The last house on Cedar Island has slipped into the sea.
The pretty red fishing cabin has joined the remnants of dozens of other homes - some with grand pianos - in the waves of the Atlantic Ocean. But the owners of the last house wanted to be responsible, so they burned the cabin when they knew the end was near. The owners of the last house on Cedar Island did not want their septic tanks, their drywall, to pollute the ocean. 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: it turned on them.
Cedar Island was going to be a Nantucket, a Hilton Head - only closer to the population centers in New York and Pennsylvania from which it hoped to draw customers. The Eastern Shore barrier island is a few miles from the coast of Wachapreague, within a few hours’ drive of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and even closer to the Bridge Tunnel near Norfolk. In the 1950s, the plan was to build a bridge from Wachapreague. The island’s developer, Richard Hall, sold 2,000 lots before the bridge was built. But the Ash Wednesday storm of 1962 put many of them underwater, and Virginia planners never built the bridge.
Thirty years later, Hall’s granddaughter, Elizabeth, and her developer husband, Ben Benson, were selling Cedar again. Without the bridge, though, they reframed their pitch: this time, said former Sun writer Tom Horton, they were selling a 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,” their pitch read.
At the time, scientists had a pretty good idea that building on barrier islands was a bad idea. Islands in the Chesapeake Bay, like Smith and Tangier, are eroding and succumbing to sea-level rise. But barrier islands, like Cedar and Assateague, are shifting sands. They gain and lose land in storms. Their job is to be a barrier to protect the mainland, not be resort communities unto themselves. As a result, the staff at the Virginia Marine Resources Commission recommended no permits be issued to build homes on Cedar Island.
The commissioners overruled them.
Perhaps the Bensons’ political clout or wealth swayed the commissioners. Or perhaps it was, as Horton reported, the homeowners’ misguided belief that snow fences and grass plantings could stop the ocean. Or perhaps it was the structure of the lot deal, which allowed buyers to buy long, skinny lots so they could move their homes if the sea encroached.
Whatever the reason, the permits gave the state’s imprimatur on the deal. After all, as one naïve buyer told Horton, the state wouldn’t have approved building here if it wasn’t safe, right?
It took only two decades for the ocean to declare the truth that the commissioners could not bear to face: That in the battle of man verses nature, nature wins.
Though proven over and over again, it appears to be a truth we do not easily accept. Over the years, developers hatched plans for many of the barrier islands hugging the Atlantic Coast. Cedar’s plans were the most famous. But Smith Island, across from Kiptokeke, was slated for a Marco Island-style development, with a runway, a hotel and a bridge to the mainland.
Assateague, too, was in the crosshairs of developers. The Virginia portion of the treasured island 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. They had already built a few homes when the Ash Wednesday Storm of 1962 put the island underwater.
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, remembers his son.
“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.”
While Assateague had federal protection, the rest of the barrier islands did not. They could again fall victim to the greed of developers, and the folly of believing that, just this once, the sands wouldn’t shift.
Patrick Noonan didn’t want to see that happen. Noonan oversaw land acquisition for the Nature Conservancy, 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 Barry Truitt, who worked for the conservancy on the Virginia Coast until he retired earlier this year. Because residents opposed the idea, Noonan resorted to subterfuge, setting up limited liability companies to finish the purchases, according to news reports at the time and 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 the 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.”