Our Coast

Magazine cover with child facing the camera, reading "Facing the '90s"

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 17 No. 4, "Facing the '90s." Find more from that issue here.

Corolla, N.C. — Edward Ponton probably won’t remember when his house was surrounded by woods and marsh, when quail and white-tailed deer were common sights. Instead, condominiums and townhouses will be the stuff of Edward Ponton’s childhood memories. In place of deer, he will remember BMWs and Volvos.

Three-year-old Edward babbled in the back seat while his father, Buddy Ponton, guided the four-wheel-drive Isuzu down the rutted sand path. This used to be called the Old North Road, and it used to cut through a tangle of marsh on the sound side of Corolla, a once-remote fishing village on Currituck Banks. The road has been moved a bit, and much of the marsh has been cleared and the building lots marked off for the condominiums. A hole has been dug for a lake.

Ponton stopped the Isuzu. A covey of quail scrambled into the underbrush, and a deer bounded across the road. Edward watched in wide-eyed wonder at a scene that he’ll not remember and not likely see again.

“I don’t know. I guess a person is entitled to make money,” Ponton said after awhile. “And maybe if this were my land, I’d do the same thing, but it just don’t seem right.”

Ponton, a stout man, has forearms thickened and shoulders broadened by a life as a commercial fisher. He moved to Corolla 20 years ago from his native Virginia Beach. He bought two acres on Spry Creek because it offered easy access to Currituck Sound. He built his house with his own hands. He fished and he prospered.

Then he watched as people discovered Corolla. They came from up North mostly, and they built huge, expensive houses on the beach. They inched closer and closer and closer. These new condominiums are just a few hundred yards from Ponton’s house in the swamp.

“I reckon the tourists will take it all over,” said Ponton, the last commercial fisher in Corolla. “They may just run me off.”

Tourists are fairly new to the Currituck Banks, a 23-mile-long wind-swept peninsula that hangs from the Virginia cape. They’re old hat on Ocracoke Island, 100 miles away at the other end of the Outer Banks. Both places were once considered the last frontiers on the North Carolina Coast. No more.


For feature reporting in Division One (newspapers with circulation over 100,000): Second Prize to Claudia Smith Brinson, Mike Lewis, Bobby Bryant, and Debra-Lynn Bledsoe Hook of The State in Columbia, South Carolina for their careful and caring look at "Surviving Old Age.” Third Prize to Bill Graves of Raleigh’s News and Observer for his portrait of the frustration and inequity experienced by North Carolina's rural schools.

As the land between them developed, the two far-flung places of Corolla and Ocracoke didn’t look so far-flung anymore. As more shell shops and overpriced restaurants filled the empty spaces at Nags Head and Kill Devil Hills, the wildness of the Corolla dunes and the serenity of the Ocracoke beaches became marketable commodities. The problem with people, though, is that they tend to change the very things that attracted them in the first place.


$400,000 A Lot

That change may be most dramatic in Corolla and along the rest of the Currituck Banks. Bordered on the east by the Atlantic Ocean and on the west by Currituck Sound, the banks were a wilderness of marsh grass until a few years ago, where life was dictated by the sea. The handful of people who lived on the banks depended on what the ocean and sound grudgingly offered. Most North Carolinians had never heard of the place, let alone been there. Those who had usually belonged to one of the exclusive hunting clubs that made the banks their private playground for more than a century.

For one thing, getting to the Currituck Banks wasn’t easy. If they didn’t go by boat across the sound, the adventurous tourists took U.S. 158 across Wright Memorial Bridge. They took a left and passed through the hills and the thick maritime forest of Southern Shores. Then the going got rough. The public road ended north of Duck, a small village 20 miles south of Corolla that marks the beginning of the banks.

Earl F. Slick, a wealthy Winston-Salem businessman, owned the hard road for the next 11 miles. Fearing rampant development, he put up a steel gate and hired armed guards to bar the way. Unless they had a pass, casual visitors had to travel up the beach in a four-wheel-drive.

Once they got to Corolla, there wasn’t much to see or do. There was the historic Currituck Lighthouse, a post office, a general store, a church, and a couple of dozen houses scattered in the marsh. No motels, no restaurants, no beach cottages to rent.

All that has changed. After years of wrangling and lawsuits among developers, the state and the private owners agreed to give the banks to the federal government as a national park. But James Watt, then secretary of the interior, killed that idea as too expensive. After more wrangling, the state took over the private road from Slick in 1983 and extended N.C. 12 to Corolla, which then became fair game.

Land prices doubled overnight. Oceanfront lots in Duck now sell for $300,000. Before the public road, an 8,000-square-foot waterfront lot in Corolla could be had for $125,000. Now it can’t be touched for less than $400,000.

The Corolla I remembered was a place of sand dunes and marsh grass. I used to visit it while on fishing trips to Currituck Sound, stopping in the store next to the post office for a sandwich and a cold drink. I hadn’t been there in years, but I had heard about the development since the road opened. The reports didn’t prepare me for what I saw as I headed up N.C. 12.

Where trees draped in Spanish moss once grew over the road in Duck, houses and stores now sit in developments with names like Sea Hawk and Osprey, Carolina Dunes and Snow Geese Dunes. Earl Slick’s former land, which now is a sanctuary owned by the National Audubon Society, offers a glimpse of what the banks used to be. Then it starts again. Huge, two- and three-story houses that sell for more than $500,000 face the ocean on Dolphin Street and Bonito Street, Mallard Arch and Canvasback Court.

The license plates on the cars in the driveways tell where the money is coming from: Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Jersey, New York. That’s where the developers are spending their advertising dollars, Rick Willis told me later. He is the vice-president of Outer Banks Ventures, Inc., which is developing a section of Corolla. “The whole emphasis has been on upscale developments,” he said. “We get very little business in North Carolina. Those people are inclined to go to the Southern beaches.”

To be sure, these are not typical beach cottages. Most are built on large tracts. The houses generally are spaced apart and, in the nicer developments, built in contour with the terrain.

The problem is the terrain can’t be counted on to stay put. The sand dunes that surround the houses are moving, pushed across the island by the wind. The history of Currituck Banks offers many examples of homes and entire settlements that had to be abandoned to the dunes. The modem inhabitants have resorted to building sand fences to slow the advance, and then using bulldozers to shovel what breaks through the defenses off the roads and driveways.

To the Northerners, the homes are just investments, said Jerry Olds, chair of the Currituck County Board of Commissioners. “Yankees come, spend their money, and go home,” Olds said. “Damn Yankees come and stay. We don’t have many damn Yankees.”


Big Bucks in Duck

What the county does have, Olds said, was the second-fastest growth rate in the state last year. Its permanent population has more than doubled since 1970, and development may be outpacing the county’s ability to provide trash pickup, police protection, and water and sewer services. The county borders Virginia, and its northern section is getting the spillover from the booming Norfolk area, Olds said. Its southern reaches are feeling it from Dare County, which is the only North Carolina county that’s growing faster than Currituck.

To be sure, the county has made good money off all this growth, Olds said. A land-transfer tax entitles the county to one percent of all real-estate transactions. That brought in $100,000 in July, he said. “That’s not bad for a county with 14,000 people,” Olds said. “We’re making enough, along with our portion of the sales tax, to build our schools. But what I am concerned about is that we monitor closely our water resources. The county is experiencing so much growth that we’re looking at a moratorium to stop it. We need to step back and take a look at it.”

Anything that would slow the traffic a bit would please Levin Scarborough. At 89, he is the oldest resident of Duck. A native of

“Just a Ditch"

The North Carolina coast will never look like New Jersey’s because enlightened state laws prohibit the building of seawalls and other “hardened structures” on the beach, and the Cape Hatteras and Cape Lookout national seashores have preserved some of the wildness of the barrier islands.

Though much has been saved, there still is a great deal to lose. A little island in Onslow County would have been lost to the bulldozers if not for a little woman with a lot of fight.

Lena Ritter steered her small, beat-up wooden boat through Stump Sound, a narrow body of water that separates Topsail Island from the rest of Onslow County. Compared to the big sounds and rivers on the northern coast, Stump isn’t much. “It’s just a ditch compared to those places,” Ritter said, as the boat chugged through the water.

Stump Sound is home, though. Ritter, 52, grew up nearby, in a small community that everyone calls Tar Landing. She has worked these waters all her life, clamming in the summer and oystering in the winter. She wasn’t about to stand by and watch her sound be polluted.

We passed Strawberry Island, where as a girl Ritter helped her daddy pick oysters. Pollution from a sewage plant wiped out the bed four years ago. Then came Deer Nose Island, nothing more than a spot of spartina grass just above the high-tide mark, and then Bullet Island. Finally, Permuda Island.

Ritter beached the boat and we got out. Permuda is about a mile long and no more than 450 feet wide. The remnant of an old barrier-island chain, the island is uninhabited and thickly forested with live oaks and bay trees and wax myrtles. If not for Ritter, the trees would have been replaced by houses, parking lots, and high-rise condominiums. If not for her, it would have looked pretty much like Topsail Island, whose tall buildings could be seen clearly in the distance.

Ritter read about the developers’ plans for Permuda in a newspaper in December 1982. No problem, she thought. “I was naive enough to think that all I had to do was go to the planning board and county commissioners, and that everything would be all right,” Rittersaidaswe stood under a 200-year-old live oak. “We elect these people and pay these people, and I thought they’ll do the right thing. Boy, did I learn.”

State and county officials learned that Ritter isn’t easily put off. She organized her neighbors, started petition drives. It turned into a five-year struggle that included trips to Raleigh and phone calls and meetings. This was all new to her. Just getting dressed up was new. She usually wears jeans and a sweatshirt. Dresses? She didn’t own one. Pantsuits had to do.

All that traveling around and letter-writing kept her off the water, though. So she had to take a job with a pie company in Holly Ridge, making boxes on the graveyard shift.

“There’s no way they could have developed the island without ruining the sound,” she said. “It was very discouraging at times, but that’s what kept me going. It wasn’t cheap, and it wasn't easy.”

But it paid off. The developers dropped their plans after the state Division of Coastal Management refused to give them a permit. The battle finally was won last year when the state bought the island as a nature sanctuary.

For her efforts, Ritter received a Nancy Susan Reynolds Award from the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation. The real reward, though, can’t be measured in dollars or inscribed on plaques.

We were in the shallow water, kneeling on the bottom and working up clams with our hands. Later, she diced them up and added carrots and potatoes and tomatoes. It was the finest clam chowder.

“I plan to use this water as long as I’m able to climb in and out of the boat,” Ritter said, as she placed another clam in the wire basket that floated in an innertube beside her. “ But in 10 or 20 years if I can’t, then your daughteror anyone else should be able to come out here and catch some clams or do whatever.”


the community, Scarborough lives in a red-and-white house he built off the main road in 1954. His was one of the few houses then.

He now has lots of neighbors. Next door is Duck Island Shoppes, where I browsed among shelves of beach towels and bathing suits, expensive watercolors and cheap knickknacks. A sign across the road announces the imminent arrival of The Atrium, a tinted-glass and shiny-metal building that will house 25 offices and retail shops.

The boom in Duck started about 10 years ago, Scarborough said, as we sat in his living room. “When it started, it went fast,” he said. “The traffic increases a third every year.”

Back before people knew about Duck, Scarborough could sit in one of the rockers in his front porch and watch two or three cars go by an hour. He’d wave to the drivers, since he knew them all. During a weekend in the summer, he now counts as many as 1,000 cars an hour. “It’s terrible, and they go through here all night,” he said, shaking his head.

When he was growing up, Duck consisted of two stores, a post office, and a few homes. None of those houses were on the beach.

“You could have bought all the land you wanted on the beach for $3 an acre,” he said. “Now you couldn’t buy it for $3 a bushel, I reckon. We didn’t ever think that land would be worth anything on the beach. You couldn’t have gotten me to pay taxes on it if you had given it to me. I guess if I were more farsighted, I could be a billionaire.”

As it is, he’s probably sitting on a minor fortune. One of Scarborough’s sons has sold his house and moved to the mainland. Scarborough has been offered good money for his. “I’ve got too old,” he said. “I hate to pull up stakes and move on, but I might have to if they keep putting the squeeze on me.”

The new bridge across Currituck Sound might make the squeeze intolerable. The state is studying the possibility of building a bridge north of Wright Memorial Bridge to connect the mainland with the banks between Duck and Corolla. It would offer people another avenue of escape in case of a hurricane, but it also would cut the driving time to the banks from the north by an hour.

Buddy Ponton takes the philosophical approach: any new bridge will bring more people and may hasten his departure. “But if the state is going to allow this kind of development to happen, then they owe it to those people to give them a way to escape,” he said as we sat around the dinner table. Big blue crabs that Ponton had caught that morning sat steaming in a pot.

“We’re just seeing the tip of the iceberg if interest rates don’t go up,” Ponton said. “There’s big bucks on the water. I may be forced out because I may not be able to pay the taxes.”


Pink-Skinned Tourists

Charlie Williams knows all about taxes. Williams, 75, a retired commercial fisherman and fishing guide, lives in a rambling old house away from the din of Ocracoke Village. It is full of old black-and-white photographs of the people who came to fish with Williams.

Fishing provided a good living, Williams said. He bought his house and the two cottages he now rents with the thousands of pounds of trout, flounder, and mackerel that he caught and sold for pennies a pound. At those prices today, he’d be hard pressed to catch enough fish to pay his tax bill, which last year went from $400 to $1,370.

“That’s ridiculous, isn’t it? They got me valued at $180,000,” Williams said. “It’s got so bad, the natives can’t live here.” Property taxes rose 300 percent on Ocracoke after a revaluation last year. It’s the price the 700 full-time residents pay for living on what is the most valuable land in Hyde County.

The ultimate price will be higher, Alton Ballance knows, and it can’t be measured in mere dollars. “It’s the Martha’s Vineyardization of Ocracoke,” said Ballance, an Ocracoke native who teaches in the public school on the island and is a Hyde County commissioner. “At the root of all this is the transformation of a small fishing village. At what point do we start to lose our character, lose whatever it is that makes us attractive? That’s the real danger.”

Ocracoke, the southernmost dot of inhabited land on the Outer Banks, once was the end of the line, an isolated stretch of sand 15 miles out in Pamlico Sound. It attracted only the hardiest settlers, who made their living on the water and depended only on each other.

The rest of the world gradually found out about the place, bit by bit, ferry load by ferry load. They came to unwind and to be soothed by the sea. They went home and told their friends.

And so it went . . . and went . . . and went.

Now the island is awash in a sea of change.

The travel stories and the state’s publicity brochures still gush about the “quaint fishing village” of Ocracoke, but it’s becoming increasingly hard to find, especially in July as the pink-skinned tourists in shorts push their strollers in and out of the gift shops, and the RVs belch black smoke and crowd the narrow roads.

Tourists poured off the three ferries that connect Ocracoke to the rest of the state in record numbers this summer. Merchants reported that this was their busiest season, and the motels and restaurants that ring the picturesque harbor, Silver Lake, stayed full.

Lanie Boyette-Wynn, who grew up on the island, is in her fifties and can remember when there were no paved roads and getting to and from the island required a long trip on a mail boat. She poured coffee for me in the office of her motel and cautioned about making too much of recent changes on the island.

People complained in the 1940s and ’50s about Ocracoke changing, Boyette-Wynn said. “So everything has to be put into perspective. Yes, we’re changing, but the whole world is changing. I hope we never change enough that what makes us special is lost. There’s still a great deal of difference between Ocracoke and Myrtle Beach or Hatteras. It’s still laid back and barefooted. When it’s time to go crabbing, you drop everything and go.”


An Uncaged Beast

Boyette-Wynn’s words came back to me as I walked down Howard Street late one afternoon. There’s still something different about Ocracoke. The narrow, sand roads wind through ancient live oaks and yaupon trees. Most of the people who live in the small houses along it can trace their roots back to the island’s first settlers in the 18th century. Many of those settlers are buried in family cemeteries that dot the woods.

The beaches also are different. There are still long, deserted stretches of them, even on a summer day. Most of the 16-mile-long island is included in the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, which affords protection from motels, restaurants, and ice-cream stands.

Which puts all the development pressure on the village of Ocracoke, 775 acres on the south end of the island that aren’t in the national seashore.

That worries Ballance. Development in moderate doses is healthy, but once uncaged, the beast, he knows, is hard to manage. “Sometimes I think we don’t have as much control as we’d like,” he said. “Development means money to the people here, but when does it make us victims? How do you say enough?”

Rampant development tends to run over people like Edgar Howard, who sat in a yellow rocking chair on the porch of Ballance’s bed-and-breakfast. He cradled the long-neck Vega banjo that he bought in New York City many years ago for $200. Howard, who will turn 84 soon, left Ocracoke when he was 11, went North, and began playing in ragtime bands. He played for Gene Autry, and he played in Las Vegas. In the summers, he’d come home and play for his relatives and friends in a band he named The Harmaniacs.

On a steamy morning, he played for Amy Glass’ tape recorder. Glass spent the summer sitting on porches, talking to the old-timers of the Outer Banks. It’s part of an oral-history project by the National Park Service, which sees it as a way to preserve those simpler times.

“I got me something like that,” Howard said of the recorder. “I listen to Al Jolson on it.”

For the next hour, Howard brought back a little of the days of Jolson. With Alton’s uncle Morris Ballance on guitar, Howard went through bits of his favorite songs: “Toot, Toot, Tootsie Goodbye,” “Dixie,” “Listen to the Mockingbird,” “Bye-Bye Blues,” “Memories.”

An oleander bush bloomed white in the yard, and the dew on the dark-red fruits of the crab-apple tree behind Howard glistened in the sunlight. The surrounding trees almost filtered out the noise and bustle of the modem Ocracoke.

With some prodding from Morris Ballance, Howard came up with a ditty called “Patty’s Hollow.” Howard and his brother wrote the song about Ocracoke long ago.

The refrain goes like this:

It’s the choicest spot in town.

No one seems to frown when they holler,

Let's go to the hollow.

It apparently was a place of good whiskey and better women, and it now exists only in the failing memory of one old man and on Amy Glass’ tape recorder.