ACCOMACK COUNTY, Va. (WRIC) — Cedar Island is a small strip of marsh and sand that shields part of the Eastern Shore from the brunt of Atlantic storms. Today, it’s home to an unassuming nature preserve that supports the shore’s native seabird population. However, once, it was at the center of a controversial housing development that has since slipped beneath the waves.

The barrier island is now at the center of a project by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science that hopes to preserve the island’s marshes even as the sandy shore continues to shift every year.

The project, which is funded by the National Coastal Resilience Fund, started with a $249,000 grant to the Virginia Institute of Marine Science in 2019 to develop a “design conceptual plan for a 216-acre marsh restoration and expansion” at the southern tip of Cedar Island.

Graphic showing the retreating shoreline of Cedar Island at Wachapreague Inlet. (Map by Chuck Bailey/William & Mary)

Although the island is now uninhabited, it was once the site of an intense fight over development of a beach community that eventually required the intervention of the state legislature.

According to Virginia Places, two local landowners tried to market the island as a vacation community, selling $3 million of lots to buyers looking for oceanfront views.

From the beginning, scientists warned against the project, with one Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) report noting that “the long term cumulative adverse impacts of building on the island will be a continued narrowing of the active sand strip and an accelerated erosion rate due to the greater loss of sand offshore.”

But despite the dire warnings, the Washington Post reported in 1987 that 69 lots had been sold, and by 1997, 27 homes had been raised on stilts, just a few feet above the waterline.

Homes on Cedar Island pictured in May and October of 2004. (Photo: Virginia Department of Environmental Quality)

Those homes are now all abandoned, with only a few of them left standing and the remainder torn down by the encroaching Atlantic.

Now, the island is mostly home to a division of the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, but several of the lots — sold almost four decades ago — are still in private hands.

The project underway now at VIMS won’t do anything to revive the dream of beachfront homes on Cedar Island, but it may help preserve the vital habitat on the island’s less-than-scenic marshes.

The shoreline of Cedar Island has been consistently retreating for decades. (Photo: US Geological Survey)

The initial grant in 2019 has now been followed by an additional $563,000 in federal and local funding to enable “final engineering design plans” to be commissioned, paving the way for work to begin.

The funding boost was part of the “Bipartisan Infrastructure Law” passed last year, and Virginia Senators Tim Kaine and Mark Warner issued a joint statement celebrating the funding.

“It’s so important for Virginia’s health and local economies that we safeguard protecting our coastal communities and delicate ecosystems from the effects of climate change,” they wrote. “That’s why we’re pleased to see that this federal funding will be used for the final stages of marsh restoration and expansion along southern Cedar Island, helping to mitigate the impacts of rising sea level and flooding as well as protect fish and wildlife in the region.”