This story was co-published with The Weather Channel.
NAGS HEAD, North Carolina—This hurricane season, Lance Goldner harbored an unusual wish: that his beach house on North Carolina's scenic Outer Banks would collapse in a storm.
Goldner bought the property with his brother 14 years ago, when it was part of a row of cottages perched above the high-tide line. They'd planned to rent it out, but for much of the past decade, the faded yellow structure has stood vacant. Today, insulation spills from its bowels. Windows are boarded up. And high tides wash underneath between pilings, even on calm days.
Ever since a nor'easter slammed the Outer Banks in 2009, damaging hundreds of homes along these barrier islands, Goldner's cottage has been largely uninhabitable. The storm sucked the land out from beneath the homes. Now only two remain in a row that once numbered 10. Erosion has gradually consumed the shoreline in the tourist town of Nags Head, seizing homes and threatening nearly a billion dollars' worth of property.
Sea level rise from climate change is making matters worse. For homeowners caught in the middle, the damage has left some facing substantial financial losses.
"I just want to break even," said Goldner, a tall man with tousled gray hair and blue eyes.
After the nor'easter, the town declared Goldner's home and nine others on East Seagull Drive public nuisances and ordered their demolition. Two were torn down, but the owners of the other eight fought back. Their lawsuits dragged for years and led to a ruling that said towns did not have the right to clear homes from the beach. Nags Head eventually paid $1.5 million to buy out the owners of six, but it was unable to remove the final two homes.
Goldner, his neighbor and the town are now in a stalemate. The owners of the two remaining homes are unable to secure permits to rebury septic tanks that now poke through the sand. Town officials don't want to spend any more to buy them out. Neighbors are upset that the town spent millions of taxpayer dollars on lawsuits and settlements, yet failed to clear the beach.
If Goldner's house collapsed, he could at least collect insurance.
What's happening along East Seagull Drive is a lesson and warning for coastal communities around the country, highlighting the complicated and expensive legal battles that result from failing to plan for how—and when—to retreat from the disappearing coast.
About 150 miles southwest of Nags Head, the tiny town of North Topsail Beach ended a legal fight by paying more than $1.5 million in 2008 to buy and condemn 12 homes wrecked by a hurricane. In New York City, the state spent more than $100 million buying out homes in three neighborhoods flooded by Hurricane Sandy, though a handful of holdouts have refused to leave.
Along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, beach erosion is worsening as sea level rise accelerates and increasingly violent storms batter the shore. By 2035, 170 communities along the nation's coasts will face chronic flooding from rising seas, about twice as many as today, according to a study by the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Many states and towns are relying on an expensive and temporary fix: dredging sand from the sea floor and pumping it onto beaches, a practice called nourishment. Nags Head spent $36 million on nourishment in 2011 and wants to spend as much as $48 million more in 2018.
In some cases, though, nourishment may only prolong the pain. The effort wasn't enough to save Nags Head's East Seagull Drive. The land there has been eroding at about six feet per year, more than four times the median rate for North Carolina's coast and higher than most of the town's beaches. Robert Young, who studies coastal development at Western Carolina University, said the high erosion rate there has been well understood for decades, so it shouldn't have surprised anyone.
"If you can't proactively handle a place like East Seagull Drive," he said, "how in the world do we expect the United States of America to be planning for rising sea level?"
Suing Nags Head, and a Fear of More to Come
Matthew Toloczko's cottage sits in a spot that almost any outsider would think is no place for a house. The salmon-colored home lies halfway between the dune and the water, suspended two stories above the sand on stilts. Toloczko's is the second remaining cottage on East Seagull Drive, and he's actually been able to fix it up enough for human occupancy, if only it had a functioning septic system.
Toloczko's wife, Lynn, inherited the home from her parents, and over time the land has moved out from under them. A town-zoning map shows that more than half the lot is now in the ocean. Like many beachfront property owners in Nags Head, the Toloczkos live elsewhere—in Great Falls, Virginia, a wealthy Washington, D.C., suburb—and primarily rent the cottage. They own another behind it, too.
Sea level rise is predictable. People are not. The 2009 nor'easter also damaged more than a dozen other homes elsewhere in Nags Head. Most homeowners allowed the town to demolish them. But Toloczko, Goldner and Roc Sansotta—who partially owned and managed six of the East Seagull cottages—refused, and their cases wound up in court. (The owner of the ninth East Seagull home did not resist the town. The tenth was demolished after a 2010 foreclosure.)
North Carolina courts have held that the public has a right to access the beach, even if property lines extend to the water. Nags Head relied on its ability to enforce this right when it moved to condemn the homes. But in 2012, the Goldners' challenge led to a ruling that gave that authority exclusively to the state, blocking Outer Banks towns from condemning homes when erosion puts them in the middle of the beach.
The Toloczko and Sansotta cases, aided by the 2012 ruling, dragged on. In Toloczko's case, it took three years and several appeals before it appeared headed for a jury trial.
By that point, Toloczko said he'd had enough. He said he has spent $500,000 on legal fees. So he offered to drop his suit in return for $200,000 and the deed to a vacant adjoining beach lot, where he hoped to bury the septic tank for his repaired home. With his property appraised at $212,200, he'd probably break even. The town agreed.
The following year, Nags Head settled with Sansotta, bought his six cottages for $1.5 million, and tore them down. While the legislature passed a bill after the Goldner ruling giving towns the authority to clear the beach, Nags Head officials have been unwilling to test it, fearing new lawsuits.
Meanwhile, Toloczko managed to get his septic system in and rented his house in the summer of 2016, until a series of storms hit and again exposed the tank. He's been unable to secure a permit to rebury it. He's counting on the next round of beach nourishment to build up the sand enough to allow him to bury the tank again.
"When I saw nourishment coming, I said: I'll fix it, and I'll have a half-million-dollar property," he said. "That's the yin and yang. I'm here because I believe they finally will nourish it. And if I have 50 feet of beach in front of me or more, I'm fine."
Shifting Sands: 'We're Not Supposed to Be Here'
To a surprising degree, coastal policy is set, not by the federal government, or even in state capitals, but by part-time public officials in local town halls. One day this summer, John Ratzenberger, a retired Army colonel who now serves as a Nags Head commissioner, arrived in one such town hall wearing sandals, khaki shorts and an electric-blue fishing shirt. Ratzenberger is overseeing the town's beach nourishment program, but he's quick to acknowledge that the geology of the Outer Banks is no friend to human habitation.
"We're not supposed to be here," he said.
The barrier islands stretch some 200 miles from southern Virginia to halfway down North Carolina's coast. They are, essentially, a string of shifting sandbars. For thousands of years, winds and waves have been washing sand off beaches and onto the islands, eating away at the shore on one side while building it up on the other. The problem comes when a house or a road gets in the way.
In 1979, the state ordered that new structures be set back from the vegetation line—where plants have taken root on the dunes—at 30 times the local annual erosion rate. If the shore is eroding at 1 foot per year in a given spot, a new home would have to lie at least 30 feet from the vegetation line.
"Guess what," said Young, of Western Carolina University. "If you set your house back 30 times the calculated erosion rate, 30 years later, it's in the ocean."
For decades, people here would move their homes—Lynn Toloczko's parents moved theirs—but as development has increased and the shore has eroded away, there's less land to move to. So towns are instead rebuilding the beaches.
After spending $36 million in 2011—and raising taxes on property owners—only 64 percent of the sand that Nags Head pumped onto the beaches that year remained in July. The town is now planning a $48 million project to replace it, though it's counting on the federal government to provide $20 million of that total. Nags Head qualifies for the help because Hurricane Matthew removed much of the sand last year, but it hasn't yet won approval for the funds.
Click on the map below to explore beach nourishment projects along the U.S. coasts.
Of North Carolina's 160 miles of developed beaches, three-quarters of it is slated for nourishment. A couple of decades ago only 12 miles were nourished regularly. At least $310 million was doled out in the state from 2007 through 2016 by local, state and federal governments, according to data compiled by Western Carolina University. This year, towns to the north and south of Nags Head spent an additional $64 million on their own projects. The work is temporary by design, generally holding back the sea for only a few years before it needs repeating.
"We have 127 miles of communities in the state of North Carolina that, in order to have an economy next year, they've got to pump sand because there's no beach anymore," said Stanley Riggs, a geologist at East Carolina University who has spent his career studying the islands. "This whole system is collapsing."
Communities up and down the East Coast are facing the same problem, and turning to the same solution. Nationally, at least $3.1 billion was spent on nourishment from 2007 through 2016, according to Western Carolina's data. The federal government has covered most of the cost.
"We're basically trying to build one giant beach from Connecticut to Texas, and it's really expensive," Young said.
Nags Head is developing a 30-year plan to repeatedly build up its beach. Over the same period, the sea is expected to rise 4 to 10 inches. Town officials say that, with nearly half of their tax base sitting within a couple of blocks of the ocean, they have no choice but to continue nourishment for as long as the town can afford it.
Such a tactic may only postpone an inevitable reckoning by encouraging people to continue to buy and build in risky spots like East Seagull Drive. State rules allow towns that have been able to extend their coastlines farther out to sea—through repeated beach nourishments—to approve new development, under a limited set of circumstances, by using their new dunes as the line for setbacks. This, effectively, moves development in tandem with the nourishment.
"Given what we know about the future of sea level rise and climate issues, it's not a prudent policy," said Todd Miller, executive director of the environmental group North Carolina Coastal Federation. "It's one thing to protect what we've got. It's another to create additional hazards for the future."
Waiting for the Hurricane
Back on East Seagull Drive, Goldner has found himself in something of a real estate purgatory, largely of his own doing.
Protecting his eroding property has proved challenging. In 2012, he said, the town offered him $100,000 to drop his lawsuit and give up his house. Goldner declined, intent on recovering the full $230,000 he says he owes on his mortgage. But over time the deals only soured. He and the town eventually agreed to drop their claims without an exchange of money or property. Then, in May, the town offered to buy his house for $35,000. Again, Goldner declined. Town Manager Cliff Ogburn said the town later upped its offer to $50,000, though Goldner said he never received such an offer and wouldn't accept it anyway.
"I knew real estate values can go down," he said. "I never imagined it could go down 100 percent." He was sitting in the breakfast room of a Travelodge he owns in Kill Devil Hills, just north of Nags Head. Families were eating cereal and drinking coffee out of Styrofoam bowls and cups.
Goldner, like his neighbors, has federal flood insurance, which could pay out up to $250,000 if the home collapsed in the waves. As he drove down to see his cottage later that day, Goldner said that although the last beach nourishment failed to help him rent out the house, he is counting on the next project to render the home habitable, so he can sell or rent the place.
If that doesn't work, he said, "I'm just gonna have to wait for the hurricane."
Top photo: Homes line the eroding shoreline in Nags Head, North Carolina. The town has spent millions of dollars rebuilding its beaches. Credit: Alex Wroblewski/Weather Channel