Postcards from the Coast: Is that a septic tank on the beach?

The owner of [oceanfront] land loses title to such portions as are so worn or washed away or encroached upon by the water. Thus, the lots of the plaintiff were gradually worn away by the churning of the ocean on the shore and thereby lost. Its title was divested by  “the sledge hammering seas, the inscrutable tides of God.”  North Carolina Supreme Court (quoting Moby Dick) in Carolina Beach Fishing Pier, Inc. v. Town of Carolina Beach (1970).

A lot in Raleigh or Asheville (or most points in between)  can be expected to stay  within the lot lines on a survey, but oceanfront property  has at least one movable boundary – the Atlantic Ocean.  If beach erosion causes the mean high water line to move toward land,   the  property boundary moves   with it.    Any area  seaward of  the new   mean high water line becomes state-owned “public trust”   land.    The idea of the sovereign   — in this case the state — holding all lands under navigable waters in trust for the people  came to the American colonies   from  British law and has been adopted in some form by every coastal state.  North Carolina public trust law   recognizes   a public right to use the ocean waters and the beach strand — roughly the area between the daily low tide line and the dunes — for  swimming, navigation, fishing and recreation. As the Atlantic Ocean reshapes the North Carolina coast,   the   moving  boundary may cause  private property  to  become public trust property. There are areas of the North Carolina coast where entire rows of undeveloped lots  have disappeared into the Atlantic Ocean to become public trust lands.

Nags Head Beach Houses 2009

South Nags Head  2009 (Photo: The Virginian Pilot)

The last two sections of  Senate Bill 151 (Coastal Policy Reform Act of 2013) address the problem of damaged structures on the public beach or in public trust waters. Since flood insurance only covers damage by flooding, an oceanfront property owner has an incentive  to allow  an uninhabitable erosion-damaged  house to stay on the beach (or in the water) until it finally collapses during a storm.  In the meantime, the damaged structure  can be both an obstruction and a safety hazard. Senate Bill 151  responds to a  2012 N.C. Court of Appeals decision,  Town of Nags Head v. Cherry, Inc.,  by  giving  coastal  towns and counties  clear authority  to take legal action to remove  nuisance structures from  public trust areas.

The decision in Town of Nags Head v. Cherry, Inc. came out  of  the town’s efforts  to remove  an  oceanfront house  under a  local nuisance ordinance specifically written to deal with storm and erosion-damaged structures.  The Nags Head  ordinance requires  removal of a damaged structure  if  it creates a likelihood of injury to people or property  or if the  structure (whatever its condition)  is located in a public trust area or on public land. The house owned by Cherry, Inc.  had some structural damage, but  the more significant problem was that erosion had left the  house seaward of the high water line.  Utility connections had been cut because waves washed under the structure.  The septic tank and drain lines had been damaged and were  partially exposed on the beach, leaving the house with no sanitation system.

The Court of Appeals concluded that the Town of Nags Head did not provide enough evidence  that the house created a risk of  injury to people or property  and sent that  issue back to the  trial court for hearing. Having set aside the injury issue, the court then held that  the town could not use the nuisance ordinance to order  removal  of the house just because it obstructed the  public trust area.  The court  held  that only the State of North Carolina (through the Attorney General) can enforce public trust rights.

The most basic problem with the  Cherry, Inc.  decision is  that the court lost sight of the fact that an oceanfront  structure exists in an environment very different from a  house in Raleigh or Asheville.  The court interpreted the  Nags Head  decision to order removal rather than repair of the  house   as evidence that the town acted only because the  house obstructed  the public trust area  — and not because  the house posed an actual risk to people or property.   As the court said:   ” If the Dwelling was a nuisance because of its location in a public trust area, then the only way  to abate the nuisance would be removal of the Dwelling, while conditions such as damage to the Dwelling could likely be repaired.”

By separating the location of the  house  from the  assessment of  risk to people and property, the court overlooked the fact that a damaged structure in the surf zone of the Atlantic Ocean may not be repairable in   the usual  sense.  A house buffeted by daily tides and vulnerable to every storm is at risk of  collapse  — endangering beachgoers and leaving dangerous debris —   even if the house itself is intact. The  Cherry, Inc. house  had also lost its septic system.  Replacing a septic system  on a lot overwashed by the  tides creates  a source of contamination in an area used by the public for swimming and sunbathing. Given continuing erosion and the power of the tides, replacement of the septic system  would likely also be futile.

As a practical matter,  the Cherry, Inc. decision  would  require  the Attorney General to address nuisance conditions  on the ocean beach or in the surf zone even though a town or county already  has police power jurisdiction over the area. Senate Bill 151   would   restore local government authority to consider both condition and location in deciding  that a storm or erosion-damaged structure is  a  public nuisance that must be removed.