You don’t have to tell Carolyn Mason there’s a land rush Down East. She lives in Bettie, near the bridge to Harkers Island and not far from an area that’s seeing a surge in subdivisions along what was once a dynamic coastline of creek channels, shellfish beds and spartina grass.
“Things have shocked all of us,” she says. “We know that growth happens, but they’re putting houses where we’d never dream of putting something–we’re talking wetlands, mud flats.”
More than that, she says, the pressure to sell off what has been family-owned waterfront for several generations threatens something even more rare.
“There is a lot at stake–our heritage, our way of life,” she says. “The ‘water of life’ is a true thing for Down East.”
Mason is co-chair of Down East Tomorrow, a grassroots group that’s been helping organize the small villages along the sounds in Carteret County, one of several places along the Inner Banks where new development is crowding out a maritime culture that has thrived for centuries.
Fishing families and boat builders, many of whom can trace their ancestry back to the whalers of the mid-1700s, are finding it hard to survive, whipsawed by rising taxes, poor markets and the loss of fish houses and boat yards–often prime waterfront land–to condos and private marinas.
This past winter, at the urging of Down East Tomorrow, Carteret officials called three meetings around the county to talk about the rapid increase in development. More than 1,200 people showed up. In February, Down East Tomorrow called for a moratorium and now has 2,600 signatures on a petition supporting it. (To put that kind of participation in sparsely populated Carteret into perspective, in Wake County that kind of turnout would have meant 14,000 people showing up to the meetings and 30,000 names on a petition.)
“We’re trying very hard to convince our county commissioners to live up to their responsibilities,” Mason says.
An indication may come as early as Monday, when Carteret commissioners have called a special meeting to discuss the moratorium.
Fellow organizer Gerry Barrett of Atlantic, at the end of U.S. 70 on Cedar Island, is hopeful but knows this is likely to be a long fight. “We’re not trying to stop development. We want it to happen in a way that preserves the quality of the water and the culture.”
With almost no rules in place on builders, communities like Harkers Island are considering becoming municipalities if they can’t convince their county governments to step in and set some guidelines. Harkers residents may ask for a fall referendum as early as this week. Several other towns also are considering the move.
FORCES OF NATURE
For the coastal communities along North Carolina’s sounds and rivers, reckoning with forces of nature is in the DNA. Wind, tide and hurricanes are a part of life. But baby boom demographics–well, not everybody saw that one coming.
Frank Tursi, the North Carolina Coastal Federation’s coastkeeper for the central region, says it’s a fairly simple story in some ways: People want to retire on the water, and there are a lot of people with a lot of relative wealth looking for their place in paradise.
Tursi, editor and lead writer on the federation’s recently released 2006 State of the Coast Report, says that since the mid-1970s, paradise has been largely confined to the Atlantic shoreline, where towns along the beachfront have changed from a mix of family homes, hotels and campgrounds to condos, high-end housing and gated communities.
With the build-out of that era advancing, Tursi says, speculators and developers are turning inward and the evidence points to a rapid acceleration. “We know that the last 18 months have been particularly intense. Development has moved into the sounds and up our rivers and creeks,” Tursi says.
Any way you slice the numbers–housing starts, population, average price of a home, raw land sales–what’s happened over the past year or two in Brunswick, Camden and Currituck counties has all the earmarks of a real estate boom.
But it is in places like Carteret and its proximity to the Core Sound, the only coastal body of water with the state’s highest water quality rating, where Tursi is most worried about the impact.
“This is one of the last remaining waterfronts,” he told a crowd gathered at Harkers Island for the release of the State of the Coast report last Thursday. “There’s no zoning here, no municipalities. These are small, little villages, traditional boat-building, fishing communities totally unprepared for the rampant development that is about to take place.”
Eddie Willis adjusts his course a bit then steps back to get his hook. He snags the float in the water, loops the line around the pot puller–a motorized pulley, essentially–and cuts it on. The line comes in, the dark mesh crab pot surfaces and is drawn toward the boat. Willis pulls it up on the edge and opens the trap. A half dozen crabs scatter out into the black tubs on the deck. He sets the latch, grabs a mullet from a bucket and rebaits the pot. It’s barely over the side before he’s back at the helm gunning the engine and lining up the boat for the next float in the line.
“I can do one about every minute, minute and a half,” says Willis, a Harkers Island native. He’s been pulling crabs from Core Sound since he was eight. His father, grandfather and three uncles all had boats.
“Before the pot pullers came along, it was a long day. You got home you felt like a dead man.”
Just out of the water the crabs in the tub aren’t just blue, they’re iridescent. You can’t help but note that. “Yeah,” he says, “like the sky.” He drags that “y” as in s-k-oi, and then steps back to work.
Each pot will yield maybe $10 or so in crabs. Most of the catch is headed to Washington, D.C., with a stop along the way at his fish house on Harkers Island. “We do our own shipping now, since the packing house shut down.”
Willis, a fourth generation fisherman, knows he’s lucky to have a fish house to go to even if he had to start his own to have one. A lot of fishermen who are on the margin have been put under by the rapid loss of fish houses forcing long hauls and burning more fuel to bring in the catch. Fuel prices have gotten everyone. “It’s about a third more this year,” Willis says.
He’s also lucky to be a crabber where prices have been pretty good for the past few years. It’s the shrimpers who are really hurting, with a couple years running of low catches and a flood of imports.
Barbara Garrity-Blake, a member of the state’s Marine Fisheries Commission and an anthropologist who specializes in maritime cultures, says recent studies she’s done on a massive turnover of fishing properties in Florida after Hurricane Dennis underline how fast things can change.
“It was eye-opening to see what was happening in the wake of that storm,” she says. Rather than repair their damaged fish houses, owners who had once fought rezoning were eager to sell. Suddenly, the oyster boats of Apalachicola, Fla., had nowhere to dock and unload their harvest.
“Seeing that, you realize we’re not far from that point here,” she says.
Last November, Garrity-Blake took the issue to the fisheries commission. It has since passed a resolution urging the state to assess the problem and address it quickly. A similar resolution was passed by a group of the state’s leading maritime scholars.
State Rep. William Wainwright (D-Craven County), co-chair of the Joint Legislative Commission on Seafood and Aquaculture, says a first step is new legislation to set up a study committee on waterfront access and the loss of diversity of uses along the coast. But the state, he says, will have to move fast.
“We have a great concern about what’s happening along our coast,” Wainwright says. “This will have to be a very hard-working committee. We are losing a way of life.”
There is also legislation in the N.C. House that would follow the lead of Maine and other states in creating working waterfronts tax credits and other incentives. One mechanism would give owners of commercial fishing property the same tax breaks farmers get by taxing land at use value. The idea is to shield fish house and boat yard owners from rising taxes as property values increase.
While the state ponders its next move, several organizations are stepping in to lay the groundwork for change.
In New Bern on Monday–the day after TheNews & Observer‘s Jay Price and Jerry Allegood declared the “Coastal boom moves inland” and found that “more than 34,000 homes in nearly 100 subdivisions and condominium projects are planned or are now going up” the length of the state, “from Currituck in the northeast to Brunswick on the state’s southern coast”–N.C. Sea Grant hosted a well-attended conference on the loss of North Carolina’s working waterfronts and how other states have dealt with it.
Sea Grant Director Ron Hodson, who is retiring this year, says it’s clear that a “one size fits all” approach is not going to work. More likely, he says, the solutions will be as diverse as the coast–each community finding the right mix of waterfront uses.
And though among commercial fishermen and landowners Down East and elsewhere there is a traditional wariness about the state stepping in, it’s clear that the clash of developers and maritimers is suddenly on the radar. After all, no one’s getting any younger.