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

By Ben Brown
January 18, 2005
Courtesy of Watersound Beach

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

Over the years, people encroached on fragile beaches, ignoringrisks to reserve front-row seats at the water's edge. Butresponsible developers have helped push growth safely away from theshore. In the mid-1960s, North Carolina beach building codes forcedconstruction to higher ground. Then the code required elevatingcoastal homes to a certain height by building on pilings. "And forwhatever reasons, the effects went way beyond the regulations,"says Spencer Rogers, a coastal construction and erosion specialistwith North Carolina Sea Grant, a marine advisory agencyheadquartered at North Carolina State University. When architectsand homeowners found they could get parking and storage spacebeneath houses if they elevated them even higher than rulesrequired, that's what they did. As a result, says Spencer, "theychanged the mental image in North Carolina of what a beach houselooked like." That shift in design built in a safety factor whenlater storms, such as Isabel in 2003, hammered the state'scoastline.

Until the last two decades, many beach communities in theSoutheast didn't feel the same sense of urgency. Flat coastalproperty on the South Atlantic and Gulf coasts was plentiful. Andfrom the 1960s to the late 1980s, a lull in killer storm cyclespostponed the consequences of careless development. Then, just twohurricanes―Hugo in South Carolina in 1989, and Andrew inSouth Florida and Louisiana in 1992―wiped out tens ofthousands of homes and left billions of dollars in wind and flooddamage in their wakes. "The big thing we've learned," says St. JoeCompany wildlife biologist Jim Moyers, "is that when developmentsare set back from the beach and a good chunk of dune habitat[remains], it's not only pretty to look at, it also provides asignificant barrier to hurricane storm surges."

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

On every coast, a new wave of developers offers nature-awarecommunity siting such as that in WaterColor. Oregon's ShorepineVillage sacrificed water vistas for a conservation approach that'slikely to add long-term value to its residents' investment. Eventhough Shorepine Village is an oceanfront development, "none of ourhouses have an ocean view," says Mary Jones, president of NestuccaRidge Development. "We designed this village to nestle behind thedune, and deeded the dune to the homeowners association." Gettingcustomer buy-in "was a little difficult" at first, Mary admits."But when they got a look, they could see the value in it. And nowit'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 takeownership in the management of these conservation areas. They tellme that's why they bought here."