Outer Banks fishing village is becoming a boomtown

A few miles south of a bird sanctuary, the call of the bobwhite is drowned out by the whine of carpenters' power saws. A builder leans on an unfinished wall. ''In 10 years,'' he says, contemplating a haphazard skyline of sand dunes and cottages, ''this will be just like a city.''

A few lots away, lumberyard worker Carter Blackwell delivers 4-by-8 foot plywood sheets to a cottage under construction and talks about how busy he is.

A mile in the other direction, the smiling cashier of the Wee Winks convenience store valiantly handles a rush of customers. ''I think it's great,'' she says of recent growth in the area. ''People used to have to leave the island to find work.''

In the past decade, this once-dying fishing village has become a boomtown of cedar-sided vacation cottages. Located on North Carolina's Outer Banks, it now mixes sand dunes with real estate offices.

Development has brought money, jobs, and a tide of tourists and permanent residents to this environmentally fragile barrier island. But it has also brought nagging doubts about too much growth in Duck, situated on the northern end of an environmentally fragile barrier island. Many residents have profited from the skyrocketing land prices and new-found prosperity; they don't oppose the building boom. But there's an undercurrent of concern, and it pops up in surprising places.

Larry Bray, a Duck resident since 1976, is a man of two worlds. He's president of the Outer Banks Audubon Society, and he's also a builder. He can readily reel off the names of several bird species that have been scared away by the continued building here.

''I have more mixed emotions the more time I spend here,'' says Mr. Bray, who builds a maximum of three houses a year and does renovation work. ''I fight for them (the barrier islands), but I'm here and occasionally build a house here.''

Aubrey Kithin is a building contractor.

''I like to look at the rolling dunes and the sea, and I'd like to see it stay that way,'' he says. ''But if it did, I'd be out of business.''

To these men and many other residents, development is inevitable.

''You needn't try to stop it,'' says Ruth Tate, one of the few remaining natives, who remembers that Duck was named in the early 1900s by the man who ran the post office. (But she doesn't know why he called it Duck.)

Twenty years ago she heard the first rumblings of what would become a vacation-home boom in communities to the south - Nags Head, Kill Devil Hills, Kitty Hawk (of aviation fame), and Southern Shores. Times were tough and, with rain coming through the roof of their house, Mrs. Tate and her husband reluctantly sold 25 acres of prime Duck property to raise money.

In the 1970s, the construction boom spilled over into Duck. The land the Tates sold for $33,000 in the early '60s would bring an estimated $300,000 to $ 400,000 today. In 10 years, Bray estimates, Duck will have one house for every four lots - compared with its present density of about one house for every 15 lots.

Will Duck go the way of some heavily developed areas to the south? Not completely, say builders, realtors, and other residents.

Lots are bigger than they used to be, which means fewer houses per acre. And federal and state laws in the past decade have combined to protect barrier islands - the chain of slender coastal islands stretching from Maine to Texas. Legislation discourages building on undeveloped lands and has provided construction restrictions in developed areas. North Carolina has a comprehensive law that, among other things, forces coastal counties to develop and reevaluate land-use plans.

The plans don't have to be approved by the state, says Todd Llewellyn, public information officer of the state's Office of Coastal Management, but the idea ''is educating people into a measured response, instead of: 'Grab as much as you can and we'll clean it up later.' '' The real initiative has to come from the local level, he says.

One community pointed to as a success story for growth management is Sanibel Island, off Florida's west coast. After incorporating as a city, the community in 1976 developed a land-use plan that was something of a landmark. A limit was set on the number of housing units in the community. Three years later the growth rate was severely restricted.

''It used to be lonely down here,'' says Sanibel's City Manager Bernard Murphy. But he says developers have accepted it and are realizing that the limits enhance the value of the already developed property. The key, he adds, was to have a group of adventurous and environmentally aware residents who didn't give in to the pressures of development.

Duck, too, has taken the first steps toward a balance between development and conservation. After years of resistance to zoning laws, citizens moved quickly when condominiums began to be built. They feared such high-density housing would swell the population much faster than if development was restricted to single-family units. Last year they got the county to rezone the area so that new multifamily housing was banned.

Whether more steps will be taken is questionable, residents say.

''This is a pro-development area,'' Bray says. ''I would love to get involved in a group of people that wanted to limit the growth. (But) it would be an uphill battle.''

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