Friday, June 16, 2006


North Carolina Experiencing Explosion In Coastal Condos And Timeshares.

Cruising up the Intra-coastal Waterway from Charleston to Baltimore this past week, I saw expanses of grassy wetlands intermingled with expanding clusters of high-rise condos and timeshares. I also saw multi-level multi-family complexes that weren’t there last year — timeshares built so close to the ocean that the waves seem to break at the foot of their garages. Both natural and man-made habitats glistened in the sun. Shorebirds waded in the shallows and rode the breeze. In view of this landscape, my thoughts turned, naturally enough, to my kitchen floor.

For those who don’t know about it, the Intracoastal Waterway is a network of connected rivers, creeks and canals that parallels the Atlantic coast from Maine to Florida. Like the Blue Ridge Parkway, the waterway was part of the federal government’s efforts in the 1930s to use plentiful labor to pump life into a depressed economy. Judging from what I saw last week, they overshot the mark. There were more pleasure craft than commercial fishing boats and plenty of economic activity along the waterway, most of it in timeshare real estate.

You can’t go far in this area without seeing evidence of the real estate boom. North Carolina ranks among the top states in housing construction, home sales and population growth. While Florida and Massachusetts experienced recent double-digit drops in home sales, North Carolina just keeps growing.

What’s the big attraction? In a word: waterfront. “If you can smell the water, you can command a pretty good price for the land,” states an editor of the North Carolina Coastal Federation’s annual State of the Coast report. This year’s report documents a continuing transition from cottages to McMansions, from fishing piers to condos, from long-established rural communities to timeshares and rentals.

Last year, when my husband and I traveled the Intracoastal Waterway, we stood on the dock at Oriental admiring the harbor. This year we met a man from New York there. He just bought property in the area, attracted, as we were, by the sense of community among local residents.

According to the local newspaper, those residents are now debating how to adapt their building regulations, written for single-family-dwellings in an age of slow growth, to accommodate an onslaught of timeshare. The minimalist approach that worked for a small, stable population is proving inadequate for the kinds of projects developers have in mind.

Some residents welcome developers. Others do not. The one thing residents agree on is they should have started thinking about the consequences of growth a lot sooner.

Likewise, during last year’s stop in Beaufort, S.C., across from Morehead City, I enjoyed seeing waterfront buildings dating back to the colonial era. This year I picked up a flyer in front of one of those buildings as workmen put in new interior walls: $1 million asking price for each apartment, boat slip included, flood insurance extra.

As much expansion as I observed on my trip, I missed the place in Brunswick County where the state wants to build a new $1 billion international port. I don’t know if that figure includes flood insurance or not.

Which brings me to my kitchen floor. Before retiring to Asheville, taking care of the kitchen floor was always last on my to-do list. I didn’t like doing it. It was such low priority I almost never got to it.

Like my kitchen floor, waterway maintenance is unappealing work.

There’s dredging, bridge repairs, equipment replacement, erosion prevention, rebuilding where erosion occurs. I sympathize with those who prefer to start a new highly-visible timeshare project rather than do repairs. I just hope someone is thinking about what maintenance is required to support growth along the waterway, not to mention the consequences of replacing wetlands with population centers.

Someone should have been thinking about those things in New Orleans before Katrina. Someone should be thinking about them now.

As for my kitchen floor, eventually I had to replace it at higher cost and more effort than taking care of it would have required. That’s the price of neglect.

On a beautiful June day, it’s hard to imagine neglect of the Waterway or overburdening it with expansion, but thinking about those things needs to be a priority. If not, we risk destroying the very landscape and communities that inspired growth in the first place. We are gambling that we will not face down the road — or in this case the waterway — tougher, costlier problems that might have been prevented if we had just started thinking about them sooner. Is a timeshare worth the hassles?

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