decisions about shortfront property are no longer excusable
Portland Press Herald (Maine Voices section)/ Friday, July 30, 2010
Owners who won't do what's best for the site and their neighbors need to pay the price.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR -- Eli Lazarus of Portland is a coastal geologist and , a graduate of the Santa
Fe Institute's 2010 Global Sustainability Summer School.
PORTLAND — Despite countless examples of the risks inherent in owning
oceanfront property, many coastal landowners still seem surprised when nature
comes to collect.
This willful naivete about the real cost of owning coastal property is
disappointing, and doesn't bring towns, states or the federal government any
closer to finding equitable solutions to the problems driven by permanent
development along dynamic shorelines.
Twice in August (on the 14th and 17th), the Maine Public Broadcasting Network
will re-broadcast a 2009 documentary video produced by the Maine Sea Grant
entitled, "Building a Resilient Coast: Maine Confronts Climate Change."
Between 2007-2008, the Maine Sea Grant, in cooperation with the University of Maine Cooperative
Extension, the Center for Research and Evaluation, and the Maine Coastal
Program, surveyed and interviewed nearly 600 coastal property owners and town
officials in southern and midcoast Maine.
In the technical report on the project (available through the Maine Sea Grant
website, www.seagrant.umaine.edu), property owners describe different measures
they took to limit destruction from shoreline erosion: They raised sea-walls,
armored embankments with rocks, dug diversion ditches and trucked in sand to
replenish overwashed dunes.
Sea walls, rip-rap and concrete, despite the solidity and security they
suggest, are still only temporary answers to the focused erosive forces that can
undercut, rearrange, pummel and carry away.
Because waves and storms are an inevitable part of living on the Maine coast,
those stabi-lization structures, if a homeowner opts to build them, will always
That's a fact of coastal owner-ship as inescapable as animal chores on a
working farm - the work is part of the deliberate choice to live there.
But a number of the respon-dents to the Maine Sea Grant survey feel the
burden of maintaining their sea-sprayed real estate is too much.
Rather than accept low-interest loans for damage repair, most property owners
want direct financial grants or want the government to pay - even though that
only passes the buck to their neighbors.
The owners say that permit restrictions on repairing storm damage are unfair,
and the overwhelming majority feel that state and federal governments are
impinging on their property rights.
Some owners suggest that the onus is on general contractors, who should
provide stronger building design and construction. But outfitting a house with
reinforced walls, blow-out panels and hurricane tethers doesn't fix the problems
of a vulnerable site any more than adding a few big rocks at the high-tide line
will change prevailing wind patterns or ward off storm surges.
furthermore, the majority of coastal landowners interviewed don't trust the
risk-awareness information provided by local, state or federal agencies. They
dismiss in-formation from the University of Maine and Maine Geological Survey as
having an "agenda," and deem the Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
If not scientists, then whom would the owners consult to learn what they can
or cannot do with their waterfront property? Who in this cast of players doesn't
have an agenda?
"Realtors" topped the list.
In coastal municipalities where private-property rights are a volatile issue,
planning for a sustainable future typically has nothing to do with the
environment When ardent property-rights interests say "sustainable," they really
Implicit in many arguments for revamped coastal man-agement plans is the
belief that rules and regulations for development should relax to alleviate
True sustainable practices come at a price, which means bad shorefront
decisions will have to get more expensive. Setbacks need to widen, even if that means a smaller allowable development footprint- or no footprint at all.
Penalties for waterfront tree removal and other code violations need to be
prohibitive, not just folded into the cost of doing business.
Resilience of Maine's coastal communities will only come with adaptation to
natural variability, not from staunch refusal to admit our personal
responsibility for the land we occupy.
Straight answers about the potential impacts of coastal change are available
and ac-cessible, even if they aren't the answers many coastal landowners want to
hear. Buy an oceanfront lot, and the hazards of erosion, storm vulnerability and
property loss are part of the deal
Nature doesn't care who pays for damages or how high the assessment runs, and
neither does a real estate agent - but the neighbors do.