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The History of North Carolina’s Highway 12
September 15, 2021

The History of North Carolina’s Highway 12

by The CE Shop Team

Real Estate Developer Frank Stick’s Dream Became North Carolina History

North Carolina Highway 12 (NC 12) is a 148-mile-long (238.2 km) primary state highway linking the peninsulas and islands of the northern Outer Banks. One of the Tar Heel State’s best-kept secret attractions is also an important lifeline for residents of the OBX where they make their living — and it’s all thanks to visionary real estate developer Frank Stick.

Stick Stuck It Out and Won

A good fishing trip can change everything — just ask Frank Stick. Stick was an avid artist and hunter in the 1900s, though a fishing trip to the Outer Banks in the 1920s altered the course of his life for decades to come. He was so impressed with the area's natural beauty that he began acquiring nearby property holdings. He packed up his art supplies and focused his attention instead on all things real estate, paying close attention to the Outer Banks area in particular.

In 1933, Stick wanted the federal government to create the nation’s first oceanfront national park. He saw a chance for the government to use condemnations, land donations, and purchases to patch together and preserve a 25-mile stretch of seashore mainly along Hatteras Island. As secretary of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore Commission, Stick was able to secure donations of extensive landholdings that would later serve as the nation's first national seashore recreational area.

Being a veteran real estate developer for fifteen years prior, Stick understood the various complexities that went into a project of this scope. Stick was known for various projects such as the Wright Brothers National Memorial and the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site. By the late '30s, more than 4,000 men were engaged in constructing and installing sand fences, planting beach grasses and other vegetation, and otherwise pushing his Outer Banks' dream to fruition.

To go along with the new national park, Stick also imagined a road running the entire length of the Outer Banks: one continuous stretch of pavement that could unlock the immense beauty and natural wonders of the then-inaccessible barrier islands’ beaches to tourists and locals alike.

“This roadway is no fantastic dream, no expensively enthusiastic scheme to attract public or political favor, but a sensible, well thought out project that would prove of inestimable economic and aesthetic value,” Stick wrote in The Independent, a weekly newspaper at the time.

“This is the last great stretch of ocean frontage available on the Atlantic coast, today, and once gobbled up by speculators, our last opportunity to create a coastal park is gone forever.”

North Carolina's Highway 12

Stick’s focus on accessibility to the coastal park didn't mean he wasn’t aware of the potential harm to the shore’s natural beauty. As a devote conservationist, Stick made it a point to the National Park Service that pavement should only be laid to connect island villages and not pollute the shore’s sandy beaches.

“It is definitely the desire of the National Park Service that the section between Oregon Inlet and Hatteras Inlet remain in its natural condition without any roads so that future generations may see this and other undeveloped sections as they are in our day,” the National Park Service officials wrote in a proposal evaluating the Cape Hatteras National Park.

After two decades of hard work, the federal government officially established the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. This newly constructed road connected the various villages sprinkled across islands in the Outer Banks, creating accessibility to the mainland for residents. With this victory under his belt, Stick would later go on to be instrumental in establishing the Virgin Islands National Park.

The Fate of NC 12

Today, the highway is still a point of contention for North Carolina residents. The price to maintain this highway from erosion and natural disasters has been high and is getting higher. Between August of 1999 and October of 2007 alone, the Department of Transportation spent about $5.5 million to restore the highway after a series of storms. Since then, the maintenance bill has only climbed, costing at least $100 million in the 2000s-2010s. The question now is, how much time, effort, and money does the state want to invest in a battle against Mother Nature? 

“It is a continuous battle, and I think the ocean is stronger than we are,” said Dorothea Ames, a geologist at East Carolina University said in an interview with “Highway 12 can no longer exist in some areas that are too narrow because there is nowhere else to move it.” Despite the hefty price tag, it seems that NC 12 will be around for a while, barring too many natural disasters and/or rising sea levels.

If your client wants to live near this iconic sandy stretch of highway, the median home value in Hatteras is $349,156. While higher than North Carolina’s median home value of $254,625, living near the ocean and next to a national park is worth every penny. In fact, several studies have found that living in close proximity to a park will generally boost home prices by 8% - 10%. There is a difference between dog parks, community parks, and national parks, but generally, the larger the size of the park, the higher the premium. A national park-like Cape Hatteras could add a boost to nearby home values.

What do you think about NC 12? Let us know your thoughts in the comment section below. 

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