Development on the Outer Banks: A Case of Public Perception

By Peter Rowe
2015, Vol. 7 No. 09 | pg. 1/3 |

Many U.S. coastal resort areas with high amenity values have experienced a high influx of both residents (full-time and part-time) and vacationers over the last two decades. This is the case for the Outer Banks of North Carolina, a narrow barrier island jutting out some thirty miles into the Atlantic Ocean. Many popular media accounts have suggested that the Outer Banks are destined to become like much of the New Jersey and Florida coastlines, and some fear this has already begun to happen. This study evaluates differences in perceptions of development between local residents and non-local residents, in addition to differences in perception based on socio-economic factors. The study was completed using a 15 question survey, consisting of six closed format questions, eight open format questions and one rating scale question. The data collected from the study was then analyzed using the statistical software SPSS. The results of the 218 surveys collected suggests that local and non-local residents have somewhat differing viewpoints concerning how “developed” the Outer Banks are, as well as a slight difference in perceptions based on socio-economic variables such as income and education. The results also indicate that local residents tend to perceive the Outer Banks (as a whole) as more overdeveloped than tourists do, despite the fact that local residents rate each individual town making up the Outer Banks as less developed than did the tourists. Reasons for these differences, such as concerns about lack of economic opportunities and inherit place-character-i.e., the unique physiographical, cultural and historical value of the Outer Banks- are explored throughout this paper. In addition, this study suggests how the information gained from its findings can be used to better define and inform sustainable development policy.

Many coastal resort areas with high amenity values in the United States, Europe and Australia have experienced a tremendous influx of both full-time and part-time residents, as well as increasing numbers of tourists. Worldwide, tourism accounts for over nine percent of the world’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), producing over six trillion dollars annually (Green, 2010). The United States is no different, with tourism generating over one trillion dollars in the year 2010 (Select USA, 2012). In areas with particularly high amenity values, such as coastal communities, tourism can easily dominate local economies and infrastructures. The Outer Banks of North Carolina, a thin barrier island jutting some thirty miles out into the Atlantic Ocean, is just one of many coastal resort communities which tourism, and subsequent development, has engulfed.

Yet, it appears that tourism’s economic benefits may be unevenly distributed and not necessarily embraced, even if seen as a necessity, by long time populations of regions like the Outer Banks. Newcomers as well, themselves part of the tourism boom, may not necessarily welcome additional tourist development. Many popular media accounts fear that the relatively undeveloped (compared to much of the eastern US seaboard) coastal region is destined to become like many parts of the New Jersey and Florida coastlines, and some say the “New Jerseyization” of the Outer Banks is likely if proper steps are not taken to slow development (Pilkey, 1998; Riggs et al., 2012).

However, there has recently been much deliberation over whether the Outer Banks are indeed “overdeveloped.” A recent opinion article published in the Outer Banks Voice, read “I miss the old Outer Banks too, but I live here also and there is a fine line between overdevelopment and reasonable choices” (Lay, 2010). This type of comment suggests a point of view that differs from the standard opinion, especially among local geologists, that the Outer Banks are overdeveloped. Before going any further, for the purpose of this paper, it is crucial to define what is meant by overdevelopment. Though there is no one definition of the term, a more geomorphological-focused meaning of the term is put forth by the late Dirk Frankenberg, a former professor of marine science at the University of North Carolina- Chapel Hill. In his book, “The Nature of the Outer Banks: Environmental Processes, Field Sites, and Development Issues, Corolla to Ocracoke,” Frankenberg states that overdevelopment began on the Outer Banks as a result of a lack of centralized planning (Frankenberg, pg. 54).

Frankenberg suggests that this lack of centralized planning resulted in uncontrolled development, which strained the natural limits of the Outer Banks. In a sense, overdevelopment on the Outer Banks, and most coastal areas, can be thought of as the development of structures (mainly houses and resorts) as well as an increasing population, which both work in conjunction to inhibit natural coastal processes, such as overwash and longshore drift, which in essence, sustain the coastal system itself (see Frankenberg, 1995; Pilkey, 1998; Riggs et al., 2012).

This study examines the differences in perception of development within several categories including local and non-local residents, income brackets and level of attained education and how the differences in landscape perception can better inform, develop and implement sustainable development policy, specifically in a coastal context. This includes utilizing the principles of Integrated Coastal Zone Management (ICZM), which incorporates all aspects of the coastal system including but not limited to geology, geography, culture and politics in order to achieve sustainability. By using the Statistical Package for the Social Sciences (SPSS), data gathered by means of a 15 question survey was analyzed and will be discussed in detail in the following sections.

Existing Literature

The literature concerning specifically the impacts of landscape change perception on sustainable development policy is fairly limited to my knowledge. However, there are several fields, such as GIScience, Political Ecology and Landscape-change perception, which are relevant to the development and implementation of sustainable development policy. Subsequently, this review will address three different themes which have emerged from analyzing the literature and how they all work to influence the development and implementation of sustainable development policy, specifically in coastal areas. The three themes that have emerged from the literature as ways to better inform, develop and implement sustainable development policy (specifically in a coastal context) are 1) the use of landscape-change perception studies to inform policy, 2) quantifying and projecting sprawl through spatial analytics and geographic information systems (GIS) and 3) the idea that the political ecology of a region (i.e. the relationship between the given environment and the political system and other social factors) can shape local development policy, for better or for worse.

The first, and most prevalent theme that has emerged from the literature is the use of landscape-change perception studies to better inform local development policy. Work in this field has been ongoing since the mid-1970’s (Banerjee, 1977; Arthur, 1977, Appleton, 1975), and some works have emerged as landmark pieces in the scholarship. The most well-known work (judging by the number of times cited on Google Scholar in relation to other applicable works) in the field appears to be a study by Smith and Krannich (2000). In this work, Smith and Krannich study three amenity rich towns in the inter-mountain west region of the United States including one in Teton Valley, Idaho and the towns of Moab and Vernal, both located in Utah, that have experienced a surge in newcomer residents (“amenity migrants”) due to the great number of natural amenities and ecosystem services which surround these locales. Using a survey and interviews addressing issues such as environmental attitudes, land-use and community growth, the study aims to see if a difference in perceptions about land use exists between newcomers and longer-term residents.

Smith and Krannich (2000) found that although significant socio-demographic differences exist between the two groups (newcomers and longer-term residents) in categories such as income, education and religious affiliation, those differences did not translate to differences in the topics addressed in the survey and interviews. Smith and Krannich (2000) note that both newcomers and longer-term residents have “similar levels of concern” on issues such as the environment, community change and tourism development. Perhaps one of the most important items discussed in the paper (in my opinion) is the idea of a rural renaissance in the inter-mountain west.

Beginning in the latter half of the 20th century, this newfound interest in the American West sparked new development in inter-mountain states such as Colorado and Utah, and the first surge of amenity migrants headed westward. The idea of a rural renaissance is directly applicable to my research in that the Outer Banks of North Carolina (though not typically) can be thought of as a wild and rugged landscape, much like the American West. In a sense, the Outer Banks underwent its own ‘rural renaissance’ in the 1970’s with the first influx of tourists and second home buyers. Ultimately, the study by Smith and Krannich (2000) serves as a tool for better informing, developing and implementing sustainable development policy in the area by determining which issues are important to both longer-term residents and newcomers.

Additionally, there has been a concentration of work looking at landscape-change perception focused in Scandinavian resort areas, specifically Norway and Finland (Fyhri et al., 2009 and Uusitalo, 2010, respectively). The Scandinavian countries are popular locales for both vacationers and amenity migrants seeking a different lifestyle from what is typically associated with urban living. Both studies (Fyhri et al., 2009 and Uusitalo, 2010) use qualitative techniques such as picture sorting and cognitive mapping (sometimes referred to as participatory mapping) in order to gain a sense of the importance of environmental issues and amenities in order to better inform sustainable development policy. In Fyhri et al., (2009) a photo-based sorting technique was used to allow participants to sort photos of the case study area by preference and categories, thus yielding regions and amenities that should theoretically be “most important” to the visitor.

The study focuses on three main areas thought to be important in developing landscape perceptions. The three areas are: typicality (or how close to a visitors expectations of the region the area is), vegetation lushness and degree of human influence. Using these three areas to serve as guidelines for their research, Fyhri et al. (2009) determined that participants most often categorized the photos in three main categories that include ““typical coastal landscapes,” “meadows/flowers,” “forests,” and “active agricultural landscapes.” Thus, the categories can be seen as manifestation of the features “degree of human influence,” “type of vegetation,” and “prototypically” which were originally theorized by the authors. Using this information, the authors can better determine what visitors prefer and look for in amenity rich areas.

In addition to this study, Uusitalo (2010) also uses qualitative methods to determine the public perception of landscapes, more specifically, those associated with tourism development. In the study, Uusitalo uses cognitive mapping (also known as participatory mapping) techniques and assesses differences in the maps between three main groups: foreign tourists, domestic tourists and local residents. Using the maps, Uusitalo suggests that differences can be observed in the maps insofar as depiction of landmarks between groups is concerned. From the information gathered, Uusitalo posits that results of the study provide “usable place-related information for planning” (Uusitalo, pg. 329).

As for literature focused in the United States (and even more specifically on the Outer Banks of North Carolina), Hao et al. (2013) provide great insight into how property owners on the Outer Banks (mostly full-time residents) perceive and view tourism development. Using a survey distributed to over 850 participants, the study revealed that values or areas of importance in regards to sustainable development for full-time residents included length of residence, land-use and quality of infrastructure, while part-time residents or amenity visitors only focused on land use in regards to tourism development. This indicates that full-time residents have a deeper and seemingly more practical and holistic view on tourism development in comparison to part-time residents or amenity visitors.

A similar study that aims to learn how residents and non-residents respond to changes in the landscape include Ray Green’s work Coastal Towns in Transition: Local Perceptions of Landscape Change (2010). In this work, Green uses in-depth interviews and a photo-sorting technique to gauge how residents and amenity visitors feel and respond to landscape change (specifically in regards to tourism). The study concludes by noting that there were some noticeable differences in the perceptions of full-time and part-time residents, however, the same features tend to be important to both parties. This study is perhaps more useful for the methodology it introduces, rather than the results it provides. The author notes that the methodology can be applied in “other places similarly facing change that is impacting on valued town character.” (Green, pg. 129). In sum, all of the works presented in this section aim to better inform and implement development policy, which in theory should utilize, understand and internalize all aspects of the coastal zone including but not limited geology, geography, culture and politics in an effort to sustain a healthy coastal environment for the generations of the future. In addition, each of the works discussed above, whether in a coastal region or not, can all be applied to the coastal setting in that each of the works aims to balance the wants and needs of the population with the constraints and boundaries of the environment.

The second theme that has emerged from the literature is the idea that spatial analytical techniques including most notably GIS and sprawl analysis can better inform, develop and implement sustainable development policy, specifically in a coastal setting. Work in this branch of scholarship is relatively young, as the main tool used, GIS, is a relatively young technology, only being widely developed in the late 1980’s (Mapping Display and Analysis System-MIDAS- was released in 1986). Unfortunately the amount of work in this field related to the analysis of sprawl and development in coastal North Carolina, is not great, and should be a field that develops more and more as the impacts of sprawl become more evident, especially in coastal cities subject to impacts from climate change (Crawford, 2007; Crawford et al., 2013). Crawford (2007) set out to identify and describe patterns and trajectories of coastal development in Wilmington, North Carolina, the most populated city along the coast. Crawford uses GIS techniques and parcel data to develop a set of metrics for nine townships located in New Hanover County, North Carolina (the county in which Wilmington is located).

The author splits the townships into three categories-i.e., “most coastal,” “transitional,” and “least coastal” in an effort to better stratify the results. The results, based on analysis of data for the past thirty years, indicated that the parcels located near sounds (or bays) near the oceanfront were the most consistently developed. The results can be used to better inform local land management and development policy, an area of policy which is in constant need of development and evolution, especially in coastal regions. Crawford et al. (2013) also used GIS techniques to identify the effects of development on vegetation cover on the northern Outer Banks of North Carolina, specifically in the town of Carova, located near the Virginia border. In order to analyze parcel development patterns in the area, GIS data from the local county (Currituck County) was used and analyzed to show that there was a “clear acceleration in development” from 1964-2004 (Crawford et al., pg. 435).

This upward trend in development also correlates with a decrease in vegetation, which can have great impacts on the erosion rates of the island. Although the work is focused in a fairly unique place (Carova, NC), the authors submit that it can serve as a “baseline estimate for the impacts of new housing on vegetation cover…” (Crawford et al., pg. 441), which can then be applied to many regions, specifically coastal barrier islands. In essence, the technique of using GIS to analyze sprawl and the effects of development on natural systems is instrumental in developing better, more informed sustainable development policy, especially if baseline data are collected and that is followed by regular monitoring and or data analysis. By projecting trajectories in sprawl in conjunction with the impacts such sprawl can have, better planning polices can be developed to mitigate the impacts of future coastal development.

The last theme that is noteworthy in the literature is the idea that the local political ecology is influential in the development practices of a community. Campbell and Meletis (2011) provide an in-depth case study concerning the transition of a rural community in “Down East” North Carolina from a rural, farm town to a town with a newfound tourism industry. The study examines the interactions between a local grassroots community organization, “Down East Tomorrow” (DET) and the Carteret County Board of Commissioners. The simplified story is that the DET asked for a one year ban on commercial development (as the area has become increasing popular with amenity-driven tourists), in order to form a community development plan to help ensure that the character of the region does not become lost during the development process. The county board rejected the ban and proceeded with development, much to the dismay of the residents.

This case study delves deeply into the parts that the local environment, local citizens and local governments play in community development insofar as all three need to be considered during the development process. In this case, the local government was hungry for increased capital and infrastructure, no matter what the cost. Unfortunately, the local citizens were subjected to a swift change in the character and landscape of their environment, while the environment itself is being continually pushed closer to its natural limits. This study highlights the seemingly endless battle between economic and environmental interests and can serve as a case study to other communities in similar situations in an effort to better preserve and conserve local character and proceed with development in a way that benefits the local government, the local citizenry and the local environment.

The three themes presented in this literature review-1) the use of landscape-change perception studies to inform policy, 2) quantifying and projecting sprawl through spatial analytics and geographic information systems (GIS) and 3) the idea that the political ecology of a region (i.e. the relationship between the given environment and the political system) can alter and shape development patterns and the subsequent literature associated with them, all work in conjunction to help better inform, development and implement sustainable development policy. It is clear from this review that no approach stands out among the rest in terms of developing better sustainable development policy. Rather, a combination of all three must be used to ensure that the most sustainable and beneficial policy is created. A gap in the literature that seems to present itself is the fact that although there is some work focusing on coastal environments (Green, 2010; Hao, 2013; Uusitalo, 2010), there is virtually no work that aims to mesh a quantitative and qualitative approach to guide sustainable development policy, specifically in a coastal context. The goal of this work is to use both qualitative and quantitative measures to provide results that may be useful in guiding land-use patterns and future development of coastal infrastructure on the Outer Banks.

Study Area

The Outer Banks of North Carolina are a narrow strip of barrier islands approximately 170 miles long and no more than three miles wide, stretching from the Virginia border to Cape Lookout, North Carolina (Pilkey, 1998. See figure 1).

Figure 1. The Outer Banks, outlined in green

The Outer Banks

The Outer Banks were formed about 18,000 years ago, when sediment from the piedmont region of the state drained via the coastal rivers and was deposited into a barrier island formation. The Outer Banks are nothing more than a large pile of sand and are continually at the mercy of the elements.

Under the threat of hurricanes in the summer and the threat of Nor’easters year round, the Outer Banks are continually being reworked. The threat of processes such as erosion and inlet migration combine to make development along the coastline a risky venture. In addition to being unique from a geologic point of view, the Outer Banks are unique in terms of socio-economics as well. Geologically, the Outer Banks formed roughly ten thousand years ago via sediment deposition from inland rivers draining the Appalachian Mountains.

Over time, the sediment accumulated and formed what is today known as the Outer Banks. However, this landform is ephemeral and at the mercy of the natural elements, which could drastically shorten the life span of the region. In terms of socio-demographics, Eastern North Carolina has one of the highest poverty rates in the state, with Dare County (the country which comprises the Outer Banks) being no exception. The poverty rate in Dare County is 11.5 percent, below the national average of 14.5 percent, however the surrounding counties of eastern North Carolina (Hyde and Tyrell) have poverty rates nearly double the national average, 22 percent and 28 percent, respectively (USDA, 2014).

Despite such poverty surrounding the region, the Outer Banks has hundreds of “McMansions” (extremely large, beachfront homes) valued at over a million dollars, a thriving tourism industry, and neighborhoods with average home prices ranging from over half a million dollars to two hundred thousand dollars (Lay, 2014), and is characterized by a diverse assortment of tourists. Most visitors come from the Washington D.C. area and more locally, the Virginia tidewater area, however, the regions draws many tourists from Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio and even Minnesota (Outer Banks Visitors Bureau, 2006). In essence, the Outer Banks is a unique destination because of both natural origin and phenomena, as well as its desirable beaches, amenities and affordability. The combination of these factors draws a wide variety of tourists, part-time residents and full-time residents as well, all seeking different amenities provided by the Outer Banks.

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