DUCK, N.C. -- North Carolina's Outer Banks have a colorful history -- including Blackbeard the Pirate and the Lost Colony -- but there's very little history to see along the coastline. Beach cottages, yes, and from the Wright Memorial Bridge north, neo-rustic boutiques and 3,500-square foot homes that rent for $1,500 a week or more.
But relics from a slower, gentler time? Even the U.S. Coast Guard stations are now restaurants serving blackened fish and radicchio salad to thousands of upscale tourists from Washington, Philadelphia and points north.
Which makes the demolition of the Duck Church -- as the former one-room schoolhouse in the Village of Duck is known -- all that much sadder to old-timers like Elmo Whitson who remember a decade ago when the northern Banks were home to more fishermen and foxes than builders, real estate agents and mini-vans with out-of-state license tags.
"It breaks my heart to see that building go," said Whitson, who appeared barefoot and shirtless to offer assistance to a recent visitor at the church. "My mother taught school there, and later was the first church organist." Whitson, 64, grew up and still lives in a mobile home across the main road from the white frame landmark that was purchased by the Methodist Episcopal Church South in 1926.
Unless the congregation can entice someone to take it, the Duck Church is coming down to make room for a parking lot that will accommodate a new church building twice its size.
Church leaders have gone back and forth over how much to expand and have run into some resistance from Dare County, their saga reflecting the schizophrenic attitudes toward growth found along many of this country's most scenic shorelines.
Until recently, the church pastor, the Rev. Bill Ruth, wasn't sure he was going to be able to build at all.
Last year, Ruth and other church officials decided that if they were going to build a bigger church, it would have to be on their current site. Buying new property -- at the going price of $1 million an acre -- was out of the question.
The church received permits for an addition from the county in December and began tearing out the inside of the church. Then in June, the county revoked its permission, saying the church had expanded its plans far beyond the original and needed additional parking space and greater sewerage capacity.
At about the same time, the county planning board also turned down a separate and highly controversial request to build a miniature golf course in Duck. Ruth had written a letter to the county supporting the golf course -- "They put in a liquor store and no one complained," he told a reporter -- and suddenly he wondered whether his church was being punished.
Ruth asked a church member who sits on the county planning board to intervene. New permits were issued four weeks ago after church officials acknowledged the scope of their expansion and submitted revised plans. Ruth now would like to give the former schoolhouse away rather than see it fall under the wrecker's ball.
The only congregation within several miles of the village, the Duck Church draws more people than it can handle, due partly to the northern Banks' phenomenal boom of the last five years and partly to Ruth, a 53-year-old pastor who arrived as the boom started and who has an evangelical preaching style. The church roll, which 20 years ago counted about five members, has more than doubled since 1985 to 162 members. About 140 others attend regularly and there are 600 people on the mailing list, according to Ruth.
The first attraction was a Sunday school that Ruth and his wife, Robyn, started when they arrived in Duck. Ruth then started two Sunday morning worship services and still the people came. He gave up having a choir or a pulpit to squeeze in more chairs, and still the people came. He put people in a small kitchen addition and still the people came. "Either you lock the doors or you grow," he said.
That, in a nutshell, is the dilemma that is shared by facilities throughout the northern Banks, a 20-mile spit of sand between the Atlantic Ocean and the Currituck Sound north of the Wright Memorial Bridge. Sluggishness in real estate elsewhere has passed this area by; as Dare County planning director Ray Sturza said, "The fellow building a 3,500-square-foot second home usually isn't affected by a downturn in the economy."
Duck alone, about five miles long, is now about 70 percent developed, Sturza said, with 50 percent to 60 percent of that taking place in the last five years. The population jumps in the summer from 1,800 to 8,200.
How to manage such growth and retain some of the unspoiled character of the dunes while allowing landowners to develop their property is a constant battle for Sturza and his county colleagues. Builders have proliferated here like jellyfish at the water's edge on a hot summer's day, making Sturza suspicious of what he calls "the old bait and switch routine."
"We approve plans for a three-bedroom house and when we go out to do a final inspection, somehow that three-bedroom house has five bedrooms," he said. "And the builder says, 'Oh, that one there's a family room and that other one, it's a study . . . ' "
Earlier this year, Sturza and his colleagues in the county's environmental health department thought the church was trying to pull just such a fast one. They heard the church was planning to construct a new building. Church officials had determined that the existing structure was not solid enough to support an addition, and that an addition was not going to be big enough. But according to Sturza, they hadn't told the county.
When questioned by the county, Ruth said the revised plans were not substantively different from the original. "I don't think Saint Peter would have bought that line," Sturza said.
The church fell under an unusual local zoning law called "village commercial" designed to keep projects such as miniature golf courses out of Duck. Under the law, a new enterprise must be able to show that it is designed to meet the needs of the immediate village population only.
Throughout the dispute, Ruth maintained that the church plays an important role as a community center in a "village" that is really just a string of shops and a firehouse. The fact that Duck is big enough now to need a community center is a blessing to people like Ruth and Larry Bray, the church member who played diplomat with the county planning board and one of the builders who has made money off Duck's boom.
But it is a mixed blessing, Bray said. "You know that bell in front of the church? It rang the kids to school for 25 years," he said. "That must have been a good time to be in Duck."