SHELL ISLAND RESORT UNITS INCREASE IN PRICE
WRIGHTSVILLE BEACH - Seven years ago when Mason Inlet licked at the foundation of Shell Island Resort, a condominium there could be had for under $40,000.

Today, those very same units are going for more than five times that price.

Two years to the month since crews finished relocating the wandering Mason Inlet away from threatened properties on the north end of Wrightsville Beach, it seems everything about the controversial project is looking up.

Tourists and shorebirds have returned, dogs and their owners are for the most part staying away from the old "Doggie Beach," and the inlet has yet to restart its southerly migration.

"Everything is going great so far," said Walker Golder, deputy director of Audubon North Carolina, which manages the island's undeveloped north end for migrating and foraging shorebirds. "The ordinances meant to keep people and dogs out seem to be working, and we're looking for another great year."

But perhaps nothing has risen or returned to their natural market equilibrium, some claim quite as quickly as property values at the north end.

At the Shell Island Resort, which was on the literal front line of the inlet's assault, a unit sold for $220,000 a few weeks ago.

"We really saw a significant jump this October due to the fact all the major issues of Shell Island had gone away," said Steve White of Real Estate Services, adding that prices have been going up about $10,000 a month recently.

With the inlet relocation now paying big dividends for the county's coffers, some homeowners who paid for the $6.7 million project think New Hanover County taxpayers should help maintain it.

Frank Pinkston, chairman of the Mason Inlet Preservation Group, said the county covers the local share of the federal beach renourishment projects in New Hanover County's three beach towns and this project shouldn't be viewed differently.

"If the use of the room-occupancy tax funds is to keep beaches stable and open for tourism, then yes, my feeling is they should use some of that money for our project.

"I mean, we've done a lot for the county in terms of saving them the cost and embarrassment of having these properties fall into the inlet. It just seems that it would be logical for them to come and help us out."

The Mason Inlet Preservation Group represents homeowner associations covering the 1,044 property owners from Wrightsville Beach and Figure Eight Island that agreed to pay for the project over its 30-year life span.

County Finance Director Bruce Shell said about $2.5 million in additional expenses have been incurred since Mason Inlet was relocated, which doesn't include the cost of expected maintenance dredging sometime in the next 12 months.

Mr. Pinkston admits that the idea of using public dollars to maintain Mason Inlet is a tough sell.

But he said it just doesn't seem fair to penalize the project because it started after the other renourishment projects and isn't under the auspices of the Army Corps of Engineers.

"I just think there should be some consideration," Mr. Pinkston said, adding that he's already raised the issue with some county commissioners.

The county has paid about $465,000 in room-tax proceeds for this year's Kure Beach and Carolina Beach renourishment projects.

Even if the county says no, Shell Island residents and resort officials said the specter of ongoing assessments isn't enough to dampen new development or property prices.

Carol Giachetti, Shell Island's manager of homeowner association affairs, said the inlet relocation has allowed the resort to catch up on much-needed renovations and improvements.

Work done since the relocation includes lobby and restaurant renovations and a $500,000 project to waterproof the building's exterior.

"These are projects we simply couldn't have done three years ago," Ms. Giachetti said.

For those willing to take the plunge years ago and pick up one of Shell Island's 169 units on the cheap, the payoff has been even better.

Mr. White was one of those, buying his unit when the market was near the bottom.

"It was so cheap that we basically said that the risk is there but the payoff is great if it works out," he said. "So we sweated it out."

Mr. White, whose company does a lot of business at Shell Island, recently bought two more units.

"We think the future is that bright," he said.

But Mr. White said there's still some work to be done to get the resort and the north end back to where it was before the spate of hurricanes and inlet woes of the 1990s.

Rental income for condominium owners, for example, is still substantially below what it was 10 years ago.

"But Shell Island wasn't ruined in a day and it won't be fixed in a day," Mr. White said.

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