10/30/18: 20 YEARS AGO, YOUR COLUMNIST DECRIED THE TREND IN COROLLA TOWARD BUILDING OVERSIZED LUXURY HOUSES: Remembering Yesterday as We Prepare for Tomorrow

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The wild Spanish mustangs of Corolla roam the beach north of heavily developed Corolla.

As we wind down to the special meeting on Nov. 7 about the intrusion in Southern Shores of 12-bedroom, 12-bathroom, 17-parking space houses that “sleep” 24 people—and the Town’s movers and shakers wind up their meetings, consultations, research, and other preparation about how to legally stop such high-occupancy housing—I thought I would share with you my perspective from 20 years ago about the same nuisance.

On April 27, 1998, a column that I wrote titled “In Corolla, people in big houses kick up a lot of sand,” appeared in The Virginian-Pilot, my then-employer. I was a provocative weekly op-ed columnist who tried to focus attention on the Outer Banks, my home and my passion. This column got a lot of attention.

Before I share it with you, I would like to point out that Southern Shores’ seven-bedroom restriction was in response to the rapidly accelerating trend of building so-called “McMansions” in Corolla. Southern Shores property owners were concerned that it would spread south and ruin our pristine oceanfront and family-beach atmosphere.

On Oct. 2, 2001, Mayor Paul Sutherland and four Town Council members unanimously adopted a definition of a “detached single-family dwelling,” in all of the Town’s residential districts, as “consisting of no more than seven bedrooms or septic system capacity for more than 14 people.” The minutes of their meeting reveal a clear intent by elected officials to “allow no more than 14 people in a rental house.” The ordinance they approved was #01-08-014. (We now call proposed new ordinances zoning text amendments or ZTAs.)

Unfortunately, then-Town Councilman Hal Denny, in a motion to rewrite the bedroom-limit part of  #01-08-014, also moved to strike a part of the proposed ordinance that dealt with recombination of lots. His motion passed unanimously. Had this Town Council or a later Town Council dealt with recombination, we wouldn’t have had the fiasco with nonconforming lots that emerged in recent years, resulting in the creation and development of 50-foot-wide lots.

According to the minutes, Mayor Sutherland explained that the recombination issue “needs further discussion.”

Seventeen years later, the Town Council, encouraged by the Town Planning Board, finally dealt with the problem.

As you all know, the bedroom-septic-capacity restriction operated until 2015, when the N.C. General Assembly, in its zeal to protect and profit members of the N.C. Home Builders Assn., which operates a powerful political action committee (PAC), deprived towns and counties of the power to regulate certain building “elements,” including the number and types of rooms. Senate Bill 25, which became law, was another example of overreaching by a bullying State legislature that doesn’t have respect for a separation of powers within government.

On that note—remember to vote!—I print below my column from April 1998 and hope you enjoy it:

“Just 15 years ago, Corolla, N.C., in the northern Outer Banks, was an isolated sanctuary for wild horses and waterfowl, an untouched canvas of windswept dunes that no road had yet reached.

“Today, the horses, those fenced in north of Corolla and not carted away to farms, wander into Virginia Beach; oversized, luxury homes cover the dunes from the ocean to the Currituck Sound, and this upscale North Carolina beach resort ranks among The Wall Street Journal’s top five U.S. towns for attracting second-home owners and the ‘new crop’ of younger retirees.

“Corolla just received this dubious distinction.

“I say dubious because of the crop: Financially flush baby boomers, and their older brothers and sisters, who can think of no better way to enjoy their riches than by indulging in ostentatious displays of home ownership and parking their minds in recreational pursuits.

“Golf is their favorite four-letter word.

“Of course, The Journal didn’t say this. It talked about the ‘fit and fashionable.’ About educated, active people who appreciate the finer things in life, such as a ‘good, expensive restaurant.’

“But my own take on many of the middle-aged retirees who choose the lifestyle that the newspaper touts in Corolla; Petoskey/Harbor Springs, Mich.’ Kailua-Kona, Hawaii; San Juan Island, Wash. And Destin/South Walton Beach, Fla., is that they’re witless and pampered. Take away their online stock reports and their golf clubs, and where would they be?

“Certainly not on the Currituck County Outer Banks.

“In today’s Corolla, though, ‘out of the way’ has come to mean ‘in the way.’ The once-thrilling landscape, imbued with a wild abandon that lured people there in the first place, has become a backdrop to the tiresome human drama of excessive self-indulgence, greed and material consumption.

“Only now, the houses are even bigger than ever. Exhibitionistic.

“Just what is with all this bigness? How many square feet does a person need? Bigness is huge in Corolla, home to just 300 year-round residents, but a road-clogging 25,000 people in the summertime.

“One former New York banker, who retired to Corolla four years ago at age 53, told The Journal that he and his wife had built an eight-bedroom home with an indoor racquetball court. On this narrow, 12-mile-long stretch of barrier island, it might as well be a skyscraper.

“Another new retiree, a 42-year-old investment banker from Philadelphia, who compares Corolla to the hoity-toity Hamptons on Long Island, plans to build a 5,000-square-foot home in its swanky Currituck Club development.

“I don’t begrudge people wealth or luxury. But I can’t fathom how people can usurp the grace and beauty of a diminishing resource like an oceanfront resort by erecting (or buying) massive monuments to self-importance or greed. Seaside mausoleums. The ‘do your own thing’ baby boomers have responded to the boom economy of the 1980s and ’90s by becoming poster children for bad taste and a loss of proportion.

“But they couldn’t have done it in Corolla without robber baron Bob DeGarbrielle, an omnipresent developer-builder who never saw a rolling sand dune or an ocean view he didn’t want to spoil. His multifamily houses give new meaning to gargantuan and obscene.

“Thanks to DeGabrielle, $1 million mansions line the rugged oceanfront, like so many empty shells, in a subdivision called Pine Island. (It has its own airstrip.) Cavernous, cookie-cutter hulks, usually with swimming pools, they blot the beach and are so close they seem to stumble over one another.

“Up the two-land road from Pine Island, the opulent model homes at the soundside Currituck Club look like they should have moats around them. The houses and ‘golf villas’ at this elite, planned and eventually gated golf-course community range from $200,000 to well over $1 million. Future plans for the large tract, owned by a private hunting club until it was taxed into submission, call for a 100-plus-room hotel and designer shops.

“Currituck Club has been getting raves for its parklike environment of live oaks, wetlands, marshes and dunes, through which roads, and golfers, meander. But it’s all carefully controlled—manicured—for aesthetic effect. Because, you know, nature can be messy.

“I well understand the need to claim and control some space, space that is all your own, in this overpopulated, sprawling country where many people operate on overdrive. But enough is enough. Seeing so much wealth go into the procurement of big hideaway space and big creature comforts is demoralizing. Life-distorting.

“I miss the horses.”

POST-SCRIPT: I told you I was provocative! This column was extremely popular when it appeared. It represented the first time that a local journalist remarked upon the big transformation going on in Corolla. I received a lot of fan mail, and I saw the column posted in many Outer Banks restaurants and other public gathering places. That certainly would not be the case today. The ship has sailed.

Still, I have to say, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Ann G. Sjoerdsma, 10/30/18

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