SURF CITY — After town council members passed an amendment allowing for the construction of elevated decks on unbuildable oceanfront lots on Wednesday evening, a group of Surf City homeowners questioned how the structures could impact the towns’ dune systems.
The motion passed three-to-one, although the councilmember who voted in opposition, Nelva Albury, expressed favor for the amendment moments after the vote.
“I still say, anybody who owns a lot on that beach or on a canal street or anywhere else – if you can’t build a house on it, dern it, let them build a megadeck,” Albury said.
“Everybody deserves to have a crossover to the beach,” added councilmember Teresa Batts. “If CAMA will approve it, then we should approve it.”
Batts was referring to the Coastal Area Management Act, which is enforced by the state’s Division of Coastal Management (DCM). According to Sarah Young, a spokesperson for the division, the DCM “has issued minor permits for these structures,” referring to two Surf City projects that met rules established by the Coastal Resources Commission (CRC).
According to Young, the CRC rules restrict oceanfront development through setbacks, size limitations, and other land use restrictions, but allow for certain “limited development activities” as exceptions, including beach accessways, parking spaces, and elevated decks.
“Any additional restrictions on size, use, or other aspects of these structures beyond the standards found in the CRC’s rules may be regulated by local governments,” Young said.
Surf City’s new ordinance sets size limits – 500 square feet for uncovered decks, 200 square feet for gazebos – are both in line with the CRC limits.
What are ‘megadecks’?
The projects Young referred to are two elevated decks at the intersection of North Shore Drive and Craven Avenue, owned by a man named Bill Pelon who lives in a house across the street.
He explained how the first complaint came when a neighbor didn’t want their ocean view blocked by the raised structure, followed by litigation that delayed the decks’ construction. Now, after their completion in November, Pelon says he owns the only megadecks in Surf City.
“CAMA has always allowed for them, still allows for them. The town is the only one that has had to make some adjustment,” Pelon said.
During the meeting, councilmembers and town officials expressed skepticism of the term ‘megadeck’, wondering where the term originated and frustrated that it implied a structure large in scale.
“I don’t know where we got this word ‘megadeck’,” councilmember Donald Helms said.
“Nowhere in this ordinance does it speak of megadecks. This ordinance pertains to unbuildable lots on the oceanfront. The term megadeck was created by Mr. Norton,” Town Manager Ashley Loftis said in an email Thursday, referring to a vocal critic of the structures, Marcus Norton.
But on one of Pelon’s new decks, a sign reads “Megadeck for sale”, and Horton’s wife Janet said that when they first bought the lot of their current home, it was advertised as offering the ablility to build a megadeck.
‘Savior of the island’
At Wednesday’s meeting, Norton led a group of North Shore Drive homeowners who argued that the new structures may negatively impact the beach’s sand dune system – one left heavily damaged and vulnerable by Hurricane Florence.
Norton believes the town’s amendment strays from its goal of collaborating with nearby beach governments to secure state and federal funding for beach renourishment projects — a goal that he said has been one of the town’s main strengths up until now.
When later asked if the megadecks could hamper the town’s efforts to secure such funding, Young replied, “Not in any way that [the DCM] is aware of.”
For North Shore Drive resident Pam Phipps, it is more of an issue of the unknown damage these megadecks could cause to the dune system.
“Mr. Pelon’s decks are very attractive decks, but I hesitate to understand what devastating affects they will have on the dunes,” Phipps said. “The decks aren’t embraced by a lot of people in my area.”
She said she was disturbed by the allowance of a structure that has many of the same elements of a beach house — pilings, stairs, a roof, electricity, water — but lacking walls.
“But you’re not allowed to build a house there,” Phipps said. “The dunes are the big savior of the island, it seems to me. We can’t always depend on them, but if we purposely make them vulnerable, it’s our fault as residents here,” Pam Phipps said.
Pelon objects to the notion that his megadecks would harm the sand dunes, pointing to the support he has obtained from the DCM.
“There’s no agency more concerned about our dunes and vegetation, no one better at managing the beach,” Pelon said. “CAMA allows you to go five feet on the pilings. The houses go about 12 to 16 feet into the dune. These have absolutely no harm.”
Neighbor Jo Ann Sams, who said she has been coming to Surf City for 65 years, bought a house next to unbuildable lots so she could have an ocean view.
“Everybody’s talking about these megadecks, and how they should be able to build them, but we bought our house because there were unbuildable lots in front of it,” Sams said. “I really hope the day doesn’t come that they’re put up, because if they are, there’ll be a for-sale sign in my yard.”
Mark Darrough can be reached at Mark@Localvoicemedia.com