Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Beach BRAC?

"There's been a steadily increasing buildup in high-hazard areas, especially in the Gulf from Louisiana to Alabama. The federal and local governments don't have the ability to say no, even when the risks are so obvious."

-- David Conrad, quoted Sept. 7, 2005
Prof. Robert Young of West Carolina University, which is safely nestled in the western North Carolina highlands, will be testifying to a congressional subcommittee today about his proposal to create a "Shoreline Retreat Advisory Commission."

Prof. Young's "S.R.A.C." idea is modeled on the military's "Base Closing and Realignment Commission" (BRAC), the every-so-often commission created by Congress that gives heartburn to every community addicted to federal largesse from the Department of Defense. After years of politicized groveling for Defense Department pork, Congress finally stapled its own stomach in 1988 by passing off responsibility for efficient spending of federal defense base funds to an independent commission. As originally conceived, BRAC recommended to the Secretary of Defense which military bases are unnecessary and should be closed.

The system is not without its problems, as Air Force Col. Stephen Schwalby has written. Most recently, the base closing decisions have been re-politicized by subjecting them, anew, to congressional "oversight."

What does all of this have to do with America's beaches? Prof. Young is proposing to hobble the politically powerful beach-front development lobby by creating a similar independent commission that would determine which coastal areas are so vulnerable to flooding they should be weaned from the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP).

Consistent with the Constitution and "property rights" advocates, Young would not prohibit development in those high-hazard communities. He simply would exclude them from receiving taxpayer subsidies in the form of federally subsidized flood insurance.

As an advance release described Young's prepared testimony, he argues:
"Continued federal disaster aid for rebuilding vulnerable coastal areas has cost taxpayers tens of billions of dollars in the last two years... . Irresponsible development of vulnerable coastal areas is becoming a burden on an already overburdened federal budget, as well as an environmental disaster.”
No more federal flood insurance subsidies would mean that in designated coastal areas, free market driven developers would be forced to depend on -- well, on the uninhibited free market. A capitalist's nightmare, for sure.

As Prof. Young told National Public Radio this morning, his proposal would lead to a graduated retreat from the most "dangerous, vulnerable" areas. Although he is quick to say it would not eliminate large coastal cities like Miami or Wilmington, Young's proposal is likely to bring dramatic changes even in the most vulernable spots there.

As New York Times science editor Cornelian Dean wrote two months ago, Prof. Young and other coastal morphology colleagues have been arguing against a "one size fits all" NFIP program for many years. Some beaches are more vulnerable than others. Some developments are better able to withstand storms than others. So when it comes to coastal development, they say, public policy should be based more closely on the detailed facts and findings pertaining to specific sites, including such things as the frequency of storms, the elevation of the landscape, the shape of the beach, the presence of guardian wetlands and natural dunes, etc. etc.

The notion of a gradual retreat from high hazard coastal areas, which has been kicking around academic and government policy circles for decades, finally entered the public consciousness in 1998 with the publication of Dean's fine book, Against The Tide. The old www.pbrla.com web site reviewed that book back when the idea of destroying island wetlands to build Portofino high rise buildings was just a gleam in Alan Levin's eye.

Now, even some politicians are getting the message. Last month on a visit to the Gulf Coast, Dean quoted a former Texas legislator who now expresses sorrow that he sponsored legislation that encouraged people to build developments in high hazard coastal plains:
A. R. Schwartz, a Democrat who for decades represented Galveston and much of the Texas coast in the State Legislature, said he now regretted some of the legislation he had pushed that subsidized development on the coast, particularly a measure that provides tax relief to insurance companies faced with wind damage claims.

Mr. Schwartz, whose constituents knew him as Babe, said that measure was "a terrible mistake - in my mind, as opposed to my heart, because the people need the insurance - because it has been an invitation for people to build homes on barrier islands and on peninsulas that are exposed to storms, at public expense."

"We are facing a crisis now because of that law I passed," said Mr. Schwartz, who now lives in Austin where he works as a lobbyist and lawyer.
Surely, Santa Rosa Island one day would fall under the microscope of such a S.R.A.C. commission as Prof. Young proposes. The signs are evident even now. On a visit to the Gulf Coast last month, Cornelia Dean ran into Riley Hoggard of the Gulf Islands National Park Service.

Riley's an old friend of Pensacola Beach residents. Lately, he and Park Service superintendent Jerry Eubanks have been agonizing over what to do about the seemingly permanent breach of the island between Pensacola Beach and Ft. Pickens. Knowledgeable informants tell us that the 300 feet-wide breach is exposed twice a day at high tide and at all times during even mild rain storms.

"It's time to consider replacing the road, possibly, for example, with a ferry service from the mainland," Hoggard told Dean.
But, as is the case on all the developed shoreline, abandoning infrastructure means lost revenue, in this case fees from a year-round campground. So Mr. Hoggard said there would be pressure to maintain the road, flooded yet again by pounding surf churned up by Hurricane Rita. "We can do that with our technology," he said. "But only for so long, and at a great price."
As the road to Ft. Pickens goes, so it seems, may go Pensacola Beach itself, sooner or later. The costs are skyrocketing for flood and wind insurance, storm proof construction, and the infrastructure needed to support it all. With or without Prof. Young's S.R.A.C., Pensacola Beach soon could be only for the super-wealthy.

There is an engineering solution to almost every problem. Figuring a way to build a new road to Ft. Pickens is no great trick, even if it has to be hung in the air. Residential and commercial beach development always will be technologically possible, too, just as it's always been possible to pave the entire nation with military bases from one end to the other, if we choose to do so.

The questions are "at what price?" Who should pay for it? And, is it worth it to those who are expected to pay for it?

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