Staff photo by Joshua Curry
Wrightsville Beach resident, Karen Dunn uses her bike to survey and document historical homes on the beach.
In mid-July, Karen Dunn gripped the handlebars on her one-speed beach cruiser and headed to the south end of Wrightsville Beach to begin a visual survey of historic homes.
She used bottom line criteria to designate which homes could be held to the Historic Landmark Commission’s standards listed on its brochure.
Dunn began the study with some black-and-white maps downloaded from the New Hanover County GIS system.
“I had the time available,” she said. “My background is urban planning and community planning.”
As she voluntarily cycled around town, Dunn highlighted the homes on the maps that appeared to be more than 50 years old.
“I started on the south and went all the way up to the north end out Salisbury and down Channel Drive, all of Harbor Island.” Her last survey was Pelican Drive.
If she had been completing the survey from her car, it would have been called a windshield survey. But due to the eco-friendly nature of her study, Dunn renamed it a handlebar survey.
“I called it a handlebar survey because I was doing it from my bike,” Dunn said. “I rarely drive anywhere on the beach.”
Throughout the process, she worked with Tracy Skrabal, manager of the southeast regional office of the North Carolina Coastal Federation, and Eryn Moller, Wrightsville Beach Planner 1.
“There were a lot of streets I’ve never been down as long as I’ve been here since ’89,” Dunn said. “It gave me an opportunity to really get in touch with the community. I mean I basically looked at every single house in the town and drove down every street.”
The entire project is a collaboration between multiple nonprofit organizations and the town, including the NCCF, the Wrightsville Beach Museum of History and the Wrightsville Beach Historic Landmark Commission.
Dunn said the survey served as the first step evaluating homes so town officials would have the information readily available if they decide to preserve several homes in the area.
“And again it’s my eye in experience looking at homes saying, ‘Is it 50 years old?’” Dunn said.
She handed off all of her information so that whoever is chosen to take on the next step of the project can further investigate tax records, determining construction dates, owner history and renovations to the hundreds of properties.
“The bottom line is all of the visitors and residents win,” Dunn said. “There’s so few of these really old homes left on the beach.”
Remodels, such as major renovations costing more than $20,000, may change the defining characteristics of the structure bumping it out of the historic criteria, Dunn said.
She has lived in Wrightsville Beach every summer since 1989. After calling Charlotte home for more than 30 years, Dunn recently became a permanent resident in town.
“You can see the character, how it’s changed,” Dunn said about residences since the late 1980s. “For me it was very interesting to see all of these homes that already have been designated. A lot of them are centered around North Lumina, between Salisbury Street and Stone Street where the causeway comes in. I call them the North Carolina town streets — Greensboro, Henderson Street, Oxford. All of those, the little side streets and along the Banks Channel, many of them have one or two that already have plaques. There are many others that are unique and could probably comply with the Historic Landmark’s criteria for designation.”
The physical handlebar survey was completed in a month during the summer, from July 14 to Aug. 15.
Dunn went out in the heat seven times during the month span for about six hours each of those days.
“There were some days when it was so hot,” Dunn said. “A few times I got caught in the thunder and lightning storms, which was fine because at least I was cool. A lot of times, I just would start at 10 o’clock in the morning and go to 3 or 4 o’clock. By then I was pretty spent.”
After Dunn finished her handlebar survey, she downloaded all of the pictures from her camera to her computer and cross-referenced the information with her clipboard notes.
In early September, she had listed 365 homes in a spreadsheet with coordinating photographs.
The completed document lists all of the homes Dunn noted plus all of the homes previously designated by the Historic Landmark Commission.
Dunn will formally present her findings to the HLC at its November meeting. Then those findings can be significantly narrowed down.
After the HLC identifies historic homes, it will make a recommendation to the board of aldermen for approval.
She has been told that it takes about one week for a homeowner to get a demolition permit.
“It could be gone and grassed over in a week, so it’s important to be out front in the process,” Dunn said.