Environment: Shrinking Shores

Overdevelopment, poor planning and nature take their toll

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Despite such efforts, anti-erosion measures that might be expected to last for years can be wiped out by a single big storm. The worst to hit the Northeast in this century was the hurricane of 1938, which killed at least 600 people on the East Coast. Property damage was assessed at $3.2 billion (in 1987 dollars). A future recurrence of that kind of debacle worries experts like Norbert Psuty, director of the Center for Coastal and Environment Studies at Rutgers, who notes that the eastern U.S. has enjoyed the relative peace of a "low-storm phase" for the past 25 years. He believes the lull cannot last. "Because of continued development in high-hazard areas," he predicts, "the longer this phase continues, the worse the damage will be when a big storm finally hits." Gered Lennon, a geologist with the South Carolina Coastal Council, concurs: "There's always a bigger storm down the road."

Restricting shoreline development has fallen largely to individual states. Since 1971, 29 of the 30 states with coasts have adopted coastal zone management programs (the lone holdout: Texas). New Jersey and New York, for example, have programs to prevent beach erosion and stem development in high- risk areas. The former is welcomed by property owners and tax-base-hungry municipalities; the latter is not -- and is, therefore, politically difficult to maintain. Although a 1981 law permits New York State to redesignate coastal areas "not for development" after major storm damage, a 1985 amendment requires a twelve-month delay before redesignation, leaving ample time for rebuilding.

In North Carolina, developers cannot build large projects any closer than 120 ft. from the first line of dunes. The state outlaws permanent seawalls and other man-made barriers, a policy irreverently referred to as "fall back or fall in." Florida controls seaside construction by requiring approval by the Governor and state cabinet for any new building closer than about 300 ft. to the water's edge. For buildings granted past exemptions, Florida can and does take a stingy line in doling out reconstruction permits after hurricane or storm damage. Michigan offers low-interest loans in order to help move houses back from the shoreline. In South Carolina, on the other hand, there are scarcely any limits to where builders can build. They can go just about to the surf's edge. If their property is threatened, they can usually get a permit to erect a seawall.

A major problem in the battle against coastal erosion is the lack of statewide coordination. Says Dick McCarthy, a member of the California coastal commission: "We have a series of fractionalized local efforts that has each community involved in its own projects, often without taking into account the effects its protective measures may have on adjacent areas."

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