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May 27--The anti-scientists have taken root in the N.C. General Assembly, where lawmakers now want to prohibit regulators from considering coastal policy recommendations based on projections of sea-level rise. A draft bill would effectively tie the hands of regulatory agencies and coastal communities in attempting to plan for rising seas, the legislative equivalent of throwing caution to the wind.
In rejecting a report commissioned by the N.C. Coastal Resources Commission and compiled based on sound science, the legislation's supporters would handicap long-range planning and potentially cost taxpayers untold millions, if not billions down the road. The report drew gasps and its share of unbelievers with its prediction that sea levels along the North Carolina coastline would rise by 39 inches by 2100.
The report contains recommendations that would increase construction and maintenance costs of buildings as well as roads and other infrastructure.
Under the proposal, sponsored by Rep. Pat McElraft, R-Carteret, only "historical data" dating to no earlier than the 1900s would be considered. State agencies would be barred from using the best available science. In other words, let us cover our eyes and fly blind.
The coastal panel's report was based on scientific projections and should be taken seriously. That's not to say we must call for an immediate retreat or implement rules that will lead to what an economic development group's director predicts will be "economic catastrophe." We have to be practical. But it is irresponsible public policy to bury our heads in the sands and ignore science-based warnings.
But Tom Thompson of NC 20, which represents coastal towns, development and real estate interests, is wrong to suggest that using scientific projections in long-range planning is "a fool's errand."
The real folly was a development-driven coastal policy that positioned billions of dollars of real estate in harm's way on the shifting sandbars we call barrier islands. Even without concerns about sea-level rise, the policy needs shoring up.
One reason cited for double-digit increases in homeowners insurance rates in coastal counties was to fatten the Beach Plan, which was severely underfunded. State officials and insurance industry actuaries projected that a catastrophic hurricane could cause $7 billion in damage.
The construction boom that built out once sparsely developed islands raised the stakes. Many of the houses and other structures were built where erosion eats away sand and threatens to topple them. Sandbags that sit in front of property years longer than the law allows are one example of deference to development over good coastal policy.
Which is what prompted the General Assembly last year to punch a hole in the state's long-standing ban on seawalls and other permanent structures, which tend to shift erosion to other parts. Now a few "experimental" terminal groins will attempt to stabilize the tips of some barrier islands near inlets, at a cost of millions of dollars each -- with some of that cost borne by taxpayers.
Will the sea level rise more than three feet in the next 88 years? The scientists say we should be ready for that. Lobbyists representing coastal communities and development interests say, "Whoa, let's just wait and see."
In the case of our changing coastline, gradual retreat or relocation should be an option should we begin to see signs of a rapidly encroaching Atlantic Ocean. But the easiest way to guard against the possible impact of either rising seas or the force of a robust hurricane is to place additional requirements on new construction.
What's already built along the coastline represents a substantial investment for the owners and a source of revenue for coastal towns, which depend on that real estate and the residents or visitors it attracts. But we can mitigate the future impact by putting in place some reasonable restrictions on new construction.
Some of those changes may reduce costs from one phenomenon we know will strike sooner or later: Hurricane season comes every year.
(c)2012 the Star-News (Wilmington, N.C.)
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