Town Square: Kill Devil Hills
Dare County’s sandy beaches, charming locales and flighty history attract those looking for coastal digs.
The roar of a revved-up engine sweeps over the beach houses and hotels like a rogue wave. It drowns out voices, turns heads and stops traffic. After this burst of showboating, the hot rod keeps rolling north on Highway 12, past roadside onlookers eating ice cream from camping chairs and groups drinking cocktails on front decks.
On this Friday night in Kill Devil Hills, the souped-up, decked-out cars come up the road with the frequency of ocean swells: Camaros, Bel Airs, Mustangs and Malibus. In the parking lot of the Ramada Plaza sits more vintage beauties: convertibles, pickups and coupes. This is the OBX Rod & Custom Festival, an annual two-day affair that puts fancy rides on parade and fuels local charities such as the Children & Youth Partnership for Dare County with the proceeds.
Watching the waves of chrome and steel from their third-floor deck, Terry and Tracy McMann are among the roughly 7,000 year-round residents of Kill Devil Hills. They moved here from Richmond, Va., last summer after years of visiting the Outer Banks destination. Hanging from their deck railing is a black flag designed with a pirate ship and bearing the words “Kill Devil Rum.”
It’s the flagship spirit bottled at Outer Banks Distilling in nearby Manteo. “The pirates would get sick, and they’d drink the rum to kill the devil inside,” Tracy says. The town’s official story about the name’s origin is steeped in rum. Back in Colonial days, ships carrying the liquor sometimes ran aground on the shoals off the Outer Banks. Locals scavenged the rum from the wreckage, stashed it away in the tall dunes and deemed it strong enough to kill the devil.
In modern times, pandemic-weary people have flocked to the coastal town. They’ve found working remotely can be a day at the beach. Kill Devil Hills claims about 5 miles of beachfront, tucked between Kitty Hawk and Nags Head. Home sales across the Outer Banks are as fired up as a hot rod on a warm Friday night.
HIGH TIDE OF HOME SALES
The town’s first-term mayor, Ben Sproul, 54, has lived here since the ’80s and owned a surf shop for nearly 20 years. Now the marketing and communications manager for Surf or Sound Realty, he credits the pandemic for triggering at least some of the unprecedented boom in sales and property values. “There hasn’t been this much disruption and change in this lifetime,” he says. “It’s dramatic.”
The Outer Banks Association of Realtors reports that residential sales in March increased 87% compared with the same month in 2020, with the number of properties under contract up 100%.
This frenzy is reflective of the hot housing market across the country, but the Outer Banks has its own set of “many moving parts,” as Sproul puts it. As the coronavirus closed office spaces and classrooms, people figured they could work as well from a beach house as from a home in the burbs. “We have a lot of loyalists that come every year, and a lot of them think, ‘Oh, I wish I could own a home down there,’” Sproul says. “This really got a lot of people off the sidelines and pushed them over the edge to where they said, ‘We should really do this.’”
Meanwhile, some local homeowners hit rough financial seas and decided to sell. It hasn’t been enough, however, to keep inventory of homes for sale from reaching historic lows. The Realtors group says inventory in March dwindled by 72% compared to a year earlier.
A downside of the hot market is that housing for people who work in area restaurants, shops and recreation venues has evaporated. Many now commute from inland communities, unable to afford closer digs. Online rental marketplaces such as Airbnb and VRBO make it easier for homeowners to rent to vacationers rather than the local workforce, Sproul says. He’s working with various groups to brainstorm ways of encouraging property owners to offer affordable housing for year-round residents.
At the pirate-themed Jolly Roger restaurant, founded in 1972, general manager Andrea Sullivan says the shrunken pool of workers has forced Jolly Roger to close early on Sundays and open later on Mondays. She says much of the worker shortage stems from jobless benefits that have outlasted coronavirus restrictions, prompting some would-be employees to rely on unemployment checks rather than return to work. But housing can be a dealbreaker. “I have several people trying to come to work just for the summer, and they have to secure housing,” she says. “And they haven’t been able to do that.”
Dare County’s housing scarcity predates the pandemic but has become more pronounced. “I do feel that sometimes [property owners] are looking at the almighty dollar and that it’s more important for the tourists to have a place to go rather than the locals to have a place to live,” Sullivan says. “If you want it to be a successful tourist community, you have got to make sure you have the locals to work here.”
When the pandemic began shutting down the economy in March 2020, Dare County officials blocked access to everyone except permanent residents, property owners and employees. Sheriff’s deputies posted checkpoints on U.S. 64 and U.S. 158, the two main highways leading into the county, that lasted about two months. Hotels sat as empty as the deserted beaches. But on May 16, Dare County swung the gates wide open and let the river of cabin-fevered beachgoers flow.
“Once that bridge opened, everyone just flocked down here,” says William McCloud, who works the desk at the John Yancey Oceanfront Inn. “Everybody was just trying to get out of the house, and we’ve been slam-packed.” On this Friday night, the hotel is all booked. It’s been near capacity since March, he says.
The nearby Outer Banks Motor Lodge harkens back to mid-century roadside America where guests drive right up to their room doors. Even with multistory beach houses and high-rise hotels all around, this 38-unit motor lodge, opened in 1959, is adored by visitors who have checked in for decades.
“Some guests came last year to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary, and they had been here on their honeymoon,” says general manager Linda Sabadic. “We ended up having a pretty full season, with a lot of our regulars coming back because they knew us and knew what they were getting, and I think we’re going to have a really good year again.”
Mayor Sproul says the occupancy tax, levied on guests staying in hotels and rentals, was practically nil in April 2020. That cut deep, he says, since the Outer Banks traditionally draws crowds for Easter and spring break. But Kill Devil Hills bounced back from that deficit. “By the end of the year, we made up for the loss and we’re ahead.”
A HIGH-FLYING HISTORY
The devilishly lyrical name of this town includes the word “hills” for good reason. In a land-and-seascape defined by its levelness, lofty sand dunes billow along the Albemarle Sound, lending a three-dimensional quality to the horizon. Attracted by the towering dunes and tireless winds, two brothers from Dayton, Ohio, came to the shores to make their crazy dream come true: On a cold, December morning in 1903, Orville and Wilbur Wright launched the world’s first powered, heavier-than-air flight. They gave North Carolina a reason to brag, with the slogan “First in Flight” gracing license plates since the early 1980s.
This world-changing achievement is commemorated at the Wright Brothers National Memorial, which draws about half a million visitors every year. Its centerpiece is a 60-foot-tall granite monument atop the 90-foot-tall Kill Devil Hill. Back when the Wright Brothers took flight, this stretch of coast was a remote and mostly roadless outpost. Homes and stores emerged in 1878 after the establishment of Kill Devil Hills Lifesaving Station, which responded to shipwrecks off the coast. The community incorporated in 1953. Bridges were built across the sounds, transforming far-flung beaches into vacation spots.
The main drag through Kill Devil Hills is the four-lane U.S. 158, flanked by beachwear shops, pancake houses, fast-food drive-thrus and parking lots. But the soul of Kill Devil Hills is along the beach road, N.C. 12. It’s home to the classics: The Kill Devil Grill, Miller’s Steakhouse and Seafood, Jolly Roger, and Awful Arthur’s Oyster Bar.
On this Friday night, Awful Arthur’s has a good-sized, jovial crowd. Behind the bar, John Mason slides trays of shrimp, crab legs, oysters and clams into the steamer as he also takes drink orders and chats with the patrons. It’s the prime out-to-eat-at-the-beach kind of place where the world’s problems get lost in the happy hubbub. “I’m glad I live on the Outer Banks,” Mason says. “All I do is fish and live, and everybody seems to just worry about living.”
Leave it to a bartender with an oyster shucking knife to serve up such a heavenly slice of life from Kill Devil Hills. ■