How government pushes people in the wrong direction

(Reuters) - As early as 1972, Congress recognized the inherent conflict of interest for local governments between the benefits of development and the necessity of protecting lives and limiting the costs of recurring disasters. That year, it passed the Coastal Zone Management Act to address concerns about “increasing and competing demands upon the lands and waters of our coastal zone occasioned by population growth and economic development.”

But the law had no teeth, giving states free rein over their coastlines. It directed the federal government merely to “encourage” states to do the right thing, providing a modest purse of grants as incentives.

The grants, administered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, pay communities to develop plans for controlling growth, protecting the environment and dealing with rising sea levels. These aren’t grand schemes. In 2010, Florida used a grant to publish guidelines to help communities write post-disaster plans that ensure “more rapid and effective redevelopment.”

The program’s $65 million annual grant budget is chump change next to the multi-billion-dollar federal programs that encourage seaside development: below-market flood insurance, disaster bailouts and shoreline protection projects.

“People who have invested in these communities, they know what hurricanes can do. And the people who manage these communities understand that the hazards have increased over time,” said Rob Young, a coastal geologist who directs the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, North Carolina. “It’s not an education problem. It’s a federally funded incentive problem. It’s a financial problem.”

In 1982, Congress passed the Coastal Barrier Resources Act to stem the flow of taxpayer subsidies into risky development. The law prohibits spending federal funds to insure or protect more than 1,300 miles of the most vulnerable privately owned segments of U.S. shoreline. The act applied only to land that was undeveloped at the time of passage.

Florida accounts for 200 miles of shoreline covered by the law, more than any other state, and its representatives in Congress have pushed to remove large segments of its shore from the federal blacklist.

More than a dozen attempts have succeeded, the most notable in the 1990s. Then-U.S. Representative Tillie Fowler, now deceased, led a successful campaign by Florida legislators through Congress and the courts that removed land in 10 counties, including St. Johns and Walton. The Republican lawmaker argued that the original act mistakenly included land that was in the early stages of development and thus shouldn’t have been covered by the law.

Ten bills are pending to remove land, including four in Florida. One of the most contentious is Cape San Blas and the adjoining St. Joseph Peninsula, a sand spit 15 miles long and a half-mile wide on the eastern end of the Panhandle. Since the federal law was passed, nearly 1,000 homes have been built on the finger of land, which has the state’s fastest-eroding shoreline.

The state and county spent $21 million to add sand to the beach, but most of it was swept away by a storm before the project was completed. Now residents and local officials want off the blacklist so they can qualify for a federally funded beach renourishment project and disaster aid.

U.S. Representative Steve Southerland II, a Republican from Florida’s 2nd congressional district, is sponsoring the legislation. At a congressional hearing earlier this year, he argued that taking away access to federal sand projects is “not just about erosion of sand; it’s also about the erosion of common sense and … personal property rights.”

Edited by John Blanton