In recent months, North Carolina's Outer Banks have been the scene for a legal battle over whether huge oceanfront structures, designed and built to host major gatherings and brief events, qualify as single-family homes for purposes of local regulations such as fire sprinkler requirements, egress, and ADA accessibility. This week, a three-judge state Court of Appeals reversed earlier lower court decisions and ruled that a 20,000-sqft compound in the dunes is actually three separate structures.

"The Chesapeake," which has 24 rooms and 24 baths, and rents for $10,000 a week in the off season and up to $41,000 a week during the peak summer beach season, was permitted as a single-family house; but neighbors Michael and Marie Long sued in 2014, asking the court to overturn the Currituck Board of Adjustment's decision to give the go-ahead for construction.

"The house sits among the dunes of the four-wheel-drive area north of Corolla [click for Google Maps link]," the Virginian-Pilot reported (see: "Court says OBX mansion-size house is not a single-family dwelling," by Jeff Hampton). "It has three sections, each about 5,000 square feet, connected by enclosed hallways. Renters can hold events, such as weddings, where roughly 50 people can stay overnight. Neighbors Marie and Michael Long contend that the house, owned by Elizabeth Letendre, is not a single-family dwelling in accordance with the county’s unified development ordinance. The county argued the ordinance did qualify the house as a single-family dwelling. The Longs appealed to the courts, but the Superior Court sided with the county and Letendre in December 2014."

But an appeals court has now sided with the giant project's neighbors. The Daily Advance (Elizabeth City, N.C.) reported on the decision here (see: "'Mega-cottage' ruling reversed," by Barry Ward). "The three-judge panel unanimously agreed Tuesday that a Superior Court judge was wrong in 2014 when he upheld the Currituck Board of Adjustment’s decision to allow construction of a 15,000-square-foot cottage to go forward based on the definition of a single-family dwelling in the county’s unified development ordinance," the paper reported. Because each of the three 5,000-sqft modules of the compound are equal in size, none can be considered an "accessory structure," the court reasoned; therefore, each must be considered a principal structure, the court ruled.

In overturning the Superior Court ruling, Appeals Court judge Donna Stroud wrote, "Each individual building is itself a structure.” Judge Stroud's decision is based only on the legal dispute over the county's definition of a "single-family detached dwelling," not on any disagreement over the facts of the case, she wrote. Stroud's opinion is published online here (see: MICHAEL P. LONG and MARIE C. LONG, Petitioner-Plaintiffs v. CURRITUCK COUNTY, NORTH CAROLINA and ELIZABETH LETENDRE). "The project does not fit within the plain language of the definition of Single Family Dwelling, and thus is not appropriate in the SF District," wrote Judge Stroud. "Were we to adopt respondent Currituck County’s interpretation, a project including ten 5,000 square foot buildings, all attached by conditioned hallways, which will be used as a residential dwelling for one family with a kitchen facility in only one of the buildings would qualify as a Single Family Dwelling," she reasoned. "Respondents’ interpretation would also be contrary to the stated purpose of the zoning, which calls for 'very low density residential development' and 'is intended to accommodate limited amounts of development in a manner that preserves sensitive natural resources, protects wildlife habitat, recognizes the inherent limitations on development due to the lack of infrastructure, and seeks to minimize damage from flooding and catastrophic weather events.'"

The decision reverses a lower court decision reached last year. The Virginian-Pilot reported on the case in September 2015 (see: "Outer Banks mansion raises questions about how big a single-family home can be," by Jeff Hampton). "If a large residential structure is not a single-family dwelling, then it would likely have to be considered a hotel," Currituck County planning director Ben Woody told the paper at that time. The county's development ordinance had no specific provisions governing a structure that is in the gray area between a residence and a hotel, said Woody. However, the county zoning ordinance would prohibit any commercial structure, including a hotel, from being sited on this part of the barrier island.