The eroding values of waterfront real estate

For decades, affluent home buyers in search of coastal vacation property gravitated to the ocean, where real estate prices were higher but returns on investment were reliably strong. But rising sea levels are increasingly changing the way people thin
For decades, affluent home buyers in search of coastal vacation property gravitated to the ocean, where real estate prices were higher but returns on investment were reliably strong. But rising sea levels are increasingly changing the way people think about waterfront real estate.PHOTO: REUTERS

US homes are disappearing into the ocean as rising tides fuel record levels of erosion

LOS ANGELES • Under normal circumstances, the six-bedroom oceanfront home on Oregon's northern coast would be a sought-after haven for summer beachgoers. With a hot tub and a swimming pool, the Tuscan-style residence spans 307 sq m and includes sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean.

But these aren't normal circumstances along the Oregon coast.

The home is in the town of Rockaway Beach, where large swathes of beachfront have been eaten away in recent years as rising tides fuel record levels of erosion.

When it was built in 2009, at a cost of more than US$1 million, the property sat nearly 9m from the ocean. Today, it is perched perilously just 2.4m from the edge of the dune, and local officials predict it will come tumbling down before the end of the year.

The home's owner is spending much of the summer - and tens of thousands of dollars - trying to stave off its demise: driving dump-truck loads of sand onto the beach in front of the residence, while seeking permission from state officials to install permanent rock-and-boulder barriers to protect the bluff from the onslaught of waves.

"Its foundation is already starting to slip," said the Oregon Shores Conservation Coalition's executive director Phillip Johnson, adding that Rockaway Beach has lost about 150m of beach in recent years. "We're going to see more of this kind of thing happen to coastal housing, and not just in Oregon."

RESISTING NATURE

Erosion doesn't destroy the beach or the environment. The problem comes when you build on them and you don't want to move away. ''

GEOLOGIST ROBERT YOUNG, from Western Carolina University.

For decades, affluent home buyers in search of coastal vacation property gravitated to the ocean, where real estate prices were higher but returns on investment were reliably strong. But this summer - as rising sea levels increasingly change the way people think about waterfront real estate - wealthy enclaves on both coasts are fighting the same desperate battle against erosion and rising tides.

From New England to California, some of America's most prized waterfront real estate is disappearing into the ocean, despite deep-pocketed home owners spending enormous sums to put off the pain of losing their homes.

"I plan to stay and fight as long as I can," Ms Justine Kenney says, adding that despite the dire warnings she is not about to retreat.

Her 1940s cedar shingle home on the Siasconset coast in Nantucket, Massachusetts, is one of several that have been battered by rising tides in recent years, ravaging the bluff beneath the coast and edging homes closer to the sea.

Some home owners have spent millions of dollars moving their homes back on their lots, while others have moved elsewhere on the island as the ocean has advanced.

"I'm not even thinking about giving up my house," said Ms Kenney, a retired stockbroker whose property has lost 1.5m to 3m of coastline since March. "At least, not yet."

In Malibu, California, one of the priciest beachfront areas in the country, experts estimate that some slices of that wealthy community have lost up to 15.2m of beach over the past decade. Local officials there are planning to spend US$55 million (S$75.8 million) to US$60 million every 10 years - at taxpayers' expense - hauling in many tonnes of sand to restore the disappearing beach and dunes in front of a pricey mile of real estate that includes more than 100 homes.

Waterfront property in Nags Head, North Carolina, on the Outer Banks, can soar well above a million dollars. The beach there has been eroding at about 1.8m per year, according to the North Carolina Division of Coastal Management. That is more than four times the median rate for North Carolina's coast.

The town is spending US$48 million - and raising taxes for property owners - dredging sand from the sea floor and pumping it onto beaches.

"These beaches are doomed," says Dr Orrin Pilkey, a professor of geology at Duke University. "The buildings are doomed, too."

"Homes on the beach are no match for this kind of erosion," says Mr Josh Posner, president of the Siasconset Beach Preservation Fund. "It's a losing battle, no matter how much money you have."

Beach erosion is nothing new, of course. Shorelines have been shifting for thousands of years.

But rising sea levels are exacerbating the problem, with most of the US ocean coastline eroding faster than ever, geologists say. And that could spark a crisis in wealthier coastal housing markets.

A study by the Union of Concerned Scientists says that more than 300,000 homes in the United States are likely to be affected by chronic flooding within the next 30 years because of rising sea levels. The study suggests properties valued at nearly US$140 billion across the country are at risk from the effects of the rise.

A growing chorus of scientists argues that the only permanent solution is relocation. "Erosion doesn't destroy the beach or the environment," says Dr Robert Young, a geologist at Western Carolina University. "The problem comes when you build on them and you don't want to move away."

WASHINGTON POST

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 16, 2018, with the headline 'The eroding values of waterfront real estate'. Print Edition | Subscribe