The swift retreat of Cedar Island Erosion: Once touted as an unspoiled hideaway by developers, this Virginia island is disintegrating. So are the homes. Many owners are leaving them to fall into the ocean and litter the beach.

On The Bay

February 20, 1998|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

CEDAR ISLAND, Va. -- The bedraggled raccoon clung to the bottom of a pole, aslosh in the frigid Atlantic surf. It was too weak to run from us or to climb up to the once-fine beach home where it had been living.

The recent twin northeasters had turned the raccoon's world upside down and written yet another chapter in the intriguing saga of Cedar Island, Va., several miles south of Chincoteague.

The animal was clearly dying. The house, now moving smartly out to sea along with others nearby as the shore erodes from beneath it, will go in the next storm or two. Four others here went in the latest northeasters.

As for Cedar Island, conventional wisdom has it that these barrier islands, which include Assateague Island and Ocean City in Maryland, are not so much eroding as migrating.

Storms periodically carry sand from the beachfront across their dunes and marshes and shallow back bays. Between storms, the whole system reforms, effectively retreating westward before a rising global sea level.

But south of Chincoteague, an ominous change occurs in the nature of these beach islands. The underwater deposits of sand extending offshore at places like Assateague diminish sharply, coastal geologists say.

The system simply does not have much material for places like Cedar to rebuild from, and that is one reason why it is not just migrating, but disintegrating, large portions of it likely as doomed as the raccoon.

Once Cedar was touted as the mid-Atlantic's next premier beach resort. "Ocean City, Virginia," it was dubbed in a glowing, 1950s sales brochure published by developer Richard F. Hall.

"The new Chesapeake Bay Bridge now nearing completion brings the great cities of Washington and Baltimore within pleasant driving distance," Hall wrote in 1951.

He envisioned a bridge to the island from the Accomack County mainland and a highway running the length of Cedar. Without either one, Hall sold some 2,000 lots, the great bulk of which have long since been out to sea.

Cedar Island would continue to be good business for the Hall family:

"The blue Atlantic waters break gently on miles of soft sand now available to individuals whose imagination sees the untouched beauty of a Nantucket or a Hilton Head," said a sales brochure in the mid-1980s.

Richard Hall's granddaughter, Elizabeth, had married a developer, Ben Benson, and the two were selling off Cedar again.

Now, the pitch was the lack of access: "[The island] has no bridge to allow day trippers, tourists and unwanted crowds only you and a handful of others will be satisfied owners of one of the last unspoiled Atlantic islands."

At a hearing in 1986 on whether Virginia's Marine Resources Commission (VMRC) should approve new building so close to the oceanfront, scientists left no doubt that Cedar was a poor candidate, with erosion rates of 20 to 50 feet a year. And the island was shrinking, they said.

The lots, several dozen in all, had sold like hot cakes, for up to $100,000 apiece.

At the hearing, prospective homeowners testified that by erecting snow fences and planting beach grasses, they could help Cedar Island fight the ocean's onslaught. Others simply said they were willing to pay their money and take their chances.

Against staff recommendations, the VMRC approved building. A few dozen homes have been erected in the decade since, and about 16 of these have succumbed to the ocean.

Owners were told by the developer that the island was migrating. The lots the Bensons sold them were skinny but extended thousands of feet across the island.

As the beach moved back, they could just move their homes back with it, the Bensons told them.

And many, including the Bensons, did -- once, twice, several times. But the scientists' direst forecast did not realize the galloping retreat of Cedar Island today, which approaches 200 feet a year in places. Some of the houses in the surf today were still under construction in 1992.

Despite VMRC requirements that homes be removed before they go into the ocean, many owners have simply abandoned them. People who embraced the sales pitch of "living in harmony with nature" have no qualms about littering the beach with the wreckage of their unfortunate decisions.

So dynamic and unpredictable are the movements of barrier islands, there are inevitably ironies within Cedar's overall pattern of disintegration.

On one of the most overwashed sections of the island sits a small A-frame owned by John Rippon, who was sitting on his front porch when we approached last week.

I recall wondering in 1986 what fool would buy this particular lot, which even then was virtually flattened from the oceanfront through to the back marshes.

But while more stable-looking sections all around have disappeared, Rippon's little overwashed flat has remained relatively intact. He moved his cottage back once in 10 years and came through the last storms.

If his place goes next week, he said, "it was worth it to be out here."

Rippon, who acts as a caretaker for some of the remaining homes, says Ben Benson "is completely out of here now." The developer donated his remaining holdings to a foundation in Hawaii, presumably for a tax write-off, Rippon said.

The foundation owns two homes that, Rippon says, are supposed to be burned this spring before they crash into the ocean and are scattered up and down the beach.

Toward the island's south end, a broad inlet now cuts through, he said. Many surviving homes were built on, or moved to the south end, behind 12-foot dunes, but the latest storms have flattened most of those, he said.

Many lot owners have been selling out or donating their land for tax write-offs to Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge is acquiring what it can of Cedar for what it was probably best-suited in the first place -- a haven for waterfowl and nesting shorebirds like the endangered piping plover.

Pub Date: 2/20/98

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