Coastal Follies and Virginia’s Next Big Hurricane

Columns penned this week by Ed Risse and Norm Leahy offer supplementary perspectives on one of the great environmental crises of our time: the overdevelopment of precarious waterfront land. Ed and Norm highlight different aspects of this national folly.

In “Castles of Sand,” Norm describes the futility of building million-dollar houses on sandy spits of land lining the Atlantic Coast. Sand migrates with the currents and storms. The foundation of thousands of beach-front houses is eroding, exposing property owners to potential losses of billions of dollars. This phenomenon is as pronounced in Virginia Beach as it is in the South Carolina communities that Norm writes about. When the next Category 3 hurricane hits, the impact will be devastating.

Not only will property be lost, but tens of thousands of Virginians (and residents of the Outer Banks) will be stuck, hard pressed to evacuate. We learned from New Orleans what happens when citizens are unable to flee a hurricane. Unfortunately, by personalizing the disaster — it was all George Bush’s/Ray Nagin’s/Kathleen Blanco’s fault — we have not absorbed the systemic problems underlying the Katrina disaster. Ed provides a much-needed update in his piece today, “A Second Stroll with Katrina.”

My take-away from Ed’s column was this: Louisana and New Orleans tried to protect everything, and, in so doing, protected nothing. Blaming the federal government for failing to provide enough funding, or faulting the local culture of corruption that wasted much of the money that was made available, misses the larger point: There wasn’t enough money to build levees high enough to protect all the low-lying land that developers built upon. A rational strategy, Ed argues, would be to build higher, stronger walls around a smaller, more defensible area.

I can’t help but wonder if Hampton Roads is following the same path as New Orleans. Instead of building levees, though, Hampton Roads authorities have spent multi-millions on replenishing sands that continue to wash away. Instead of limiting development on low-lying, flood-prone land, they propose to spend multi-billions to build massive road-and-bridge projects to expedite “hurricane evacuation.”

Incredibly, one new highway, the $2.5 billion Southeast Expressway, would skirt Stumpy Lake and the Great Dismal Swamp, displacing wetlands that would help absorb a storm surge. The highway could help evacuate Virginia Beach residents crowded along the coast in the event of a hurricane — but only if the hurricane doesn’t raise water levels enough inland to inundate the road.

I’ll confess, I don’t know what the specifications of the road are — they probably haven’t even been written yet. But someone had better make sure the darn thing sits high enough above sea level that a storm surge pushing water inland won’t take it out while thousands of Hampton Roadsters are using it to evacuate!

(Photo credit: The Schlatter Family Website.)

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2 responses to “Coastal Follies and Virginia’s Next Big Hurricane”

  1. Reid Greenmun Avatar
    Reid Greenmun

    After 13 years and Katrina/Rita I realized it was past time for me to relocate my family out of Sandbridge Beach and into a location that will not be totally destroyed with a storm surge that exceeds 9.5 feet.

    It also helped me to make my decision considering I was taxed out of my modest brick beach home.

    Our neighborhood pays higher property taxes than the rest of our city and the extra taxes are used to pay for beach replenishment.

    In addition, a TIF was created well in advanced of the WILD skyrocketing property tax hikes since 2001 and all of the escalating property taxes were also placed into the sand fund, to help preserve our neighborhood.

    Sadly, the City Manager decided to rob $9M out of our TIF and blow it on whatever. Then, at the end of the year he “discovered” a $32M “surplus” of tax money he could not figure out how to waste – and instead of restoring the $9M to my neighborhood, City Council blew the $32M surplus on a bunch of junk – to include $90,000 for one painting to hang in the new $65M taxpayer subsidized Town Center Performing Arts Theater.

    You see, we already HAD a taxpayer funded Performing Arts Theater, but the business lobby tore it down along with our $76M Convention Center – so they could build a $209M taxpayer funded Convention center instead.

    And so it goes, Sandbridge beach is worth BILLIONS in property values, filled with many Million dollar McMansions. Yet, all of this wonderful “redevelopment”, to include MASSIVE CONDOS – (I mean HUGE) – all will be destroyed.

    It is not a question if “if”, only a question of “when”.

    We sold our home for $80,000 less than our price, and under the assessed value.

    But … a responsible adult would have no other choice.

    Folks – it is DUMB to build your primary residence in places like Sandbridge.

    It is about as dumb as wasting MILLIONS of tax dollars to dump SAND on a beach – every 3 to 4 years – forever….

  2. Anonymous Avatar

    Norm’s article was spot on. Groins only rob the beach areas “downstream” from the sand flows. Inlets have somewhat the same effect.

    Seawalls only concentrate the force of the waves. When a wave hits, half goes up and half goes down, digging out the sand in front of the seawall and eventually undermining it.

    Sand replenishment projects are a perversion of a loophole. The bestt thing to do with a beach is to leave it alone. Even the Corps of Engineers now understands this.

    There is one method of beach preservation that does work. It is possible to build partially submerged jetties or reefs parallel with the beach. Such jetties allow the seas to break over them but take out much of the energy. They are a haven for sea life. Behind the jetties sand is free to travel along the beach, unlike with groins, so the natural longshore building and moving process continues.

    The problems with such jetties, aside from expense, is that they are a navigation hazard, and they can increase the longshore currents. So, the best answer is still to leave the beach alone.

    However, the barrier islands despite their movements have been there for thousands of years, and they are a tremendous recreational and wildlife resource.

    Expensive sand replenishment programs are only worthwhile if you have megamillions of property to protect, and then they are worthwhile only if you can get someone else to help pay.

    In some locations, private beaches have been opened up to the public though ceded right of ways, as a condition of such help.

    But, overall a better ROI might be achieved if we kept the building level down to the old beach shack mentality. No insurance, build at your own risk. If it gets blown away or flooded, no great loss.

    It might be possible to use a ground rent situation, like in the Martha’s Vineyard CampMeeting Association. The Association owns the land and rents it out. The cottage owners own the cottages.

    The National Seashore could buy up properties as they are destroyed or become available. The rents would provide the funds to obtain more property, and the Seashore could determine when it is too dangerous to continue the habitation. Being smaller, the habitations could easily be moved to other locations as the sands shift.

    Maybe there is a way to use and enjoy the seashore without abusing it, or the people that presently own it.


    Reid’s experience is sad, but it isn’t unusual. When property becomes extremely valuable there is no way to hang on. Frequently rules are passed, allegedly to “protect” the place, but actually they simply make it easier for the vultures (and the wealthy who can still afford it) to get a “bargain”.

    Yesterday’s paper had the story of the Carroll family in Md. At one time the family owned tens of thousands of acres, but over the years portions have had to be split off.

    The remainder of Doughoregan Manor conatins a large brick manor house and other structures. The property is zoned for hundred of homes on one acre lots.

    The family wishes instead to develop a large retirement complex of up to a thousand units, and place the remainder into a permanent easement. It is the only way they can keep the manor in family hands and raise the millions needed for restoration.

    According to the story “local officials hope that IN RETURN FOR THEIR SUPPORT the family will not allow development of the remainder of the property. “Having as much of the property preserved in perpetuity is goal number one”, said one official.

    The family said the revenue from the project would be enough to repair the aging buildings and ensure the family legacy.

    This is the usual waltz that is played out, but because it is played out in such a confrontational atmosphere, it more resembles the pas-de-deux.

    In this case, the county holds no cards, really. The family is free to develop at one acre lots, and yet officials they are offering their “support” providing they get what they want.

    The family gives away an easement but keeps the land and historic buildings private, at guaranteed low tax rates. At least they are guaranteed for now. You can bet the county isn’t signing any agreement in perpetuity.

    The public gets nothing. Except a guarantee the tax base will never increase, except on their homes. They do get the tax revenue from the senior center without having to pay for schools for kids.

    This is happening in dozens of communities. Right now it is important, with 12,000 baby boomers retiring every day. What is going to happen to all those retirement homes after the retirement boom?

    I don’t know what the right answer is. Maybe what is happening is the best that can be expected, but when the herd mentality starts rushing to the same conclusion in dozens of places, the result is likely to be a stampede.

    It just appears to me that the county officials think they are “getting” something that they think they want, in exchange for mere cooperation. I don;t see that they are “getting” anything. Their job is to work for their constituents, and I don’t see that the constituents are getting anything out of this, either.

    I think it is another situation where the rules are bent to create a “bargain” for the wealthy that can afford it. Eventually, this business of creating private parks has to work to the detriment of the public. The public might be better off if they bought the parks and owned them.

    If, as EMR claims, the most valuable property is property that is highly developed, why do we see officials going out of their way to prevent development? Why do we see wealthy individuals going to extreme measures to keep the undeveloped portions?

    All I can think is that it isn’t only at the beaches we are catering to the wealthy with the public’s resources. I don’t have any problem with using the public’s resources for preservation and conservation, but I think they should have something to show for it when they are done.


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