Before the last house on Cedar Island could slip into the sea, the owners burned it.
It happened on Black Friday, and the owners posted on their Facebook page that it was definitely a dark day for their family and friends: “the end of a long, wonderful era.”
Technically, two other structures remain on the island. There is a Coast Guard station, privately owned now, with a tower and a couple of outbuildings, and a tiny, shingled, brown cottage next door. But the last house, a pretty red fishing cabin, was the last of its kind, the last home built for vacations and lazy days on an unspoiled beach.
One more good storm, and its remains will join the remnants of dozens of other homes — some with grand pianos — in the waves of the Atlantic Ocean. Boaters in the area have encountered pilings, walls and fixtures from homeowners who abandoned their property when the sea encroached. The owners of the last house did not want to add to that pollution, so they set the house on fire. Their care is remarkable only because so many failed to do even the minimum to protect the natural environment that drew them there, and then did what it was always going to do: turn on them.
Cedar Island is a barrier island along the Atlantic Coast of Virginia’s Eastern Shore. It’s one of 18 in a chain, tasked with the ever-difficult job of protecting the mainland from storms and providing habitat for birds and fish.
Islands in the Chesapeake Bay face the serious threats of erosion and sea level rise. Where dozens once housed people, now only Smith and Tangier do. But barrier islands are even more vulnerable. Whereas Smith and Tangier are on solid, if eroding, ground, the barrier islands are shifting sands. They gain and lose land in storms. But these days, as a result of coastal sea level rise, it’s more about losing. The underwater deposits of sand that would typically recharge the islands are diminishing. That is leaving barrier islands to disintegrate in places.
Accomack County’s earlier settlers knew as much even in the early days. There is no record of homes on the island in the 1800s; just a fish guano factory. In 1902, local businessman A.H.G. Mears built the Wachapreague Hotel. He then acquired part of Cedar Island and built a sister property, the Island House. Families came from all over to frolic in the Atlantic surf and catch fish with the help of local guides employed by Mears. When the Potomac-Chesapeake Hurricane of 1933 destroyed the hotel, Mears didn’t rebuild it.
In the early 1950s, a Mears family member built a small cabin on the backside of the island. Ten years later, it was destroyed in the Ash Wednesday storm. Mears deeded the part of the island he owned to his heirs. In the 1970s, the Mears descendants built four cabins on the island’s backside. The little red house was the last of them still standing.
Mears’ grandson, Marcus Killmon, remembers well those carefree days on Cedar Island as a child — catching skate, surfing along an almost private beach, messing around with an old jon boat. The cabins weren’t fancy; Killmon described being there as “luxury camping.” They caught rainwater for washing and brought their own drinking water in. But there was nothing like it.
“Once you’re out there, and you get settled in, there’s no words to describe it,” Killmon said. “It was just one-of-a-kind, truly solitude.”
By the 1980s, that solitude was about to be interrupted. Mears wasn’t the only businessman who owned a piece of Cedar Island. Richard Hall, a local developer, owned most of the ocean side. In the 1950s, he hatched a plan to turn Cedar Island into “Ocean City, VA” — a resort town just a short drive from Baltimore, Washington, DC, and Philadelphia. To make the drive possible, he proposed a bridge from Wachapreague. But the same storm that destroyed the Mears cabin also put many of the Hall lots underwater. Virginia planners declined to permit the bridge.
Like Mears, Hall deeded the island to his heirs. Unlike the Mears children, though, Hall’s granddaughter, Elizabeth, had grander plans. She and her husband, developer Ben Benson, began selling Cedar Island again. But instead of a populist resort, it would be an exclusive retreat — without a bridge connecting it to the mainland; a private boat would be required.
At the time, scientists had a pretty good idea that building on barrier islands was a bad idea. Staff of the Virginia Marine Resources Commission called the island “uncommonly low and wide” and “very sand deficient.” About 90 percent of the island became inundated about every 10 years, the scientists said.
Environmentalists and mainland residents concerned about the development spoke out, too. None of it mattered to Virginia politicians eager for the tax dollars or to buyers eager for a deal.
“These people were being offered the chance to buy a piece of oceanfront property for $100,000. You couldn’t buy a place to park your car in Ocean City, MD, for that kind of money,” said Barry Truitt, a longtime Nature Conservancy employee who tried to talk early buyers out of making a mistake.
Ben Benson offered a solution for the migrating sands: long, skinny lots. If the beach moved, he reasoned, the property owners could just move their houses. Based on scientists’ predictions, they’d only have to do it every 10 years. Moreover, prospective buyers testified at a VMRC hearing that they would put up snow fences and plant grasses to hold back the ocean.
Against the recommendations
of its staff, the commission approved the permits in 1986.
According to a state report issued the next year that questioned the wisdom of the decision, Cedar Island was permitted for 69 homes.
Some lots would be underwater before construction even began. Many others, including the Bensons, found they were moving their homes far more frequently than the once-every-10-years benchmark. The island turned out to be even more “dynamic” than the scientists’ most dire predictions, accelerated in its disintegration by sea level rise, a paucity of sand and more severe storms.
By 1998, many of the homes on the Benson side of the island were underwater. Others were on their way.
Tom Horton, who covered the Cedar Island saga for the Baltimore Sun, said that some of the buyers knew they were getting into disposable real estate, that the money was worth it even if they only got 15 years out of their beautiful beach homes. But others, like a schoolteacher Horton interviewed, poured their life savings into their dream home on Cedar Island, and planned to leave it to their children. After all, the teacher told Horton, Virginia granted the building permits. Surely the state thought it was OK?
That, said Don Baugh, is one of the great tragedies of the Cedar Island story: That regulators denied science, and betrayed their own people. Baugh, a longtime vice president at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, was a frequent visitor to Cedar with Horton and Bay Journal photographer Dave Harp. On one visit, the trio found a house that had washed away and landed in the marsh. They went in; the curtains were still up. It was built to last on an island that, unfortunately, was not.
“Cedar is just a different island,” Baugh said when comparing it with some of the other barrier islands that once housed communities, like Hog Island. “I don’t know why Cedar is different. But Cedar just vanishes.”
While the land vanishes, the people’s stuff does not, and the definition of disposable real estate is not supposed to mean toilets in the Atlantic. But that’s exactly what happened; as buyers walked away from their investments, their homes moved into the surf. Pilings, fixtures, walls and debris became navigation hazards.
Cedar’s development might have had the most spectacular implosion, but it is not the only barrier island once slated for development. Virginia’s Smith Island at the bottom of the chain was slated for a Marco Island-style development, with a runway, hotel and bridge to the mainland.
Assateague, the first island in the chain, was also once in the cross hairs of developers. The Virginia portion had been preserved as a National Wildlife Refuge in the 1930s, after the Chesapeake-Potomac Hurricane of 1933 created the Ocean City inlet. But developers quickly subdivided and sold the Maryland portion into 4,000 lots. A few homes had already been built when the Ash Wednesday Storm of 1962 put the island under water.
In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson authorized the National Parks Service to buy the Maryland part of the island. The job went to Joe Fehrer Sr., then chief of real estate acquisition for the Baltimore and Washington Districts of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Fehrer began buying out the lot owners. One of the hardest to persuade was his mother-in-law, his son remembered.
“It would have looked like Ocean City on steroids,” said Joe Fehrer Jr., who now works for the Nature Conservancy. “And yes, parts of it would have flooded, absolutely.”
After the Cedar debacle, Patrick Noonan wanted a way to protect barrier islands in perpetuity. At the time, Noonan oversaw land acquisition for the Nature Conservancy. He later served as its president, and eventually started the Conservation Fund. He had struck up a relationship with the head of the Mary Flagler Cary Trust. Cary, whose father had co-founded Standard Oil Co., had left her fortune for conservation.
The Cary trust “basically gave the Conservancy a blank check” to buy the islands, said Truitt, who retired this year. Because island residents opposed the idea, Noonan resorted to subterfuge, setting up limited liability companies to finish the purchases, according to people familiar with the dealings.
Today, of the 18 barrier islands on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, only Chincoteague has people living on it. Next door, Wallops is home to a burgeoning NASA flight facility as well as a national wildlife refuge.
The Wallops peninsula is home to
434 residents; Chincoteague has almost 3,000. Wallops and Chincoteague are far more stable than the islands to the south.
The decision to save the islands was made for the birds, but people have benefitted, too. Inhabited barrier islands from Louisiana to North Carolina need constant taxpayer investment for beach replenishment, jetties and flood control.
“We saved the state and the federal government hundreds of millions of dollars, saving these islands,” Truitt said.
He doesn’t expect a thank-you card. After a push a decade ago for growth curbs, Virginia’s coastal commissioners are again eager to develop vulnerable areas.
“You protect land, and then 20 years later you’ve got to do it again,” Truitt said. “It means a lot to me that my grandchildren will be able to walk there and it will still be a wild beach. They can’t develop everywhere.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story was posted on our website and to our Facebook page. At press time, it has been shared 72 times and has reached close to 15,000 readers. Some have posted memories of growing up on the islands. If you would like to join the conversation there, go to Facebook and search for Chesapeake Bay Journal.