March 24, 2006

Going after Ophelia-wrecked houses

The Daily News, Jacksonville NC: "NORTH TOPSAIL BEACH ” Owners of condemned houses on the north end of North Topsail Beach vied to retain control of their homes at a meeting Monday night."
Timing is everything. I sat down to write a response to comments on my post about replacing properties behind the static vegetation line and was handed this sad but timely piece about one town's struggle to deal with damage homes left on beach following a storm. The culprit here is not the town or the property owner but FEMA through its flood Insurance arm and the State of NC for its failure to provide a statewide shoreline management program and take responsibility for property that is sitting on state owned land.
Lets start with FEMA. Structures remain on the beach, not because communities want them to but because owners refuse to let go of significant investments. Investments that generally have been insured, damage beyond reasonable repair, that need to be demolished but that cannot recoup the property value from flood insurance even though the ocean is what has damaged and devalued the property. Currently, the only way federal flood will pay for the loss of a house is if it is completely destroyed by a storm. This leads property owners to fight tooth and nail to keep homes standing until they can be knocked over by a storm. It leads to situations like the one in N. Topsail with property owners and local officials struggling to do the right thing for the community and be fair with property owners. It appears from the context of the article that these homes may qualify for insurance reimbursement but this is not their first bout with the ocean. Note the sandbags around the home in the photo above. They have been being protected in place until storm damage forced FEMA's hand.
But attorney Ron vonLembke, representing property owners of four of the homes, said in a letter read to the board that owners needed more time to receive aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to tear the homes down. He strongly urged the board not to use eminent domain.
Once the structures are declared a total loss, my clients will each receive $30,000 ($60,000 for each duplex structure) from FEMA to demolish and remove the buildings as desired by the town, the letter read. (snip)
FEMA has not yet come to a conclusion on coverage or compensation for the homes. Some home owners said they still had not gotten compensation from their insurance companies.
One homeowner, who said it took him four months to get an insurance adjustor to his home, even wanted to keep his home on its current lot.
Undoubtedly someone will write, "Why should the federal government bail out the idiots who buy by the beach?" BECAUSE THEY WOULDN'T BE THERE WITHOUT FLOOD INSURANCE! If there was no flood insurance, if the feds had not encourage people to buy property with the promise of reimbursement for damage, if premiums had not been paid, the debate would be very different. These property owners bought with the reasonable expectation that if their home was destroyed by the ocean they would be protected.
A more reasonable policy would be to bring back the Upton-Jones provisions of the flood insurance act. This policy allowed reimbursement for properties that were threatened by erosion and moved or destroyed voluntarily before they fell in the ocean. It was dropped some time ago and replaced with a different mitigation policy that has little or no relevance to the coast. Upton-Jones was an extremely successful policy. During that period we did not have a problem with homes left on the beach and sandbags were virtually unknown. A return to Upton-Jones is a reasonable approach to coastal erosion the current FEMA policy is not and it is the cause of problems described in this story.
The article also highlights the difficulty and expense of condemning property. The town is having the properties appraised, the homeowners have their own ideas about what the property is worth. The elected leaders must take the risk that a jury will decide that the properties have little to no value or risk a major financial hit and they have to do this without knowing what the outcome will be.
Its been a long, long journey for me in the past seven months, homeowner Janice Forster said. Im sitting behind my house watching it every day. I don't want anybody to get hurt on my property, but if you think you can come in and offer me $200 on my property, you're kidding yourselves.
A recent comment to this blog accused the towns of not wanting to cause anyone to lose property. No one wants to see another person hurt by the lose of property but that not what keeps towns from moving more quickly against property that is blighting the oceanfront. It is the risk of a major financial setback for the community. Do you buy and then go before a jury to let them decide what a damaged piece of ocean front property is worth? I doubt it. Do you want elected leaders playing roulette with your tax dollars? I doubt that as well and that is why they are reticent to act in all but the most extreme cases.
I mentioned that the State of North Carolina bore some culpability in this sad event as well. If the state had a clear policy on beach nourishment or shoreline management it would serve to inform the expectations of property owners about what protection they can expect from the state. The state does not have a coherent policy for its beaches. If that policy is going to be retreat OK tell us but don't foster some hope of shoreline maintenance but provide not assistance or guidance. We have no policy about dealing with long term erosion other than the 30 year setback rule but that policy doesn't address the reality of the situation.
Further the homes in this article are sitting on state land. Everything from the wet sand beach east is public property. These homes are in the ocean, yet the state does nothing about it. If the state had a policy to address this issue (say 6 months to remove a property or it will be destroyed with a state mandated and paid reimbursement) this problem wouldn't exist. I can hear my critics say "Why pay people for their stupidity?" fine, take out the compensation if you can get around the constitutional questions of taking private property. I won't quibble here about the specifics of the policy only that there should be one. The state is leaving problem to local government with its limited resources and that is driving the results.
There are few good answers to N. Topsails quandaries but there are lessons, lessons we need to teach, not local governments who are dealing with the results of a mixed mess of policies but to the state and federal government who do not provide a consistent framework to deal with coastal erosion. No wonder towns like beach nourishment it is the only policy that keeps you out of this morass. This is what retreat looks like and it is not a pretty picture.


At 8:21 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Virginian Pilot - January 14, 1995 (excerpts)..."...The Upton-Jones amendment to the National Flood Insurance Program....implemented in 1998 and repealed in 1994....(was repealed because)....far fewer homeowners made use of its benefits than expected. On the Kitty Hawk beachfront, for example, where erosion has been a problem, only a handful of homeowners have used Upton-Jones....As many as 50 percent of the remaining oceanfront houses could be eligible, says Dan Smith, KH building inspector...Waiting for nature to run its course is what most homeowners prefer to do..." (end excerpts)...

With that I'll just add this....." and they are also waiting for beach nourishment and the nation's taxpayers to bail them out."...

In closing, let's suppose the federal, state and local government didn't push to reinstate Upton-Jones, but, instead decided to offer "fair tax credits" to oceanfront property owners for them paying to move back from their eroding property lines and/or raising them up. Fact is, 80% of the oceanfront cottages on the Outer Banks have enough lot depth to enable them to move westward and gain years approaching or exceeding the useful life of the structure.
Odds are, the money set aside would gather dust in the government coffers.

But, it can't be done, you say? Of course, it can, even with the mini-hotels. Remember, we moved the lighthouse and all it took was a bar of ivory soap to grease the railways.
And, don't tell us this whole process would look like a ban of wagon trains heading westward, J.R.
It wouldn't happen that way. Beach erosion hasn't happende that way. It has been and will continue to be a "slow process," (barring a category 4-5 storm...and when and if that happens..beach nourishment from Nags Head to Roanoke Island won't make any difference).

Have a Sunny Day, J.R.

At 8:34 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree completely with the above post.

If the property owners are "holding out" for a mere 30k, then I would be happy with our local, federal and state govt's pitching in (think about it, 10k a piece!) to "buy out the property" In the long run, it's a much better, cost effective solution. It rids towns of a.) unsightly properties in public domaign, b.) severe hazards on public beaches and c.) if the property owner agrees to MOVE their property back using maybe 50% of that money, and the rest of the costs from THEIR pocket, they can use that as a POSITIVE INCENTIVE to move back and save their home. Much better solution then throwing GOBS of public tax money on sand-bags and beach nourishment, that ultimately, degrade and further demise an otherwise healthy, attractive beach that we all in this grand state of NC are afforded to enjoy.

I often wonder just HOW MUCH MONEY these disgusting SAND BAGS cost, how much money the owners spend on "back hoes" and beach pushing every year, they couold probably all come out ahead if they MOVED BACK and spent the money and moved their property back and enjoyed many more years of oceanfront enjoyment.

Just how much does Sand Bag Installation cost? Maybe write a future blog about that. (Or are we all in for a nice dirty secret surprise, to find out yes, the govt pays for that too?)


Think about that.

At 8:46 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The area of Topsail Beach is the most foolish, otherwise ridiculous area to purchase or own oceanfront property. It has always been a liability and even the feds should have never, ever allowed ANYONE to build there, much less insure it.

That area is geologically "screwed" and Pilkey lists that area in his book as being an area to AVOID completeley.

maybe the feds and local govt. should provide a copy of Pilkey's book as a requirement for anyone considering buying oceanfront property in NC.

I think that would be the SMARTEST, cost effective solution.

At 6:52 AM, Blogger Bob Muller said...

I would like to hear more about what "fair tax credits" might involve. I also am curious about the source of the 80% number for homes that have room to be moved. I don't doubt the figure, I would just like a little more definition about its source. If I were to use it I would like to be able to back it up. Also, I have never said that homes (even large rental homes) couldn't be moved. One feature of the Town of Nags Head oridnancnes is the requirement for ocean front lots cut after ~1990 to be wide enough to allow homes to be moved westward on the lot or entirely off the lot. Look at the ocean front lots in the Village at Nags Head and you will see building setback lines on the west side of the lots that keep the area clear for moving homes off.

I guess the whole point of the post is not that facilitating the removal or relocation of threatened oceanfront homes is bad, its not. The point is that removal or relocation is made exceedingly difficult by the lack of coherent rules and policies on the part of the state and particularly the federal government. That is balanced by a policy, until recently, that made beach nourishment the logical and practical response to erosion and the threat from storms.


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