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The High Cost of Subsidized Coastal Development
Robert S. Young

We know where the vulnerable coastal areas are: Coastal geologists, engineers and managers have used a variety of tools to delineate hazard-prone shorelines for one-quarter of a century now. The U.S. Geological Survey has assembled comprehensive maps of coastal vulnerability, and its scientists have created innovative methods for assessing the inherent risk for particular shorelines based on pre-storm geomorphic factors. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has produced storm inundation maps to predict storm-surge flooding in coastal areas, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency has been mapping flood-prone areas for decades to provide Flood Insurance Rate Maps for the Federal Flood Insurance Program. And numerous academics (myself included) have dedicated their careers to understanding coastal storm processes and coastal vulnerability.

So if we have such an excellent science-based understanding of coastal hazards and risk, then why do people continue to flock to the coast, and why does oceanfront development continue unabated? The answer is simple: There is a lot of money to be made, and taxpayers are subsidizing most of the risk.

Many geologists look at the development on the west end of Dauphin Island, Ala., and wonder who would be crazy enough to build on such a low-elevation, narrow, unvegetated barrier island. But the people developing the coast and the oceanfront property owners are not crazy. As long as the rest of us continue to subsidize their investment, they would be crazy not to build.

The private sector’s drive to build in the coastal zone is strong.

Taxpayers subsidize coastal development in a number of ways. First, state and federal funds are used for rebuilding infrastructure (roads, bridges, etc.) after coastal storms. Even small storms that don’t damage well-constructed houses often require millions of dollars to repair the infrastructure. Additionally, federally managed flood insurance provides below-market coverage for flood damage to coastal homes. And on top of that, state and federal governments fund beach-replenishment projects, which are justified primarily by the value of coastal development that they protect, not on recreational value.

Recently, I was asked to testify about the reauthorization of the 1982 Coastal Barrier Resources Act (CBRA, pronounced “cobra”) before the Subcommittee on Fisheries and Oceans of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Resources. CBRA, as originally conceived, was precedent-setting legislation that established the general philosophy that the federal government should not be encouraging or subsidizing the development of vulnerable coastal areas.

The act eliminated federal support for any new development along undeveloped barrier island shorelines — sections of coast that have less than one building per 5 acres or that lack complete infrastructure systems. Federal subsidies that were eliminated included those for flood insurance, transportation, utilities, erosion control and post-storm reconstruction. While the law does not explicitly restrict development on CBRA islands, it is intended to shift the financial burden of building or rebuilding in high-risk areas away from the federal government and onto the local community.

As it turns out, many islands admitted to the CBRA system were developed anyway. The private sector’s drive to build in the coastal zone is strong. Although CBRA may not have halted development in vulnerable coastal areas, it has certainly been successful at reducing the financial burden to federal taxpayers caused by that development. In addition, CBRA has shown that the private sector can, and will, continue to pursue coastal projects even without the billions of federal dollars now flowing into coastal communities for beach replenishment, storm rebuilding and subsidized flood insurance.

In my appearance before Congress, I supported the reauthorization of CBRA. In fact, I advocated for the expansion of CBRA to restrict federal aid for all vulnerable shorelines, developed or undeveloped. Continued federal disaster aid for rebuilding repeatedly damaged coastal areas has cost taxpayers tens of billions of dollars in the last two years. The current program provides an excellent model for relieving federal taxpayers of an even greater burden.

A commission should be established to add vulnerable (developed) coastal areas to the CBRA system. I suggest the formation of a commission similar to the Base Realignment and Closing Commission. This hypothetical Shoreline Retreat Advisory Commission would be composed of objective scientists and coastal managers. Like the base commission, this commission must not include any individuals whose jobs involve guarding interested constituencies.

The shoreline commission would meet every five years to identify vulnerable shorelines that will be removed from all future federal assistance and added to CBRA protection. The commission’s recommendations must be accepted or rejected as a whole. Some of the federal money saved by switching the rebuilding responsibility to local organizations could be used in aiding communities that choose a planned retreat. In the end, we may be forced into this solution if the coastal impact of more storms such as Hurricane Katrina balloons our federal deficit to the extent that harm is done to the national economy.

In essence, Congress would be extending CBRA’s restrictions on federal subsidy of new development, flood insurance and infrastructure rebuilding to shorelines that are already developed, but identifiably vulnerable. Perhaps these communities could be given a “one more strike and you’re out” warning. The federal government will support disaster assistance after the next storm, but then the community will be on its own. We can objectively determine where these most vulnerable shorelines are. And in the interest of fairness, we must insist that the communities that build there assume responsibility for themselves.

Young is an associate professor of geology at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, N.C. E-mail:


"New Orleans: Why Rebuild?" Geotimes, December 2005
"Don't Try to Fool Mother Nature," Geotimes, December 2005

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