State policy makers wrestle with how to deal with sea level rise
Published 3:03 pm, Sunday, March 18, 2012
It was once considered prime real estate, but some people are beginning to see Connecticut's shoreline another way -- as the delicate border between man and a rapidly rising sea.
Because of that, the state has to rethink the way it constructs buildings and roads on the cusp of change. But others see the proposed policy changes as added restrictions and regulations for a phenomenon they don't believe is happening.
Climatologists have collected solid evidence of what sea level patterns have been for the past 40 years. Most agree that the rate is accelerating.
Between 1964 and 2006, monthly tide gauges in Bridgeport show a mean sea level rise trend of 0.1 inch a year, according to the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.
There are numerous projections for how sea levels will rise in the future, but the global numbers the Adaptation subcommittee of the Governor's Committee on Climate Change used in 2010 say the sea will rise 0.2 to 0.39 inches by 2020, 0.75 - 1.14 inches by 2050, and 1.6 to 2.17 inches by 2080. By 2050, one can expect the effects of a 100 year storm by today's standards to recur every 56 to 61 years, according to DEEP.
Sea-level rise is in federal coastal zone statutes. Maine and Rhode Island have specific projections written into their state regulations. But neither the Connecticut State Statutes nor the state Coastal Management program mention it once.
It is, however, acknowledged in the grants handed out by the state through the Clean Water Fund.
A bill in the Connecticut General Assembly that came out of the Environment Committee would require towns and cities to consider the impacts of sea level rise, coastal flooding and erosion patterns when planning coastline developments.
"We've heard from state officials they don't have the authority to even consider it as a factor," David Sutherland, director of government relations for The Nature Conservancy in Connecticut. TNC wrote the original legislation.
Sea level rise will affect more than buildings. Roads that flooded infrequently now flood every year. In Branford, the town went from putting temporary barricades on some roads to installing permanent signs warning drivers there could be floods ahead. Branford is in the process of putting together a priority list of roads that need to be elevated, town engineer Janice Plaziak said. But during the 100-year floods, those roads are going to be flooded no matter how high they are, just as there are neighborhoods that will always be flooded, she said.
Plaziak started attending seminars on sea level rise. Unavoidable flooding is always the elephant in the room at these seminars, she said.
"One seminar I went to, they talked about property damage and insurance claims," Plaziak said. "But really it gets more personal and poignant for towns because it means people will physically lose their property and the town loses its tax base."
Also, septic systems and sewage treatment plants that already have problems will be further compromised because rising waters affect underground hydrology, Sutherland said.
Perhaps more importantly, towns will need money from the state to pay for making needed changes, Guilford town planner George Kral said.
One of the Nature Conservancy's proposed changes to the coastal zone management statutes called for "a fair and orderly legal process to foster strategic retreat of property ownership, over several decades, for coastal lands" that are likely to be lost to erosion.
State Sen. Len Fasano, whose district includes East Haven, interpreted the measure a scheme to take over local property.
"The bill will do more damage to our shoreline coastal communities than Tropical Storm Irene did," Fasano said in a hearing on the bill. "The only erosion we should be worried about is that of the public trust in this body."
But the legislation did not mandate, or even mention, the condemnation of land, Sutherland said. What it suggests is programs like relocation assistance for residents who lose land or suffer repeated structural damage or voluntary buy-out programs.
"The question is whether residents and communities assess these strategies in an uncoordinated and ad hoc way -- in many cases, after storm events -- or whether they try to plan for these changes and offer some kinds of assistance to those faced with these very difficult circumstances while there is time to do so in a more deliberate manner," Sutherland said.
But state Sen. Ed Meyer, who chairs the Environment Committee, agreed with Fasano that the language suggested the state could exercise eminent domain. He changed the language of the bill to suggest the state would "encourage" strategic location. Strategic location includes vertical movement as well as horizontal, Meyer said, like putting a house on stilts. It also includes putting sand on beaches to counteract erosion, he said.
"The renourishment of beaches to preserve property," Meyer said. "That's what we're driving at here. We're not driving at private property."
Plaziak is also Branford's flood plain manager, and property owners have to seek a permit from her if they are making a change to a house in a flood plain. When homeowners are told they have to elevate their house or build it a different way, it's not always well received, she said. Her requirements can change the look of a home and can add significantly to costs. Some homeowners will try to phase their construction to get around the requirements, she said.
Brian Thompson, DEEP's director of the Office of the Long Island Sound, said it was too premature to talk about what relocation efforts would look like. Any policy changes would require extensive discussion, he said.
"We haven't gotten to the point where we're having discussions," he said.
Fasano authored his own bill that he said would make it easier for homeowners to get permits for seawalls. Under the current law, DEEP can reject a seawall permit if it is "intrusive" to the environment. People spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on engineers and consultants trying to please DEEP, Fasano said, and the department still rejects the applications.
He said property owners should be allowed to submit three seawall plans and DEEP has to pick one, or come up with one itself that is acceptable.
Fasano owns the Silver Sands Beach Club, which was destroyed in Tropical Storm Irene. He got an amendment added to an economic jobs growth bill last year that allowed any property destroyed in the tropical storm to be exempt from current building codes. Instead, they could be rebuilt to the standards they were originally constructed under.
Sutherland said in the last three years, DEEP has received 236 applications for coastal structures. Of those, it has only rejected five, it has issued 170, and 49 are still pending.
"In some places, we are going to need armoring, but seawalls have their disadvantages," Sutherland said. "In Irene, we actually saw in some places if the waves were big enough, they would go over the seawall and then the seawall would prevent them from retreating. In a lot of cases, they can cause the scouring out of tidal flats or tidal wetlands and you get a bathtub effect. No tidal flats or wetlands, just a pool of water."
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