Rebuilding on the Oceanfront after a Storm

Rebuilding After a Storm

Hurricanes can wreak havoc on our coast. After a storm, many residents have questions about repairs and rebuilding, and when they need permits. Here are some common questions and answers:

Who needs a permit?

If the cost of repairing the damage to your house will be greater than half the physical value of the house itself (just the house – not the lot, deck or furnishings), then you are considered as having to rebuild. That means you must have a Coastal Area Management Act (CAMA) permit before you begin construction. It also means you must meet all current regulations, including setback requirements.

If the cost of repairing the damage is less than 50 percent of the house's value, you may make repairs in place. Note: Some deck repairs may be limited.

Who decides if I have to rebuild?

Your local building inspector will make that decision. In some cases, the building inspector may require that you provide an appraisal of your house and two detailed contractor's estimates of repair costs before making a decision.

If I have to rebuild, where do I get the permit?

From your CAMA local permit officer (LPO), or from the Division of Coastal Management. If you don't know whether your town has a CAMA LPO, call your town hall and ask. Or check out the Local Permit Officers list.

Am I guaranteed to get a rebuilding permit?

No. In order to get a permit, you must meet current regulations, including the oceanfront setback. A setback determination is made at the time development is proposed. If you cannot meet the setback, you cannot rebuild at this time. (You may wish to hold onto your lot because it might become buildable in the future.)

Are many people told "no"?

Unfortunately, the Division of Coastal Management sometimes does have to tell property owners that they cannot rebuild. This is not the news we want to break. For example, erosion from Hurricane Fran in 1996 was so severe in a few areas that property owners lost entire lots. Some others lost so much of their lots that there was no way they could meet setback requirements.

What's the point of a setback requirement?

Why can't I just build back on the beach?

The Coastal Resources Commission requires setbacks for three reasons:

  1. They reduce the risk to life and property. Setbacks are no guarantee against hurricanes. But they do give you some protection from normal storms and normal erosion. Building away from the beach can prolong the life of your house.

  2. Setbacks help protect the public beach. Public beaches are vital to North Carolina's $2.8 billion-a-year coastal tourism industry. One reason both tourists and residents enjoy our beaches is they can walk along them without running into a building every 200 feet.

  3. Setbacks help reduce the amount of tax money that is spent responding to disasters. A hurricane, such as Floyd in 1999, could cause more damage when development is poorly located.

Has the Coastal Resources Commission changed its setback rules for oceanfront construction?

Yes, the new oceanfront setbacks became effective on August 11, 2009, and are based on total square footage rather than use. In the new policy, the minimum setback factor remains 30 times the erosion rate for all structures less than 5,000 square feet, regardless of use. The setback factor for all structures between 5,000 and 10,000 square feet is 60 times the erosion rate and then increases incrementally with structure size, reaching a maximum setback at 90 times the erosion rate for structures 100,000 square feet and greater. Development in communities with a static line exception is subject to a minimum setback factor of 60 times the erosion rate for all development greater than 10,000 square feet total floor area. In all cases, the minimum erosion rate is considered to be two feet per year.

What's the first line of stable, natural vegetation?

The first line of stable, natural vegetation is the first place on the oceanfront where plants such as sea oats hold sand in place.

Why is the first line of stable vegetation important?

The line is important because it provides the starting point for measuring building setbacks. It is a scientifically sound method for determining oceanfront setbacks.

Why does Coastal Management need to estimate that line?

In some places, a storm can wipe out vegetation. So Coastal Management has two choices: estimate where the vegetation line will be when it returns, or wait until the plants reappear. Waiting could take years. People want to know whether they can rebuild sooner than that, so we need to estimate the line where it no longer exists.

How do you estimate the line?

In areas where vegetation still exists, we won't need to estimate; we will use the current vegetation line.

But in areas where the vegetation line is gone, Coastal Management will use recent aerial photography and adjust the vegetation line shown on those photos landward based on the distance that nearby vegetation receded.

Does everyone who has an oceanfront house have to move landward?

No. If you just lost your front deck, you don't have to move. But if the cost of repairing your home (or other structure) is greater than half of its physical value, then you are considered as having to rebuild. If you are rebuilding, you must meet current regulations, including the building setback.

What if I don't have much damage, but I want to move back? Can I?

Yes, and we encourage you to do that. A move as small as 10 feet can help protect your house from erosion. Move your house landward as far as is practical.

If I don't have to rebuild, but I want to move back anyway, do I have to meet current setbacks?

No. If the damage to your house does not require you to get a rebuilding permit, you do not have to meet setbacks -– unless your move is paid for with tax money. If you're funding the move yourself, you may go ahead and move landward.

I lost my septic tank, but my house is OK. What do I have to do?

Does the new tank have to meet the new setback?

If your septic system has been damaged in excess of 50 percent, it is no longer eligible for repair and maintenance outside of the permit process. Any work on it would be regarded as a replacement and would require a permit. In most cases, any replacement activity would have to meet all setback requirements, but a special provision allows a permit to be issued for the "relocation" of septic tank systems. Provided the Health Department finds that a septic system can meet their rules for placement on the property, a CAMA permit can be issued, provided that two conditions are met. First, the system must be relocated as far landward on the lot as feasible, and second, the relocated system may not be seaward of the house. Any septic system that was already as far landward as feasible prior to the damage does not qualify for a relocation permit.