state senator from the mainland city of Gastonia, purchased 5.77 acres in the village, on the edge of an estuary called The Slash. They announced plans to construct a 45-unit condominium complex, complete with a 46-slip marina and a private wastewater treatment plant.

Coming on the heels of other high-profile developments in the village by Mr. Dixon and by Midgett Realty, the Slash Condominiums project galvanized the community, generating a storm of protest.

"The development here has just been insane," says Ricki Shepherd, a local delicatessen owner and current president of the Hatteras Civic Association. "The Slash Condos project has shown us the line that we have to draw if we are to survive. This is the final line."

The 10-member Hatteras Civic Association has unanimously condemned the Slash project, perhaps the only time in living memory that the association has been unanimous about anything, Mr. Shepherd says. Residents have written dozens of letters to state permitting agencies, asking that the project be blocked until all the environmental considerations could be addressed. Of particular concern was the dredging of a 1,500-foot channel through the estuary to access the marina. When permitting agencies indicated that further study would be required, the developers dropped the dredging request, and the State Division of Coastal Management issued a FONSI (Finding of No Significant Impact), which allowed the project to move forward.

For Mr. Hoyle, the outcry against his project is ridiculous, and insulting. "They've even written letters saying that I have abused my power as a senator to get these permits through," Hoyle says. "We are not going to back up now. It has become a matter of principle."

Hoyle says the residents are using any means to stop the project, simply because they don't want it. "Now they are using the environment as the issue to try and stop us, but everybody knows exactly what the issue really is. Ten years ago these same people said 'hell, no' to zoning. They didn't want anybody telling them what to do with their property. They want to blame me for raping the place ... when the whole blame rests with them. I'm a private citizen, trying to make a living. I didn't take a vow of poverty when I signed on at the legislature."

Like Hoyle, Skip Dixon believes that the residents forfeited their right to protest developments like the Slash Condos by not agreeing to zoning. "We feel that what we are doing is within our rights, and we are going to do it."

Dixon reminds his opponents that he has "a lot of options. I can build whatever I want. I can put a crematorium in there, or I can cut the land into 10 lots and build a 10-bedroom house on every one and put it all on a septic tank, let the wastewater pour right down into the ground. Instead, we've got a nice multifamily development, with its own wastewater treatment plant. Believe me, if you really care about the environment, you'd support our project, not oppose it."

The Hatteras Civic Association met in February and, in another unanimous vote, approved zoning and planning regulations that would prohibit any future high-density developments. The vote will have no effect on the Slash project, but it showed how things had changed.

"I guess you could say I did the community a favor," says Hoyle, in response to news of the vote. "They finally have some control over their own destiny."

For Hatteras native Capt. Ernie Foster, the development is transforming a community that he has loved all his life, and displacing neighbors, relatives, and friends. "You can't adjust to development like this. These guys literally and figuratively bulldoze their way to whatever they want, and they don't care about the fallout. We are the fallout - you can't even afford to live where you were born."

Already, land prices are so high that older houses in the village are for sale to buyers who will jack them up and move them away, allowing the land underneath them to go on the market to investors, who will build "rental machines," Mr. Foster says. "[It's] the extermination of a place, and of a way of life.... My family always said that we were just too remote here to attract the wealthy. What we didn't foresee was that the wealthy would send their money here from far away and just cash in on us."

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