Couple sues over rebuilding denial after NC beach home burns

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NAGS HEAD, N.C. (WAVY) —  For years Cathy and Michael Zito spent every summer in the Outer Banks with their children.

They loved the area so much they bought an oceanfront property in Nags Head in 2008. The next eight years were filled with summer vacations and weekend getaways at the beach house. 

Then in 2016, the Zitos’ phone rang at 2 a.m. Cathy Zito answered, and on the other line was the Nags Head Fire Chief, who told them their beloved home had gone up in flames. There was nothing left. 

An investigation by the fire department ruled the cause as “inconclusive.”

The fire happened during the tail end of Hurricane Matthew. Power on the Outer Banks had been out for days.

The call about the fire at the Zitos’ property came just minutes after power had been restored to the area. 

The next morning the Zitos’ nephew went to check on the damage. 

“He had been at the house the day before telling me everything was OK,” Cathy explained. “He couldn’t believe it and he went over there that morning and took some pictures. One of the photos shows the sunrise over the ocean with just our house completely burned down.”

Fires are devastating, but homes can be rebuilt, can’t they? 

The Zitos were shocked to find out the answer was no. This kicked off a two-year-long legal battle the couple is still fighting. 

“We said we want to build the exact same house in the exact same spot,” said Cathy Zito. “We’re not going to change anything. We don’t want to add up, we don’t want to add size.”

After the fire, the Zito’s, of Maryland, applied for a building permit.

The local government denied the permit because the land is now part of what’s called an Ocean Hazard Area of Environmental Concern or an AEC.

According to the Coastal Resources Commission, this area of Nags Head is subject to rules around the line of vegetation following a large beach re-nourishment project in 2011. This zone was established after they bought the property in 2008. 

Hazard areas include places like beaches, which are subject to excessive erosion and flood damage. The rules state new construction must be 180 feet back from the vegetation line. The Zitos lot sits 12 feet from the line. 

The Zitos aren’t a special case, if any of their neighbors’ houses are destroyed, they can’t rebuild either. 

Not being able to build there, rebuild there, would have never ever crossed my mind,” said Michael Zito. “It makes no common sense to me.”

The Pacific Legal Foundation has now taken on the Zitos’ case pro-bono.  

“This is a classic example of government overreach in an instance where we hope that the government will do the right thing,” said Glenn Roper, a lawyer with PLF. 

The legal team helped the Zitos file a federal lawsuit. The PLF lawyers argue if the government tells the Zitos they can’t rebuild, the government must compensate them, citing the 5th amendment, which states no one shall, ” … be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”

The Zito family hasn’t been back to the Outer Banks since the fire. They say it’s too painful.

Although they still pay the mortgage and property taxes on a home they can’t rebuild. 

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