Virginia man fights for ownership of vanished North Carolina 'island'

Last year's formation of a crescent-shaped strip of sand that jutted into the Atlantic Ocean off the point of Cape Hatteras National Seashore in North Carolina may no longer exist -- but that's not stopping a Virginia man who claims he's the rightful owner of the sliver of land.

The National Park Service disclosed Tuesday that “Shelly Island,” which first appeared in the spring of 2017 along North Carolina's Outer Banks, did not make it into the new year after hurricane season and winter storms redistributed the sand.

"It is not completely surprising that the sandbar existed for less than a year," the National Park Service said. "Due to the dynamic nature of the area off Hatteras Island, sandbars appear and disappear frequently. The only surprise is just how quickly a sandbar the size of Shelly Island (approximately 27 acres at its largest size) disappeared."

But a man who filed a deed for ownership last year said the island is still there.

“My land is in the exact SAME spot. It cannot ever move. Metes and Bounds exist for this exact reason,” Ken Barlow told the Charlottes Observer in an email, referencing the system used to legally describe land. “I was on the point last Saturday and used my hand held GPS and my trucks GPS to confirm my land is above the water line and was blending with the point just as I predicted. My land will always be there.”

The Mechanicsville, Virginia resident claims he owns the island because North Carolina is a “race statute” state, which means the first party to record a deed owns the property. Barlow wanted to keep the island out of the National Park Service and its policies, which he claims are “incompetent.”

A portion of "Shelly Island" in North Carolina is seen in July.

A portion of "Shelly Island" in North Carolina is seen in July. (National Park Service)

He filed a deed on Aug. 7, which was then disputed by the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, according to the Observer.

The dispute over the sandy strip never made it further in the courts, though, now that the island appears to be gone.

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North Carolina state officials told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that no private citizen can own such a sandbar or island, as state law says the title to any island formed in navigable waters “shall vest in the state.” If the now-underwater sandbar ends up merging with nearby Cape Point, then ownership goes to the park service, according to the newspaper.

NASA released satellite photos on Saturday showing the short-lived life of "Shelly Island," noting the reasons for the island's formation are "complex and not entirely clear."

"Coastal scientists have speculated that weather conditions were just right in 2017," NASA said. "Winds were strong enough to stir up the waves and currents that carry sand alongshore from the more northerly barrier islands toward the cape. Then winds became calm enough for that sand transport to be halted by obstacles such as circular currents within Hatteras Bight and the expansive shoals of the cape. Sand accumulated, an island grew, and tourists flocked to the area to witness the spectacle."

Shelly Island is no longer an island, according to a NASA satellite image from February 16.

Shelly Island is no longer an island, according to a NASA satellite image from February 16. (NASA)

While "Shelly Island" may have had a unique formation, its demise is "somewhat clearer," according to NASA.

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"Erosion occurs all of the time on barrier islands, but it was especially acute in the fall when it was fueled by a series of hurricanes, including Irma and Jose in early September, and Hurricane Maria later that month," the agency said. After making it through hurricane season, winter storms continued to "batter what was left of the island and wash it away."

Barlow told the Times-Dispatch all he wanted to do was claim ownership out of his "disdain" for the park service, and ultimately wanted to name it Hatteras Island Veterans Park.

“The island is wide open for anybody to use it,” he told the newspaper. “It’s never going to be shut down for birds, turtles, whales, dolphins, anything.”