Hedge the sand bet

By on March 21, 2010

Back when I played a lot of poker, I hedged my bets, figuring I was a winner if I at least broke even. On a trip to Las Vegas years ago, I left no poorer after a marathon of gambling. I thought I’d made a killing.

These days, I’m hedging my bets on beach nourishment because there are strong hands on either side. But I’m not convinced there’s a break-even point.

Both sides have compelling visual evidence. Ride down to South Nags Head and Surfside Drive — what’s left of it — and you’ll see a virtual disaster area: exposed pipes and septic tanks, crumbling driveways and houses collapsed or on the verge of collapsing.

South Nags Head has lost a row of houses since 1986. Advocates argue that it’s time to stop it. Opponents say the houses need to go. Why should taxpayers, or anyone else, cover investors’ bad bets? But today’s oceanfront houses were not on the oceanfront when they were built, which is precisely the proponents’ point.

Some argue retreat, but there’s really nowhere to go. If that’s the case, others says, let nature take its course and retreat by attrition.

Either way, this threatens to become the image of the Outer Banks. Many out-of-towners call the Outer Banks Nags Head, so they figure the whole place looks like a dump. It doesn’t.

But image, and the sea’s march on South Nags Head, are among Mayor Bob Oakes’ chief arguments as he tries to persuade other towns, the county and his constituents to front $20 million from a beach nourishment fund. Add to that a $16 million bond, paid back over five years with another 1 percent of the occupancy tax.

It’s almost impossible to calculate how much property will give way to a dynamic shoreline. At least two dozens houses have been declared nuisances on the public beach and it will take a long legal process to haul them away. The loss in tax dollars and rental income would never equate to a $36 million investment. But they are not what beach nourishment is about.

The rest of the oceanfront properties represent about $1.1 billion and 37 percent of the town’s tax base. But not all are at immediate risk. If a disaster was big enough to wipe them out, beach nourishment probably wouldn’t make a difference. And yet, look at the Comfort Inn, Nags Head’s tallest building. The ocean is almost up to its deck pilings on a calm day.

The Outer Banks Camber of Commerce presses its point tersely: “No beach, no business.” A bad image not only drives tourists away, it turns off potential investors, the chamber says. But critics point out that the tourists keep coming. When houses fall in the ocean, they say, there are plenty more. Still, logic leads to a break-even point and eventually, one would have to believe, losses. How long that would take, nobody knows.

The environmental view can be put simply: Pumping offshore sand onto 10 miles of beach couldn’t be heathy for the ecosystem. There’s a scientific argument that the environment will bounce back. But nourishment will need more sand every five years.

Will the sand stay put? Even Oakes acknowledges it’s a calculated bet. No project on the scale of Nags Head’s has been tried on the northern Outer Banks. But if Nags Head succeeds, he contends, the Outer Banks wins.

Finally, there’s the argument that beach nourishment will ruin one of the East Coast’s last natural beaches. But it’s not completely natural. The miles of dunes — those that remain, at least — are manmade, put up decades ago. And the northern beach is almost built out. Houses stand eave to eave on the oceanfront. Strip shopping centers flank the bypass. Chain stores and restaurants have moved in. It’s not natural. But it’s commerce. And protecting commerce, with its income and jobs, is the rationale behind beach nourishment.

It would be nice to think that the millions of cubic yards pumped onto the beach in Sandbridge, Va., since 1998 could eventually make their way down here and solve the problem.

But don’t bet on it.

Related: Sand cost-beneftits »

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