Martha’s Vineyard — with Crepe Myrtles

OCRACOKE–For those of you who have never heard of Ocracoke Island — and there seem to be a surprising number of you — it is a 16-mile island in the Outer Banks of North Carolina in the shape of a rope with a knot tied at one end. The 14 miles of “rope” consist of national wildlife refuge and are forever off limits to development. This refuge contains the most magnificent beaches on the East Coast of the United States, spectacular wetlands and miles and miles of dunes.

Human habitation is limited to Ocracoke Village at the “knot” at the end of the island. During the winter, the village sports a population of 800. During the peak of the summer season, between visitors and temporary workers, the population increases to 5,000 to 6,000. The island, accessible only by ferry, is one of the most isolated spots in the Outer Banks. (Only the deserted fishing village of Portsmouth, on an island with no ferry service, is more remote, if my geographical knowledge serves me correctly.)

Ocracoke is a fascinating microcosm, a case study in human settlement patterns. Though remote, it is becoming increasingly popular, but the community seems to be maintaining its integrity. The original village arose around the Ocracoke lighthouse and a small, protected harbor. The houses are set on tiny lots in close proximity. There is no central sewage system, so density is limited by square-footage requirements for septic systems. Otherwise the main restrictions are limitations on building height, building setbacks and tight water supplies that limit the number of new meters.

There don’t appear to be any zoning regulations that restrict “incompatible” land uses. The historic village is a charming mix of single-family houses, shops and restaurants. Many of the locals make their living as artisans and/or artists, and they live and work in the same premises. Lots of white picket fences. Quaint lanes of sand and crushed oyster shell. The trees, though wind-swept and scrubby, offer thick foliage. These, combined with the native island vegetation, have a stark and distinctive beauty.

Cars abound — the touristas all arrive on car-bearing ferries. But in the central village, where destinations are located close to one another, the primary means of locomotion is bicycle and foot. I have been surprised to espy only a handful of golf carts/electric buggies. There may be a business opportunity for someone to fill the void.

The local promoters are given to calling Ocracoke the “Martha’s Vineyard” of the South. Indeed, it does resemble Martha’s Vineyard before it was thoroughly yuppified and the original dwellings gave way to $3 million McMansions. I hope that fate never befalls this magical island….

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5 responses to “Martha’s Vineyard — with Crepe Myrtles”

  1. Ray Hyde Avatar

    Not all of Martha’s Vineyard has been yuppiefied. I still have friends and family that live there in modest homes, however, those homes are valued all out of proportion to their cost, simply because of their location. Note that in this case the location is not in proximity to any city, and the most valuable properties on the Vineyard are in Chilmark and Gay Head, which has since been renamed. These are the areas most remote from the two densest towns.

    And those $3 million McMansions? try 10 or 20 million.

    Ocracoke is a marvel and towns like that would be very popular, it seeems to me, if there were enough of them to go around.

    How many Ocracokes would you have to build in order to hose the people proposed for Dulles South?

    We need more places, and if they are places similar Ocracoke, so much the better.

    It is interesting to me that they are able to set houses on tiny lots, limited only by septic requirements. I’d be wlling to et that the septic requirements in Fauquier are larger than the lots in Ocracoke. If septic systems in Virginia are threatening the Chesapeake Bay, what does that say about Ocracoke and Pamlico Sound?

    The people there who work near to home there are able to do so because of an ample suppply of money brought to them by visitors in cars.

    So, what is the price for one of those modest homes in Ocracoke? I’m guessing a half million would get you a pretty nice little shack, and the better homes are much closer to a million.

  2. That’s true -you can get a ‘shack’ here for half million dollars – if you can find land to buy. An empty 1/4 acre lot with no water meter (which there is a halt on until the island’s water plant can be expanded) is going for about $300,000. Most Local people earn their living from the tourists for say 6 months out of the year and then they sit it out until the next year. Not a significant income for anyone who wants to live here, stay here. I live here and I want to stay here. And we try to blame it on the yankees, but really we can blame it on anyone with money that is only into development and doesn’t care about the preservation of this island’s unique “microcosm”. I fell in love with this place for that – the old islanders that still speak the brogue and sit on their porches in the evenings, the undeveloped beaches, the community of 800 strong that make Ocracoke — Ocracoke.

  3. Ray Hyde Avatar

    I know the story well. I left Martha’s Vineyard because I figured I would have to go someplace else to earn enough money to live there. Funny thing was, the tourists didn’t have enough sense to come in the winter when it was pleasant there.

    Working in a tourist area is tough, no place to live when there is work, and no work when you can live cheap.

    At least Ocracoke has the National Seashore. Martha’s Vineyard was offered the opportunity to become part of the seashore and fought it tooth and nail.

    I remember the old timers from my sailing days there, there were more of them then I expect. “Glove cotched a hole in it, Croib’ll foind it.” Now all we have is the universal television accent.

    One thing Martha’s Vineyard did was place a two percent tax on land transfers. This helps keep down speculation, and the money was contributed to the Land Bank. The land bank then uses the money to buy up and preserve environmentally or socially important properties. As a result they have preserved and created many nice amenities that all can enjoy. Sometimes they make them difficult to access, so they won’t be overused.

    Compared to having a national seashore, 2% isn’t much, but there is a limit to how much you can afford to preserve.

    Good luck, and never lose the sand in your shoe.

  4. Thanks! I’ve actually just found the Island Affordable Housing Fund and am doing some serious research for the island. There may be hope after all… and the accent isn’t all gone, bucky. 🙂

  5. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    If Jamie is blogging, he’s obviously at home with the Internet. Perhaps Ocracokers could make a living the other six months of the year pursuing occupations enabled by the Internet. I’ve had fantasies myself of moving to Ocracoke and transplanting my writing business there. I see possibilities…

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