The panoramic ocean view, the just-caught seafood, the fishing, the vibrant music scene, and wide sandy beaches beckon visitors to the Outer Banks like a siren song. Some who come for a visit decide they never want to leave.
But living in a beach community is not always a day at the beach: Specifically, when it comes to finding ample and affordable housing for many who rely on seasonal employment and have to make do during the off-season.
The issue landed at the door of Donna Creef, planning director for the County of Dare.
“People go to the chamber and say, ‘we need to do something about housing.’ The chamber comes to us and says it’s the zoning. We say, ‘OK, we can change the zoning, but we also need to identify other alternatives.”
No one is better qualified to address the issues of housing and zoning in the area than Creef, a lifelong resident of eastern North Carolina and a long-time public servant.
“This issue didn’t develop overnight,” she acknowledges. “I’ve worked here for 30 years, and we’ve talked about housing for 30 years. I am very familiar with our regulations, since I had a hand in writing them. I knew intuitively which areas were ripe for going in and amending, so I was the person tasked with writing it.”
The issue in a nutshell is that housing here is expensive, or simply not available. This is due to the number of short-term rentals, second homes and restrictive zoning ordinances that have worked to prevent expansion of the housing inventory. And it’s not just an issue for temporary and service industry workers.
“We have had human resource director from the local hospital saying they have seen doctors and higher paid health care workers coming in and accepting jobs, only to turn down the offer once they study the cost and availability of housing compared to where they were. It’s not just affecting service industry people.”
Creef gathered input from all county elected officials and the board, as well as representative from the business and residential communities, local planning directors, and contractors. They identified the potential hurdles that were baked into local zoning regulations.
Creef reviewed all the county zoning regulations and identified alternatives appropriate to help get housing construction started. Some of the amendments enacted addressed:
- Adjusting the minimum lot size
- Adjusting multifamily dwelling densities
- Expanding the areas that allow accessory dwelling units
- Considering cluster family developments
“What we’ve realized is we just need to increase the number of housing units,” she says. “If the supply increases, demand will adjust accordingly. It’s a basic premise of economics.”
What makes Creef’s task tricky is that the solution goes beyond simply encouraging growth in quantity of housing. It is important to preserve the esthetics that make the Outer Banks such a desirable destination in the first place. This means avoiding construction that is incompatible with the tenancy of houses and that doesn’t create excess traffic, for example.
“People have invested in their homes and want their neighborhoods to continue to appear to be a residential neighborhood,” she notes. “In year-round residential neighborhoods, you might have kids working in restaurants coming home when we are going to bed. These are the types of issues we hear when we try to tinker with residential zoning. We are sensitive to this, and we try to balance all the needs.”
Another complicating factor in the County of Dare is that 80% of the land is under public ownership, including the federal and state governments and nonprofit organizations. That doesn’t leave much wiggle room for private development.
“That land is simply not available for development,” says Creef. “We have miles and miles of beaches owned by the Department of the Interior. That is a wonderful thing because that is what makes us so attractive as a vacation destination. But it complicates it because we have competition for that other 20% for use for vacation homes and tending to the needs of the local community and the people that need to live here and work here. There are a lot of moving parts.”
The first round of amendments was adopted last October, and the second round is on track. The county has already been able to begin to see the results. A few “cluster homes” are being developed, and Creef is busy tweaking the amendments.
For her efforts to help alleviate the housing crunch, Creef was named one of the 2019 Woman of the Outer Banks by the Outer Banks Chamber of Commerce. But she deflects credit to the Board of Commissioners and others who continue to work on the issue.
“Luckily, the folks at the Chamber and on my Board of Commissioners are in tune with the issue, receptive to addressing it and committed to working it. It’s not a quick fix. We take it one step at a time and see what works. But we must not be afraid to adjust our ordinances in order to get it right. I think that is the direction we are moving.”
“Our government is not intractable. It takes a community. We are seeing there are no people here to fill the business need for workers at peak season. That is just an indication of how widespread the problem is. How could a community not do this?”