To Repair the Shore, or Retreat? [New York Times]

May 4, 2012

Article as it appeared in the New York Times on May 4, 2012

Christopher Capozziello for The New York Times

IRENE WAS HERE Tropical Storm Irene damaged many shoreline houses on Cosey Beach Avenue in East Haven last August. Some owners have rebuilt; others lack the wherewithal.

Published: May 3, 2012
“Some have been able to rebuild, but others don’t have the resources,” said State Senator Len Fasano, a Republican whose district includes East Haven. “A lot of these homes have been passed down from generation to generation. A few people have cleaned up their lot, removed the debris and put their property up for sale.”

Gale Silverberg, who owns one of the few houses on the lower end of the avenue to have suffered only minor damage, says the whole area would be better protected against storms if the beach were built back up. But property owners don’t have the money to truck in all that sand.

“And that’s the question,” Ms. Silverberg said. “When it’s all said and done, who’s going to pay for this?”
State lawmakers have begun to grapple with that question as they consider how to plan for the effects of climate change and rising sea levels on coastal development. But they have temporarily put aside the more delicate question of whether homeowners in Connecticut’s most vulnerable shoreline areas ought to rebuild at all, after a bill before the Environment Committee prompted a great deal of concern.

That legislation, proposed by the Connecticut chapter of the Nature Conservancy, called for “a fair and orderly legal process to foster strategic retreat of property ownership, over a period of several decades,” in coastal areas subject to erosion or repetitive structural damage.

The words “retreat” and “orderly legal process” sparked suspicions that the bill was laying the groundwork for the seizure of private homes by eminent domain. Says Mr. Fasano, who owns shoreline property himself, “I thought it was a forced taking by government.”

Seizing private property was never the Nature Conservancy’s intent, and “retreat” was not its language, said David Sutherland, the conservancy’s director of government relations.

“We very purposely did not put any specific process in there,” Mr. Sutherland said. “We were thinking of a variety of techniques for dealing with the potential threats from rising sea levels to both natural resources and coastal infrastructure.”

One technique being explored in other states is the establishment of a fund for voluntary buyouts of coastal property owners leery of rebuilding, he said.

State Senator Edward Meyer, who co-chairs the Environment Committee, amended the wording to encourage the “strategic realignment” of development instead. That drew objections from the Connecticut Marine Trades Association, which represents recreational boating interests. The language was still so ambiguous that municipal authorities might have interpreted it to mean they could “take somebody’s property because they think it’s going to get wet down the line,” said Grant Westerson, the association’s president.

Lawmakers have removed the reference altogether and left the question of retreat versus rebuild to a newly formed Shoreline Preservation Task Force. In the meantime, compromise legislation that was scheduled for a vote in the Senate on Thursday amends the Coastal Management Act to promote mitigation measures like moving structures farther back, elevating structures, and restoring or creating dunes to act as a barrier.

“This compromise recognizes the rights of private property owners to be in coastal areas,” Mr. Fasano said.
The legislation also aims to keep future homes and businesses out of harm’s way by authorizing state and local regulatory officials to consider rising sea levels when evaluating plans for new development.

Projections vary for the rate of sea-level rise in Long Island Sound, but a new report from Climate Central, a nonprofit research organization, predicts a rise of 12 inches by 2050. Maine and Rhode Island already include sea-level rise as a factor in their coastal management statutes, Mr. Sutherland said.

Another significant change included in this legislation is the definition of the high tide line, the boundary used to determine which authority has power to grant a permit in the coastal zone. The state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection has jurisdiction over structures on the water side of the line; towns have jurisdiction over structures on the land side.

High tide is currently defined as the debris line along the shore, which is subject to fluctuation. The new definition uses set elevations for each community, “which will make it much easier for someone applying for a permit, because the debris line can be highly variable,” said Brian Thompson, the director of the department’s Office of Long Island Sound Programs.

The bill represents the very beginning of a discussion that will last years, policymakers say.
In the meantime, Mr. Fasano is rebuilding the Silver Sands Beach and Tennis Club in East Haven, which he owns. Irene wiped out the building, which dated to the 1940s. Flood insurance did not begin to cover the cost of a new building that complies with flood codes and requirements for handicapped access. Despite the predictions of a rising flood risk, Mr. Fasano is confident in his decision to rebuild.

“I’ve lived down on the shoreline literally all my life,” he said. “Storms like Irene seem to be a very rare occurrence.”