Building to Last: Building Behind Nature

Courtesy of Watersound Beach
A growing body of knowledge about the natural cycles of the shore factors into development along the nation's coastline.

In past centuries, there wasn't much debate about how close to the ocean to build a home. "Nobody in their right mind would have put houses where many people try to put them now," says New York architect John R. Kirk. "They built on higher, drier ground."

Over the years, people encroached on fragile beaches, ignoring risks to reserve front-row seats at the water's edge. But responsible developers have helped push growth safely away from the shore. In the mid-1960s, North Carolina beach building codes forced construction to higher ground. Then the code required elevating coastal homes to a certain height by building on pilings. "And for whatever reasons, the effects went way beyond the regulations," says Spencer Rogers, a coastal construction and erosion specialist with North Carolina Sea Grant, a marine advisory agency headquartered at North Carolina State University. When architects and homeowners found they could get parking and storage space beneath houses if they elevated them even higher than rules required, that's what they did. As a result, says Spencer, "they changed the mental image in North Carolina of what a beach house looked like." That shift in design built in a safety factor when later storms, such as Isabel in 2003, hammered the state's coastline.

Until the last two decades, many beach communities in the Southeast didn't feel the same sense of urgency. Flat coastal property on the South Atlantic and Gulf coasts was plentiful. And from the 1960s to the late 1980s, a lull in killer storm cycles postponed the consequences of careless development. Then, just two hurricanes―Hugo in South Carolina in 1989, and Andrew in South Florida and Louisiana in 1992―wiped out tens of thousands of homes and left billions of dollars in wind and flood damage in their wakes. "The big thing we've learned," says St. Joe Company wildlife biologist Jim Moyers, "is that when developments are set back from the beach and a good chunk of dune habitat [remains], it's not only pretty to look at, it also provides a significant barrier to hurricane storm surges."

Bill Rea, a developer himself, remembers being a little miffed when he realized his condo in the WaterColor development in Seagrove Beach, Florida, lost a first-floor view of the ocean to the dune that separated him from the beach. But after the 2004 storm season, he says, "I had an entirely different perspective. Without that dune, we would have had flooding throughout our first floor."

On every coast, a new wave of developers offers nature-aware community siting such as that in WaterColor. Oregon's Shorepine Village sacrificed water vistas for a conservation approach that's likely to add long-term value to its residents' investment. Even though Shorepine Village is an oceanfront development, "none of our houses have an ocean view," says Mary Jones, president of Nestucca Ridge Development. "We designed this village to nestle behind the dune, and deeded the dune to the homeowners association." Getting customer buy-in "was a little difficult" at first, Mary admits. "But when they got a look, they could see the value in it. And now it's very attractive to them."

"I can vouch for the success of this approach," adds Jim Moyers. "I get comments all the time from those who are proud to take ownership in the management of these conservation areas. They tell me that's why they bought here."

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