ACCOMAC, VA. -- There are only a handful of houses on Cedar Island, a seven-mile-long barrier island off Virginia's Eastern Shore, but for many of the residents of Accomack County, that's a handful too many.

County officials said they would be happier if there weren't any, and they have supported that view with a lawsuit against a local developer who has recently sold 69 ocean-front lots on the island to wealthy out-of-towners who want to build resort homes.

The concern, county officials said, is that the island is fragile, constantly changing in shape and no place for permanent homes.

"It's very easy for these people planning to build houses out there to say they won't be asking for any county services, but what happens if there's a storm and they need help?" asked William Turner, a member of the Accomack County Board of Supervisors and a leader of the effort to stop development of the island. "The county could face tremendous liabilities in the future if development is allowed out there."

The controversy over Cedar Island flared last fall after a Virginia state agency agreed to give the developer, Ben Benson, permits to build on the sand dunes, and has now extended to the state legislature, triggering legislative hearings about the management of Virginia's barrier islands.

On paper, Cedar Island looks like a sizable island that could sustain considerable development. But from the nearest landfall in Accomack County, the island looks like little more than a thin strip of sand and a lot of marsh, which is what it is.

For Stephen Mallette, a local resident who lives near Cedar Island, the barrier island is a place to picnic in sunny weather but no place to build a house.

"I've lived near that island for years and I can tell you that every month that island is changing," Mallette said. "It's just so foolish to consider building an expensive house out there. I've seen it at times when the water was knee-deep over that island. It's a nice place to visit, but you don't want to live there, especially during a nor'easter."

But for Elizabeth Benson, wife of the developer, the island is both a summer home and a smart investment made by her grandfather, Richard F. Hall, in the early 1950s. She said she can't understand why local residents are trying to stop her husband's project.

Benson's grandfather had far more extensive development dreams for Cedar Island than does her husband. Hall hoped to build another Ocean City, Md. He plotted roads and subdivisions for an entire city, renamed the island Ocean City, Va., and sold 2,200 small building lots along the water's edge.

But he failed in his efforts to raise money to extend a bridge to the island, and only 18 of the 2,200 lots sprouted beach cottages. Hall left the remainder of the island, roughly 1,800 acres of marsh and sand, to Benson and her family.

When Benson got married, she bought out her parents' and brother's shares and began looking for ideas to develop the island.

"It was a unique development opportunity because there really are few places like it left undeveloped along the coast," Benson said. "We looked at a lot of options, but decided it would be best to make it an exclusive, getaway place for people who could afford it. There is nothing else really like it north of the Carolinas."

The Bensons bought back about 100 of the original 2,200 lots along the beachfront and increased their size by extending the lot lines back 3,000 feet towards the interior of the island. They also subdivided previously undivided beachfront at the northern and southern tips of the island, for a total of 69 lots ranging from three to 10 acres. Each of the lots is long and narrow with a narrow strip of waterfront.

The Bensons have also applied for permission to give 1,244 acres of the marshland behind the dunes to the Fish and Wildlife Foundation, a private adjunct of the federal Fish and Wildlife Service that can accept land donations for permanent conservation. They also plan to place covenants restricting development on another 400 acres of the island.

"Originally there was a lot of misunderstanding about what we were doing, and I think that started much of the controversy," Benson said. "People thought we were going to fulfill my grandfather's plans and build high rises and MacDonalds' along the beach. What we are doing couldn't be more different."

The island still has no bridge or road. The only access is by boat and, on the island, driving overland vehicles up and down the beach.

"It's not for retirees, or anybody who has trouble getting around," Benson said. "It's for people who can afford a very private place and are willing to go to the trouble to get there."

Benson said that, even with these limitations, the 69 lots sold in five months for between $65,000 and $90,000. Construction on the island is also expensive, roughly three times the cost of building on the mainland in Accomack County because construction equipment and material must be brought out on barges.

The Bensons just finished building a two-story beach house complete with whirlpool tub and dishwasher on the island for themselves, and while they have concerns about the shifting sand, Elizabeth Benson said the development should be flexible enough to accomodate the island's fickle nature.

"The buildings are built on stilts, so the water can wash under them, and the lots are long so that people can move their houses back if the island moves west," Benson said. "It is risky, but it's my dime. If I lose my house that's my problem."

Local officials, however, said they are afraid it may be the taxpayers' dime that ultimately goes towards supporting development on Cedar Island. The county filed suit last October against Benson and several other landowners who had recently been awarded building permits by the Virginia Marine Resources Commission.

The VMRC, a state agency, oversees development of protected wetlands and primary sand dunes. According to VMRC's Norman Larsen, director of VMRC's habitat management division, the building permits for Cedar Island have raised some difficult questions for the commission.

"The question with Cedar Island is, should the Sand Dune Protection Act be administered differently for a dynamic barrier island like Cedar Island than for the larger islands around Norfolk," Larsen said. "It has gotten to be a very complicated question and the commission is trying to make sure than any development be as limited as possible."

While Accomack County has not named the VRMC as a defendent in its suit, it has asked the court to reverse the commission's actions on the basis that the commission violated its legislative authority by allowing development on Cedar Island.

"The Coastal Primary Sand Dune Act states that unbroken dune lines are necessary to fully implement their protective benefits," the county said in the suit. "Construction thereon is undesirable and the commission erred by permitting permanent alteration of and construction upon the coastal primary sand dune."

Larsen of the VMRC said, however, that he does not understand why the county is seeking to overturn the commission's action since the county has the option to establish a local board to administer the primary sand dune act and issue permits for the barrier islands.

"There's a lot the county could "The buildings are built on stilts, so the water can wash under them, and the lots are long so that people can move their houses back if the island moves west. It is risky, but it's my dime. If I lose my house that's my problem."

-- Elizabeth Benson do, from zoning changes to taking over the administration of the Dune Act, to get more control over development of the island," Larsen said. "We had 12 to 15 hours of public hearings before issuing these permits and I don't think they violate our legislative authority."

Turner, the county supervisor active in the fight against development of the island, said the Board of Supervisors had agreed at one time to administer the Sand Dune Act locally but then reversed itself because of budget considerations.

"I think it might be time to have that reconsidered," Turner said. "We are also looking at zoning changes that could limit development, to keep the owners from further subdividing the property."

Local residents who oppose the development said the county should do something before the landowners on the island begin demanding expensive sand replenishment and erosion control programs.

"If a large enough development got going out there, the residents would probably make every effort to stop the island from shifting out from under them," said George Rieger, a local resident. "They deny that now, but when the sand disappears from under their expensive homes, people will start hollering for help."