Death by a thousand cuts for our coastline

Death by a thousand cuts for our coastline

- in Weekly Briefing


New legislation in Congress would expand development, put more federal dollars at-risk

It’s hard to know what will cause American elected officials to wake up to the ongoing environmental catastrophe that’s proceeding apace all around them. A few decades back, the threat of the “China Syndrome” and a disintegrating ozone layer helped spur meaningful public activism and policy changes that effectively halted the construction of new nuclear power plants and created reasonable prospects for ozone layer recovery.

Today, however, such common sense responses seem harder to fashion. This is especially true when it comes to climate change and, among its many impacts, the resulting loss of low-lying lands to sea level rise. Unfortunately, a powerful tag team comprised of fossil fuel industry apologists, developers and conservative ideologues ferociously denies the overwhelming scientific consensus and combats any new public action. The result, of course, as with so many other issues in modern government, is a kind of stalemate in which policy inaction wins out and the demise of the environment continues at an alarming rate.

Amazingly, however, even such a dreadful state of affairs is not enough to satisfy those on the anti-government right. Not only are these groups and individuals denying science and resisting improved regulation; they’re actually pushing hard for expanded development and looser rules – even when the end results will cost taxpayers vastly greater sums and run afoul of “free market” economic principles that they usually extol.

Incremental decline

A new case in point in this sad and, at times, ironic saga will take the stage once again this afternoon in Washington at a hearing before a rather obscure congressional panel known as the Natural Resources Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife, Oceans and Insular Affairs. The subject is coastal land development and under consideration will be nine new bills to remove protected lands (including two parcels in North Carolina) from a 32 year-old law known as the Coastal Barrier Resource Act (CBRA).

Under the CBRA and subsequent related laws, the federal government officially recognized that sandy barrier islands were prone to damage from hurricanes, storms and the encroaching seas and that they also provide a critical buffer for mainland areas. Moreover, in a commendably forward-looking bit of policymaking, Congress also acknowledged that the federal government ought not to subsidize development on such islands through the provision of low-cost federal insurance. Put simply, CBRA didn’t ban development on such islands, but it makes it clear that developers will be on their own; they cannot look to the government to bail them out when storms hit. Developers who run the risk will be at the mercy of the “free market.”

A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service summary puts it this way:

The law encourages the conservation of hurricane prone, biologically rich coastal barriers by restricting Federal expenditures that encourage development, such as Federal flood insurance. Areas within the CBRS can be developed provided that private developers or other non-Federal parties bear the full cost. Between 1982 and 2010, CBRA has saved over $1 billion in Federal dollars and will save millions more in the future.”

Unfortunately and not surprisingly, however, lots of coastal developers have found ways to convince themselves that their little slices of heaven ought not to be covered by the law. In other words, these folks want to develop in vulnerable areas designated by the CBRA and they want the availability of federal money to help guarantee their investments. Now, add to this the fact that conservative politicians and developers have long gone together like salt and pepper and it’s no surprise that conservative-dominated U.S. House would bring forth nine bills to exempt parcels from Rhode Island to Florida. The two parcels in North Carolina are in the Topsail Island and Wrightsville Beach areas and the bills to exempt them are sponsored, respectively, by North Carolina congressmen Walter Jones and Mike McIntyre.

A lonely voice of reason

If today’s hearing were taking place at the North Carolina General Assembly, dissenting voices – especially genuine scientists – would probably be allotted two-minute time slots or shut out altogether. Fortunately, however, things are not yet quite that bad on Capitol Hill so the subcommittee has invited Dr. Rob Young of Western Carolina University – one of the nation’s top authorities on coastal development and barrier islands – to testify at today’s hearing.

Young, who headlined an NC Policy Watch Crucial Conversation last fall, will explore themes familiar to those lucky enough to have attended his lecture or watch it online – namely, that Congress should move very slowly (if at all) in granting exemptions of the kind contained in the bills under consideration. Here are some of the main points (along with some excerpts) from the testimony that Young will deliver – a copy of which he kindly provided to N.C. Policy Watch:

The CBRA is a logical and vitally important law:

The 1982 Coastal Barrier Resources Act included a solid combination of science-based policy making with a conservative, free-market approach to risk reduction and environmental conservation. The science is clear. Barrier islands are predictably hazardous locations on which to develop, invest, or maintain infrastructure. They are subject to long-term shoreline erosion, significant and devastating storm impacts, and rapid changes along inlet-adjacent shorelines. Many of this nation’s barrier islands have been completely inundated by storm waters multiple times over the last three decades. In addition, these hazards will only increase over the coming years as shoreline erosion continues.”

It’s shortsighted and fiscally irresponsible to pour more money after good to build up beaches in areas that the sea will repeatedly reclaim:

[F]ederal and state taxpayers have spent billions of dollars over the last four decades pumping up beaches in front of coastal properties (beach nourishment) and constructing coastal protection projects. Following Hurricane Sandy, the United States Army Corps of Engineers will be spending $4-5 billion building beaches, dunes, and storm protection primarily in New Jersey and New York. $700 million is being proposed for one nourishment project along Fire Island, which is made up almost entirely of parks. Even more mindboggling is the fact that FEMA treats beach nourishment projects as infrastructure. If a storm washes away your beach, taxpayers will put it back. Make no mistake, these beach building projects are designed primarily to protect property, and where federal dollars are used, they are a federal subsidy to that coastal resort community.”

This is especially true given who owns the properties affected:

Please also keep in mind that the homes on most barrier island resort communities are largely investment properties, typically owned by LLCs, Trusts, or like entities. Our data show that along the oceanfront of North Carolina’s barrier islands, more than 90% of the properties are investment or rental properties.

It is frequently suggested that this enormous federal investment is justified because the ‘coastal economy’ is so robust and powerful, generating significant jobs and local tax dollars, that we cannot possibly walk away. This is a very strange argument. If the coastal economy of barrier island resort communities is so powerful, it should be self-sustaining. It should not require massive federal investment, nor should it require manipulation of property insurance markets.”

If anything, Congress should be expanding the law, not carving out new exemptions:

I urge you to consider a mechanism for expanding, rather than contracting CBRA. We simply cannot afford to continue to hold hundreds of miles of shorelines in place with federal dollars. And, we cannot continue to support multi-billion dollar emergency appropriations bills that routinely put oceanfront property back in place after a storm.”

Going forward

It is, of course, one of the more interesting aspects of the coastal policy debate that it is chiefly conservatives who are looking to commit federal dollars and progressives who are looking to rein in government spending and risk. Let’s hope this arrangement (and Dr. Young’s compelling testimony) busts a few stereotypes and causes Americans of all stripes to stand up and take a closer look at this and many other vital environmental policy debates in the very near future.

About the author

Rob Schofield, Director of NC Policy Watch, has three decades of experience as a lawyer, lobbyist, writer and commentator. At Policy Watch, Rob writes and edits daily online commentaries and handles numerous public speaking and electronic media appearances. He also delivers a radio commentary that’s broadcast weekdays on WRAL-FM and WCHL and hosts News and Views, a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina.