While vacationers throng the dunes and breakers of nearby Kitty Hawk and Nags Head south of here this summer, homeowners, developers, environmentalists and legislators from two states are locked in a complex struggle for this tiny Outer Banks village, a hamlet so small it doesn't even have a public road.
The struggle is uniquely appropriate to this remote shore, a world of wind-whipped beauty and thundering surf and a history studded with pirates and plunderers and eccentric millionaires, one of whom left a copper-roofed replica of an English manor house here among the sand fiddlers and terns.
But it's more than a local battle: it has reached, at times, all the way to the White House. At stake are millions of dollars in development rights, some profound legal questions about public access in both Virginia and North Carolina, and the future of the entire Currituck Banks--a 23-mile strip of land running from the Virginia state line to Duck, N.C. that is one of the last and largest stretches of undeveloped seashore on the Atlantic Coast.
It is also a struggle over growth: how much and what kind to permit here where hurricanes sweep ashore, ducks and geese darken the sky with their flocks and the land is so unstable it migrates.
Perched just south of Virginia on a lonely, mile-wide sand spit between the Atlantic Ocean and Currituck Sound, Corolla has never been an easy place to reach or to live in. Until the mid-1970s its century-old, 158-foot-tall lighthouse and handful of pine-shaded frame houses lay amid sand paths 20 miles or more from the nearest road. Mail for its closet-sized post office, open since 1895, came for years by sailboat across Currituck Sound.
Corolla's residents, now about 50 families, sacrificed accessibility for autonomy. Now they have neither. For the past few years their world has been shrinking, hemmed in by a weird mix of contradictory political forces that has effectively shut their town and 20 miles of wild public-owned beach to all but a handful of developers and their wealthy customers.
The developers have planned enough vacation homes on Currituck Banks to house more than three times the 11,000 population of the entire county. But lifelong Corolla residents can't get home these days without being stopped by armed guards. Says Shirley Austin, the town postal clerk: "It's like traveling from East to West Berlin."
The noose around Corolla tightened slowly. During the 1960s, when the paved road from Nags Head stretched only as far north as Duck, Corollans had to bump and slide to it for 20 miles by four-wheel drive vehicle, along the faint sand "pole road" beneath the power lines.
Most drove north for supplies instead, up the beach to Sandbridge in Virginia, along a route often impassable, particularly at high tide.
As urbanization turned once rustic Virginia Beach more and more to concrete and neon, however, and fried chicken stands began to clutter the highway at Nags Head and Kitty Hawk, more and more visitors ventured here for qualities they once found there.
Most started from Sandbridge. Since 1938, the federal government has protected 4.6 miles of beachfront just south of Sandbridge and the fresh water wetlands to the west as the Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge. South of that, for 5.6 miles to the North Carolina border, the beach was similarly protected, under acquisition by the state of Virginia for False Cape State Park.
South of the state line for about 25 miles, however, a dozen competing developers, backed by dozens of wealthy investors in and around Hampton Roads, had purchased 95 percent of the Currituck County coastline during the 1960s and were reselling it as roadless subdivisions accessible by "sand freeway" from Sandbridge.
Their hard-sell advertising drew dune buggies and four-wheel drive carryalls down the beach by the hundreds. Between 1961 and 1971 the number of vehicles crossing the Back Bay refuge skyrocketed from 10,000 to 348,000 a year.
Concerned about the effect of such traffic on the refuge wildlife, the Interior Department in 1973 closed the refuge beach to motor traffic by anyone but people who already owned property to the south.
The developers promptly filed suit to halt the closure.
In a scathing opinion two years later, U.S. District Judge John Mackenzie ruled against the developers, declaring it "utter folly to believe that 30 miles of beach can be divided into 50- and 75-foot lots to be populated by any number of cottages, and that passage to such an area can be accomplished along 20 feet of hard sand fronting just behind the breakers of the Atlantic Ocean."
The developers' suit, he said, had served "no useful purpose except to continue the sale of lots . . . and build . . . pressure to politically force a road through the Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge and the adjacent Virginia False Cape State Park."
"Such a course," Mackenzie said, "would seem a rape of these facilities . . . "
The complications of development, however, were just beginning. During the mid-70s, at the south end of Currituck Banks, the Coastland Corp. of Virginia Beach closed off the "pole road" below its property at Ocean Sands, set up a guard house and gate and effectively choked off all northbound traffic at the Currituck County line.
Though recognized as a state road for nearly a century, designated N.C.-1152 on state maps and maintained by the state since the 1930s, the road was suddenly private property. A state attorney general's opinion declared that the shifting terrain, with its migrating dunes and storm overwashes, had left no clearly established public right of way. A court case later upheld that opinion.
Corolla and the Currituck Banks have been unreachable by the general public ever since. Guards at the Ocean Sands gatehouse warn visitors that even walking on the beach here is forbidden without permission, though by law the state owns the shore from the dune line to the water's edge.
Developers and homeowners to the north have had to pay Ocean Sands for the right to drive to their property, a fee Corolla postmaster Norris Austin said amounted in his case to the purchase of an $11,000 lot.
While that was supposed to guarantee him perpetual access from the south, Austin said, last year Coastland for two weeks arbitrarily halted deliveries to his store in Corolla.
Other residents have their own stories, including being shot at or otherwise harassed.
"Schoolchildren who live here have to be driven 20 miles to catch the school bus," says Barry Nelms, a Currituck County commissioner. "School buses don't go on private roads."
Albert S. Killingsworth Jr., vice president and sales manager of Ocean Sands, acknowledges there have been "problems and misunderstandings" since the gate was erected, but he said most of those who own property north of the gate have become reconciled to it and now share in the cost of "security."
"If you took that gate away, every kid with a dune buggy and a surfboard would be all over this area," he said. "The homeowners know that. They don't want another Rehoboth or Ocean City here. They recognize that the gate protects them and makes their land more exclusive and thus more valuable."
Oceanfront lots at Ocean Sands, he said, sell for $95,000.
Coastland acquired the 600 acres for Ocean Sands from Walter Davis of Elizabeth City, N.C. and Midland, Texas, a former president of Occidental Petroleum and one of two retired millionaires who remain powerful forces in the fate of the Currituck Banks.
The other is Earl Slick, a Winston-Salem financier, who owns land just south of Ocean Sands and granted Coastland an easement through it on condition the road be private.
As recorded, the easement stipulates that longtime Corolla residents are to have free passage. "But they never told us that," Austin said, "and they still don't always do it."
Corollans have struggled futilely to regain access to their homes for years. There have been lawsuits to reopen the gate and legislative moves requiring any two U.S. post offices to be connected by a public road. All have been beaten down by the developers--who at various times work against each other--in rare alliance with such environmental groups as the National Audubon Society and the Nature Conservancy, who want the banks kept as wild as possible.
Corollans also tried unsuccessfully in the legislature to incorporate the town of Corolla, to gain more control over development in the area.
If residents have a hard time getting in and out of the Currituck Banks, potential land customers don't. They are whisked through the gate at the south end or picked up in person at Sandbridge and chauffeured across the refuge at the north end.
"See that sticker?"said Jay Bender, who sells timeshares in the Penny Hill development north of here, pointing to the refuge transit pass on his station wagon. "That's the most valuable piece of paper in North Carolina. Sen. (Jesse) Helms (R-N.C.) had to go all the way to the White House to get that approved. That lets us bring people in here."
At present only 39 such stickers can be issued, most of them to landowners of full-time residence in Corolla prior to 1979. They permit the vehicle in question to make two round trips a day across the Back Bay beach to Sandbridge.
There is constant pressure for more.
"My brother, here, he retired and came home after 20 years in the service serving his country," Austin said. "He's the third generation to live here and they won't give him a permit."
County Commissioner Nelms says access for Corollans from the north is even more important than from the south, since the closest hospital, jobs and major shopping areas are in Virginia Beach.
But like Judge MacKenzie, he believes a completely open road through from Virginia Beach would create enormous and unacceptable pressures for commercial development in an already fragile environment.
That view is the closest thing to unanimity among the factions warring over the Currituck Banks. Just as everyone wants his house or development to be the last built on the sparsely settled beach, everyone wants his own version of limited access.
The problem is not unique to Corolla. The state of Virginia has its own war over False Cape State Park, an essentially primitive area now accessible to visitors only by foot, bicycle or boat through Back Bay. A special task force has been working for more than a year on ways to improve access without altering the primitive character of the park.
"If we put more people in there I suppose we ought to have a potable water supply and maybe primitive toilets," says state Sen. Wiley Mitchell (R-Alex.), a member of the task force. "But then they'll want dressing rooms and showers and a place to buy Cokes. One concessionaire has already proposed running a steam locomotive through Back Bay. Can you imagine that? The first thing you know it's Ocean City. I don't know that we shouldn't leave it just as it is."
No one here is willing to hazard a guess when the tug-of-war over the future of the Currituck Banks will be resolved.
The Interior Department has at various times proposed forcibly acquiring much of the area for an additional wildlife refuge. Just last week, in cooperation with the Nature Conservancy, it acquired 512 acres on the sound north of here and received a 4,600-acre conservation easement on adjacent beach land.
Nelms believes the government's steady expansion of its holdings is one perhaps inevitable but not altogether happy solution.
"I have yet to know anyone who has been able to have a working relationship with the people at Back Bay," he said.
He feels the state will eventually reclaim the pole road--now paved to Corova Beach--and hopes it will provide access for some sort of public beach here.
"It's incredible when you think about it," he said. "This shore is the major feature of this county. The lighthouse is on the Register of Historic Places and on the official county seal. But the schoolchildren of Currituck County have never been here to see it. They aren't allowed in the gate."