In South Nags Head, along a u-shaped road now buried beneath sand, there stands a row of decrepit houses in the Atlantic Ocean. One leans far to the west, like a gnarled oak fleeing the ocean's spray. Another is being repaired and one has already been removed. All were severely damaged when ocean waters overwashed E Seagull Dr during a winter storm that hit the area around Veteran's Day in 2009 and have since become a source of extended legal controversy. The houses that remain and the struggles that followed are a clear illustration of the challenges that accompany living on shifting sands.
After the storm waters receded from E Seagull Dr, the legal battle began. The utility connections were damaged and due to the migration of sand the structures sat in the "wet zone" of the public beach. A portion of the damaged houses were declared a public nuisance and condemned by the Town of Nags Head. The owners were given notice to either tear down or remove the structures, which according to the Town, now sat within public trust property and blocked movement of both visitors and emergency response vehicles alike, effectively splitting the public beach, northern and southern. Considered "wash ins" and condemned, the Town would not issue any additional building permits for the structures, preventing owners from making any repairs. The condition of the houses then deteriorated greatly as they were exposed to wind, waves, rain, and looters. The Town wanted the structures removed and owners of the houses wanted the right to repair their property and make them again inhabitable. The case was argued in Dare County Superior Court in December of 2010 and initially the verdict sided with the Town of Nags Head.
The defendant, Cherry Inc., owner of one of the houses, appealed the decision. The Court of Appeals disagreed with the previous ruling and found that local governments in NC had no power of enforcement under State public trust law and that the claims against the defendant should be dismissed. The decision shows that the Town of Nags Head had no legal basis for condemnation as only the State of NC could enforce the regulations of the State's public trusts. A door now opened, potentially allowing for repair of the deteriorating structures and possible reclamation of lost rental income. For a rundown of the legal proceedings see Public Trust and Private Rights—Local Case Poses Difficult Questions in the North Beach Sun. The decision was troubling for those in coastal communities that wanted to protect their most vital asset: the public beach.
Roc Sansotta, manager and part-owner of six of the houses, also took legal action against the Town.
To further complicate matters, while litigation was ongoing, a long-awaited beach nourishment project again shifted the sands.
A few days shy of Veteran's Day in November 2014, Sansotta had claimed victory. The U.S. District Court for eastern North Carolina decided that the structures can stay on the beach and be repaired. He placed American flags on the houses as a symbol of the legal struggle that he had endured and said he had plans to repair them in time for the upcoming rental season. He referred to the houses as his "troops," though neighbors employed other comparisons. In the harsh environment, the flags were soon tattered and threadbare.
Despite legal victories and the possibility of repairs, the majority the remaining E. Seagull Dr houses will soon be gone. Any sanctuary gained by previous beach nourishment programs was evidently washed away by the time these images were captured in December, 2014. On March 27, 2015, the Pacific Legal Foundation, who represented Sansotta in the case posted:
With sea levels rising (from 4.8 to 11.6 inches near Nags Head over the next 30 years, according to a recent report from the Coastal Resources Commission’s advisory science panel) and no signs of development slowing, this case could portend the future of the Outer Banks, one where both flood waters and legal documents are surging.
During some busy tourist season yet to come, will beach-goers be aware they spread their towels where a row of houses once stood? Will they remember the six year long legal battle that cost millions of dollars, both public and private, over a patch of shifting sand? Or will they just be in awe of the natural wonder that lies before them? My hope for this series is to depict a landscape that isn't quite so natural after all; a strip of sand that is shaped as much by state and federal governmental agencies, departments of transportation, rental rates, bridge builders, real estate agents, courts, commerce, and human interests as it is by the wind and waves. See more images Upon Sand.