Coastal protection plan supported by both parties is going nowhere

By Evan Lehmann | 03/11/2015 08:24 AM EDT

Imagine a law against doing "stupid stuff."

That might happen if Congress doubles the reach of the Coastal Barrier Resources Act, supporters say. First passed in 1982, it currently bans federal investments on undeveloped barrier islands to deter home construction, road building and the risk of death from hurricanes on 1.3 million acres of U.S. shoreline.

But there’s little interest in Congress in getting behind the expansion of the law, according to proponents. Instead, most of the attention by lawmakers is aimed at trimming back the program’s boundaries to give island communities more incentives for development.


The original law passed the House 33 years ago with four dissenting votes, and only one of them was cast by a Republican, Rep. Don Young of Alaska. Advocates say the measure has a special appeal for both environmentalists and fiscal conservatives.

"My judgment is that this is one of the few pieces of major environmental legislation that would have a very good chance in a Republican Congress," said Eli Lehrer, president of the libertarian R Street Institute and a key proponent of the plan.

The program protects ecosystems for fish and birds while preserving natural barriers against storm-blown waves that are getting higher with sea-level rise, supporters say. It could also save a great deal of government money. Federal flood insurance is off-limits within the protected areas, and so is funding to rebuild bridges and sewers and to replenish beaches after a storm.

It doesn’t outlaw development, but the program does make it less economical to build in areas where the federal government won’t provide those things. Supporters say those responsibilities should fall to the people who choose to build homes in harm’s way and not to taxpayers everywhere else.

It’s unclear how much money the program has saved over the years, but in a 2002 report, the government estimated that its lifetime savings were $1.3 billion. Supporters say it likely has prevented additional debt from accruing to the National Flood Insurance Program, which now owes the U.S. Treasury $24 billion. The protected areas would also stop the drain on disaster aid payments, including tens of billions appropriated in the past decade.

Can this Congress stop a ‘subsidy spiral’?

President Ronald Reagan said the program would help stop a "subsidy spiral" when he signed it into law in 1982. He noted that the government at the time paid $53,000 per acre to redevelop island communities after a storm.

"The Coastal Barrier Resources Act meets a national problem with less federal involvement, not more," Reagan said, calling it "precisely the sort of imaginative environmental legislation this administration encourages."

Bolivar beach after Ike
In 2008, Hurricane Ike caused $29.5 billion worth of damage along the U.S. Gulf Coast. Its high wind made an almost clean sweep of the beach houses on Texas’ Bolivar Peninsula. | Photo by Ed Schipul, courtesy of Flickr.

Congress isn’t alone in its apparent inability to come to grips with this message. Lehrer said environmental donors and other foundations haven’t shown a strong interest in funding reports and outreach efforts that could inform lawmakers of its benefits. It loses out to other priorities.

"In the cosmic sense, getting a carbon tax is, and ought to be, a higher priority," said Lehrer, whose group also promotes a revenue-neutral carbon tax that would help lower tax rates on things like income.

There have been small successes. In Florida, the state-run hurricane insurance program, Citizens Property Insurance Corp., stopped issuing policies in areas seaward of the "coastal construction line," essentially mimicking the Coastal Barriers Resources Act (CBRA).

And in Texas, where island development is booming (see related story), Lehrer’s group helped install language that restricts the use of public hurricane insurance in CBRA areas.

Vocal local constituents rule

Indeed, there’s more action to weaken the CBRA than to strengthen it. Lawmakers see local opportunities for new tax revenue, more jobs and additional federal funding. And they also get to please vocal constituents who see the program’s restrictions as unfair, including developers and real estate agents who sell beach houses.

In North Topsail Beach, N.C., for example, lawmakers in both parties introduced legislation in the last Congress to redraw the program’s boundaries to make federal funding available to areas that were developed after the law went into place.

Local officials say it’s only fair that their residents have access to the same level of funding for beach nourishment, roads, utilities and flood insurance as their neighbors down the coast have.

But supporters of expanding the law say those homeowners should be on their own, because they built in treacherous areas after the CBRA program was enacted.

"That’s what the CBRA says, ‘Don’t subsidize stupid stuff,’" Lehrer said.