Cedar Island

Cedar Island, barrier island on Atlantic Ocean side of Accomack County
Cedar Island, barrier island on Atlantic Ocean side of Accomack County
Source: US Geological Survey, National Map

On the Eastern Shore, most barrier islands have been left in their natural state rather than developed into vacation resorts. Two exceptions, Chincoteague and Wallops islands, are fetch-limited barrier islands protected from direct Atlantic Ocean wave action. (On the chesapeake Bay side of Accomack County, Saxis and Tangier islands have been developed.)

On Hog Island, the community of Broadwater was abandoned in the 1930's after shoreline erosion and storms caused extensive flooding. Many of the structures in Broadwater were floated over to Willis Wharf on the mainland, where they became part of the "Little Hog Island" community. As described by the Accomack-Northampton Planning District Commission:1

Broadwater, Virginia located on Hog Island was once a village of about 200 persons. The founding of the village occurred after the Revolutionary War. In 1864, there were approximately 10 families on the island constituting 60 people.

...The island's population grew in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Wealthy sportsmen from northern cities built hunting lodges and summer residences on the island. President Cleveland came in 1892 and 1893 while he was serving his second term and some of his friends erected a clubhouse on the island.

...By the 1920s, erosion was seriously threatening the village. It was during this time that a migration of the community began. Buildings were jacked up and floated on barges to the mainland where many can be seen in Oyster and Willis Wharf. By 1930, the sea was wearing at the dune and wood buffer protecting the village. The hurricanes of the 1930s finished the demise of the community. Soon after those storms, astronomical high tides inundated the ground floors of the remaining houses. By 1941, Broadwater had been abandoned. Within 20 years, the sea was washing over the cemetery initially laid out a mile from the original shoreline. Today, Broadwater lies under the ocean.

Efforts to develop the third, Cedar Island, have demonstrated the folly of building houses on exposed barrier islands - and the challenge to traditional concepts of real estate ownership, when the property consists of sand that moves.

Twice, developers planned to sell thousands of lots and build houses on Cedar Island. In the 1950's, Richard Hall proposed developing "Ocean City." He platted 2,000 lots, and proposed a bridge connecting the island to the Eastern Shore mainland. He expected to generate private profits from the new publicly-funded access to the Eastern Shore, after the US 50 highway was extended east by a new bridge across the Chesapeake Bay from Annapolis. Hall advertised in his 1951 sales brochure:2

The new Chesapeake Bay Bridge now nearing completion brings the great cities of Washington and Baltimore within pleasant driving distance...

In the 1980's, Hall's granddaughter Elizabeth and her husband, Ben Benson, tried once again to market the island as a site for vacation homes. They owned roughly 95% of the 2,100 acres of the island, and sold $3 million worth of lots. This time the sales brochure said:3

The blue Atlantic waters break gently on miles of soft sand now available to individuals whose imagination sees the untouched beauty of a Nantucket or a Hilton Head...
Cedar Island, south of Metompkin Island, is occasionally broken into two parts by an inlet
Cedar Island, south of Metompkin Island, is occasionally broken into two parts by an inlet
Source: US Geological Survey, Metompkin Inlet 1:24,000 topographic Map

The Virginia Marine Resources Commission chose to authorize the development, under Virginia's Barrier Island Policy. The geological instability of the island was well known - in 1987, a state report noted the erosion rate was 18-21 feet per year, and 90% of the island was inundated at least once every ten years. VMRC expected to issue permits for 69 residences to be built on the island.4

A line of houses on Cedar Island could block the recycling of sand though washover, redirecting the sand to offshore shoals and causing the entire above-water portion to disappear. In 1986, the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) determined:5

Because of the sand deficient character of the landform and therefore the low elevations and washover areas, Cedar Island is not a "normal" barrier island. Barrier islands generally have a relatively large sand supply along their ocean shorelines. This sand is most often stored in the offshore bar, beach and dune zones of the island. The existence of a large sand store permits equilibrium to be achieved, even during high energy events.

The absence of such a sand store on Cedar Island does not permit an equilibrium condition to be established. For the most part, Cedar Island might more accurately be termed, an eroding marsh with a veneer of sand along its ocean edge.

...erosion rates mean that a building, septic field, or other "hard" structure placed in the dune could be in the surf zone in a few years.

...the long term cumulative adverse impacts of building on the island will be a continued narrowing of the active sand strip and an accelerated erosion rate due to the greater loss of sand offshore.

shoreline retreat at Cedar Island, 1852-1986
shoreline retreat at Cedar Island, 1852-1986
Source: Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS), Assessment Of The Development Of Cedar Island, Virginia (Appendix B)

In 1990 the Virginia Marine Resources Commission revised its regulations allowing new homes to be constructed on barrier islands. It adopted a formula to determine how far back new structures had to be located from receding shorelines. Staff had recommended requiring new structures to be located far from the shoreline, at least 50 times the 100-year recession rate. Based on that recommendation, "average" erosion would not threaten the house for the next 50 years.6

Instead, the state agency established a policy (still in effect) allowing construction closer to the water:7

The setback from the dune crest for all structures including septic systems shall be 20 times the local 100-year long-term annual shoreline recession rate. The dune crest shall be defined as the location of the highest elevation of the coastal primary sand dune, beach or washover located on the lot.

The difference between the 50-year line and the 20-year line made construction of new beachfront cottages far more attractive:8

The annual recession rate on Cedar Island is 13 feet to 16 feet... Using 13 feet as the 100-year recession rate, a house would have to be built 650 feet behind the dune under the original proposal and 260 feet under the adopted proposal.

By 1997, property owners had constructed 27 houses on the side of Cedar Island facing the ocean. Today, only two homes and the former Coast Guard station remain on the island. Other structure have fallen victim to the rapid migration of the sand, and the Virginia Marine Resources Commission is forcing former homeowners to remove the pilings that once supported structures, but are now on submerged land and creating a risk to navigation.9

structures on Cedar Island on May 8, 2004
structures on Cedar Island on May 8, 2004
structures on Cedar Island on May 8, 2004
structures on Cedar Island on October 28, 2004
Source: Virginia Department of Environmental Quality,
Human Impacts To Sensitive Natural Resources
on the Atlantic Barrier Islands on the Eastern Shore of Virginia - 2005 Report

Land ownership on the island today is confusing. The US Fish and Wildlife Service and The Nature Conservancy have purchased parcels, while others remain in private ownership. The Cedar Island Division of Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge contains over 1,400 acres in fee title and 600 acres in easements, including 1,200 acres donated in fee and another 600 acres of easements donated by the Bensons in 1986.10

submerged lots offshore from Cedar Island - taxed by Accomack County, but who really owns them?
submerged lots offshore from Cedar Island - taxed by Accomack County, but who really owns them?
Source: AccoMap - Accomack County's Online Mapping Service

The biggest legal challenge today involves dealing with submerged lots. Real estate law recognizes that shorelines change naturally. If change is gradual, then submerged areas can accumulate sediments and become upland. To ensure waterfront property owners retain access to the water, "accreted" land is simply added to theownership of adjacent property. However, if the shift in a shoreline is sudden, typically through a storm or "avulsion," then property lines may remain fixed and the old shoreline property owner may discover that someone else owns the new land, blocking access to the water.

On Cedar Island, sand has migrated and land has been lost due to accretion. Entire lots that were once waterfront property are now completely submerged. Old subdivision property lines are still used by Accomack County to bill for property taxes, even if the current lot is underwater. Legally, it is unclear if the old lot is still privately owned, or if the Commonwealth of Virginia acquired title once the the entire lot became submerged land below the low-water mark.

assessed values of submerged lots offshore from Cedar Island are appraised as worth $100 by Accomack County, while lots with actual land could be worth over $17,000
assessed values of submerged lots offshore from Cedar Island are appraised as worth $100 by Accomack County, while lots with actual land could be worth over $17,000
Source: AccoMap - Accomack County's Online Mapping Service

Taking advantage of the confusion, an attorney purchased lots on Cedar Island. He then claimed that a 140-acre sandbar had "rolled back" on top of the lot boundaries, so it was his private property. The sandbar was not suitable for a new dwelling, but did have value as a popular recreational stop-off for boaters. The Commonwealth of Virginia contended that the sandbar was state property, separate from Cedar Island until recent sand migration. Until private property land claimns are acquired by the state, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, or The Nature Conservancy, it will not be the last time the confusion over ownership leads to a lawsuit.11

at north end of Cedar Island, Metom[p]kin Inlet separates Cedar Island from Metomkin Island; on south end, Wachapreague Inlet separates cedar Island from Parramore Island
at north end of Cedar Island, Metomkin Inlet separates Cedar Island from Metom[p]kin Island;
on south end, Wachapreague Inlet separates cedar Island from Parramore Island
Source: US Geological Survey, Accomac 15X15 quadrangle map (1935)

Links

References

1. "Hazard Mitigation Plan," Eastern Shore Hazard Mitigation Planning Committee, Accomack-Northampton Planning District Commission, 2011, p.31, http://www.a-npdc.org/hazardplan.pdf (last checked August 31, 2012)
2. "The swift retreat of Cedar Island Erosion: Once touted as an unspoiled hideaway by developers, this Virginia island is disintegrating. So are the homes. Many owners are leaving them to fall into the ocean and litter the beach," Baltimore Sun, February 20, 1998, http://articles.baltimoresun.com/1998-02-20/news/1998051038_1_cedar-island-virginia-island-assateague-island (last checked August 31, 2012)
3. "The swift retreat of Cedar Island Erosion: Once touted as an unspoiled hideaway by developers, this Virginia island is disintegrating. So are the homes. Many owners are leaving them to fall into the ocean and litter the beach," Baltimore Sun, February 20, 1998, http://articles.baltimoresun.com/1998-02-20/news/1998051038_1_cedar-island-virginia-island-assateague-island; James J. Szablewicz, "Development Of Barrier Islands In Virginia," Virginia Journal of Natural Resources Law, Vol. 6, Issue 2 (Spring 1987), p.401, http://heinonline.org/HOL/LandingPage?collection=journals&handle=hein.journals/velj6&div=17&id=&page= (last checked August 31, 2012)
4. "The Commonwealth's Tidal Shoreline Erosion Policy," House Document No. 41, March 1987, p.7, http://leg2.state.va.us/dls/h&sdocs.nsf/fc86c2b17a1cf388852570f9006f1299/4ea90bcb9e408a1985255fda00753b8f/$FILE/HD41_1987.pdf (last checked August 31, 2012)
5. "Assessment Of The Development Of Cedar Island, Virginia," November 10, 1986, Appendix B of "The Commonwealth's Tidal Shoreline Erosion Policy," House Document No. 41, March 1987, http://leg2.state.va.us/dls/h&sdocs.nsf/fc86c2b17a1cf388852570f9006f1299/4ea90bcb9e408a1985255fda00753b8f/$FILE/HD41_1987.pdf (last checked August 31, 2012)
6. "VMRC Puts Stricter Rules On Barrier Islands," Newport News Daily Press, August 29, 1990, http://articles.dailypress.com/1990-08-29/news/9008290229_1_barrier-islands-cedar-island-property-owners (last checked August 31, 2012)
7. "Barrier island policy," Virginia Administrative Code 4VAC20-440-10, http://leg1.state.va.us/cgi-bin/legp504.exe?000+reg+4VAC20-440-10 (last checked August 31, 2012)
8. "VMRC Puts Stricter Rules On Barrier Islands," Newport News Daily Press, August 29, 1990
9. "On Cedar Island, homes wash away, danger remains," DelmarvaNow, August 20, 2012, http://www.delmarvanow.com/article/20120820/ESN01/120820001/On-Cedar-Island-homes-wash-away-danger-remains (last checked August 31, 2012)
10. "Transportation Observations, Considerations and Recommendations for Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge," Interagency Transportation Assistance Group (TAG), January 8-10, 2008, http://www.volpe.dot.gov/coi/ppoa/publiclands/projects/docs/chincoteague_fta.pdf; "Split VMRC To Allow More Activity On Cedar Island," Newport News Daily News, July 12, 1989, http://articles.dailypress.com/1989-07-12/news/8907120065_1_wooden-pier-vmrc-barrier-island (last checked September 2, 2012)
11. "Lawsuit may privatize lands at Cedar Island's north end," DelmarvaNow, September 1, 2012, http://www.delmarvanow.com/article/20120901/ESN01/209010302/Lawsuit-may-privatize-lands-Cedar-Island-s-north-end?odyssey=tab|topnews|text|Eastern%20Shore%20News (last checked September 2, 2012)
land ownership (fee and easement) of US Fish and Wildlife Service on Cedar Island
land ownership (fee and easement) of US Fish and Wildlife Service on Cedar Island
Source: US Fish and Wildlife Service, Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge - Cedar Island Division


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