Lea Island, where loggerhead turtles outnumber humans, generated considerable buzz in May: 80 acres of land there went up for sale.
On a Google map, Lea Island shows no roads, no cities and no landmarks of any kind except this description in red: "Remote habitat with shells and birds."
This undeveloped sliver of sand endures just south of Topsail Island off the Pender County coast, so isolated that it gets no mention in The Gazetteer -- an encyclopedia that includes every North Carolina swamp, creek and flyspeck town.
But Lea Island, where loggerhead turtles outnumber humans, generated considerable buzz in May for real estate reasons: 80 acres of land there -- a considerable chunk -- went up for sale. With an asking price of $4 million, and the advertisement to "live off the grid," interest flared quickly.
"Oh my gosh, yes," said Lois Potratz, a Realtor with Intracoastal Realty, who is handling the sale. "A lot of people want to own an island."
To many locals, the idea of building on Lea Island seems as ludicrous as making condominiums out of wet sand. For one, no bridges connect to it, making it accessible only by boat -- a commute complicated by tides and shallow water. Living there invites the idea of helicopters and other lavish fantasies.
For another, the island lacks any sort of improvement. No fresh water, power or roads exist -- another challenge given the shifting sands. In the late 1990s, Lea connected with Hutaff Island to the south because powerful storms filled in the channel between them.
But the biggest caveat to building an island getaway: It's been tried before. In 2015, a storm claimed the only house standing on Lea, a 1,300-square-foot summer vacation home propped on 20-foot pilings and powered by solar panels. Anyone who has walked Lea Island knows that the surf can wash over from the ocean to the sound side with a nor'easter and a full moon.
Much of the land carved into lots and slated for development in the 1980s has been sold to conservation groups and has come under the state government's management, a sanctuary for migrating shore birds. Those humans who do visit the island to fish for drum and camp under the stars qualify as seasoned and salty outdoor types capable of navigating in tricky conditions.
"I just cannot fathom that somebody would come over here and develop," said Randy Williams, also a Realtor who takes frequent outings there. "Some fat cat wanting to own a chunk of a private island might be enticed. I'm going to be right in their backyard, fishing and drinking beer."
With more than 5,000 acres combined, Lea and Hutaff islands represent one of the last undeveloped barrier islands on the North Carolina coast. Even nearby Masonboro Island, a popular spot with boaters and campers, counts as developed because it has a terminal groin -- a wall to control erosion.
Both Audubon North Carolina and the NC Coastal Land Trust have bought tracts on the island, and both would like to see the sale property end up in conservation hands. Much of the island consists of marshland, and these groups argue that its unspoiled quality would be undermined if it were only partially developed.
"They aren't making barrier islands anymore," said Camilla Herlevich, director of the Land Trust.
Nesting turtles fare well there because there are no lights to distract the hatchlings when they head toward the sea. The island serves as an important migratory stop for rare piping plovers and red knots, listed as a federally threatened species. American oystercatchers nest in the dunes on Lea.
"Sea birds and shore birds depend on barrier islands," said Walker Golder with Audubon NC. "They've been kind of pushed and pushed into the last remnants of habitat that they have left. In many cases, the birds can't go someplace else because they are already someplace else."
But development isn't certain, even if the island acreage gets sold. Potratz said many of her inquiries have come from people and groups interested in buying the land and leaving it pristine.
Nobody knows yet what kind of development would be feasible and allowable if a buyer did emerge. A survey is being conducted on the island this week.
"It really depends on the kind of structure," she said. "Are you going to build a high-rise out there? I don't think so."
Kirstin Behn, also a Realtor with Intracoastal, described the property as "complicated." Figure Eight Island to the south is far wider and taller than Lea and less vulnerable to overwash. It supports very little vegetation with any height. Topsail Inlet to the north is always moving.
But whether human, bird or reptile, nothing makes a respite from noise and clutter quite like an island -- and when one comes available, however impractical, heads tends to turn.
Josh Shaffer: 919-829-4818, @joshshaffer08
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