Tiny City, Huge Choice: What Are We Keen to Pay to Battle the Rising Sea?

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AVON, NC – Bobby Outten, a county manager for the Outer Banks, broke two bad news at a recent public meeting. Avon, a town of a few hundred full-time residents, was in dire need of at least $ 11 million to keep Main Street from washing away. And to cover the cost, Dare County wanted to raise Avon’s property taxes by nearly 50 percent in part.

The homeowners largely agreed on the urgency of the first part. They were significantly less keen on the second.

People gave Mr. Outten their own ideas about who should pay to protect their city: the federal government. The state government. The rest of the county. Tourists. People who rent to tourists. The prospect seemed to be for many, everyone but them.

Mr. Outten kept replying with the same message: Nobody comes to the rescue. We only have ourselves.

“We have to act now,” he said.

The risk to the tiny Avon from climate change is particularly great – after all, it is located on a sandbank of a chain of islands in a relentlessly rising Atlantic. But the people of the city are faced with a question that begins to reverberate on the American coast as the seas rise and storms intensify. What price can there be to save a city, a neighborhood, a house in which generations have built their lives?

Large and small communities reach for different answers. Officials in Miami, Tampa, Houston, San Francisco, and elsewhere have borrowed money, raised taxes, or raised water bills to fund efforts to protect their homes, schools, and roads.

Along the Outer Banks – where the North Carolina Department of Coastal Management says in some places tourist-friendly beaches are shrinking more than 14 feet a year in some places – other cities have introduced tax increases similar to those Avon is considering. On Monday, district officials will vote on whether or not Avon will join them.

This is despite the fact that Avon’s fight is most likely a loss. At its highest point, the city is only a few meters above sea level, but most of the houses and the main street are on the beach.

“Based on the science I’ve seen for sea level rise, the Outer Banks – as they are today – are not forever,” said David Hallac, superintendent of national parks in eastern North Carolina, including Cape Hatteras National Seashore that encompasses the land of Avon. “When exactly that happens is not clear.”

The Outer Banks have a rich history. The island of Hatteras, where members of the Algonquin tribe originally lived, is near what is known as the lost colony of Roanoke. A few miles north and a few centuries later, the Wright brothers flew their first plane.

And it’s vulnerability to the ocean – the very threat Avon faces today – that helped transform the Outer Banks into a tourist spot and history, according to Larry Tise, a former director of the North Carolina Archives division .

In 1899, a terrible hurricane virtually destroyed the islands, and the state decided not to spend money on their development. Land speculators later stepped forward, snatched property, and marketed curious local history to attract tourists.

Today tourism dominates Avon, a hamlet with t-shirt shops and cedar wood mansions on stilts by the sea. A few blocks inland is a cluster of humble older houses called the Village, shaded by live oak, eastern red cedar, and wax myrtle. This is where most of Avon’s remaining lifelong residents live.

Audrey Farrow’s grandmother grew up in Avon and met Mrs. Farrow’s grandfather when he moved to town as a fisherman in the late 19th century. Ms. Farrow, 74 years old, lives on the same piece of land where she and her mother grew up before her.

Ms. Farrow stood on her porch last week talking about how Avon had changed in her life. Vacationers and second home buyers have brought in new money, but displaced the locals.

And the ocean itself has changed. The water is closer now, she said, and the flooding is more constant. The wind alone is now pushing water up the little street she lives on and into her lawn.

“When it rained with it, you feel like you have a property by the water,” she said.

From every angle, billing for Avon seems to be approaching.

Over the past decade, hurricanes have caused $ 65 million in damage to Highway 12, the two-lane road that runs along the Outer Banks and connects Avon and other cities to the mainland. The federal and state governments are spending an additional $ 155 million to replace a section of Highway 12 with a 2.4-mile bridge because the road can no longer be protected from the sea. Hatteras Island has been evacuated five times since 2010.

District officials turned to what is known as beach food, which involves dredging sand from the ocean floor a few miles offshore and then shoving it ashore through a pipeline and layering it on the beach. But these projects can cost tens of millions of dollars. And the county’s demands for federal or state funds to pay them went nowhere.

As a result, the county began using local money instead, with the cost split between two sources: income from a tax on tourists and a property tax surcharge on local homes. In 2011, Nags Head became the first town in the Outer Banks to receive a new beach using this formula. Others followed, including Kitty Hawk in 2017.

Ben Cahoon, the mayor of Nags Head, said it was cheaper to pay $ 20 million to rebuild the beach every few years than to buy all of the beachfront homes that would otherwise fall into the sea.

He said he could imagine two or three more cycles of beach food and buy his town for another 20 or 25 years. After that, he said, it’s hard to guess what the future holds.

“Beach food is a great solution as long as you can afford it,” said Cahoon. “The alternative options are pretty blatant.”

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Now the county says it’s Avon’s turn. Its beach disappears in some places at a rate of more than two meters per year.

During last month’s meeting, Mr. Outten described Avon’s needs. If the beach disappears, even a small storm will send seawater down Highway 12. Eventually, a hurricane will push enough water over this road to tear it apart, leaving the city inaccessible for weeks or more.

In response, the county plans to put around a million cubic meters of sand on the beach. The project would cost between $ 11 million and $ 14 million and would need to be repeated about every five years, according to Outten.

That inconsistency, combined with the high cost, has made some in Avon question whether beach food is worth the money. They point to Buxton, the nearest town south of Avon, whose beach got new sand in 2018 that was paid for by higher taxes. Now most of the sand has washed away, and a beach motel and vacation rentals sway over the water.

“It’s all gone,” said Michael David, who grew up in Avon and owns a garage in Buxton, during the meeting last month. “We’re just masking a problem that will never be fixed.”

After the meeting, Mr. Outten defended the beach food, even though it was temporary. “I don’t think we can stop the erosion. I think we can only slow it down, ”he said.

Often times, interviews with more than a dozen Avon homeowners have been about how the county plans to split the cost. People who own beachfront property will benefit the most, Mr Outten said, because the extra sand will protect their homes from falling into the ocean. But he said everyone in town would benefit from saving the road.

To reflect this difference, the district proposes two tax rates. Homeowners on the ocean side of the street would pay an additional 25 cents for every $ 100 of estimated value – an increase of 45 percent over their current tax rate. On the intake side, the additional tax would be only a fifth as much.

Sam Eggleston, a retired optician who moved to Avon from outside Raleigh three years ago and bought a house in the west of town, said even a smaller amount was too much. He said that because Highway 12 is owned by the state, the state should pay to protect it.

If the government wants to help, Mr Eggleston argued, it should pay people to move their homes – a solution he said would at least be permanent. “Spending millions and millions of dollars on the beach doesn’t make sense to me,” he said.

This view has not been shared by people who live on the beach.

When Carole and Bob Peterson bought an oceanfront home in 1997, it was protected from the water by two rows of giant dunes, Ms. Peterson said. Years of storms washed away these dunes and exposed their 2,800 square meter house to the water.

Ms. Peterson admitted that she and her neighbors would benefit most from rebuilding the beach. But the rest of the city should be willing to pay for it too, she said, because it protects the jobs and services they depend on.

“The people who live over there on this side don’t understand that the beach keeps them alive,” she said, pointing across the street. “If you don’t have this beach, people won’t come here.”

Audrey Farrow’s son, Matthew, a commercial fisherman, said he was concerned about the future of the place he grew up in. Between the flooding and the demand for vacation homes that keep house prices soaring, it is becoming increasingly difficult to make a good life in Avon.

“I am already telling my children,” said Mr. Farrow, “go elsewhere.”