Compromise sought on coastal protection bills

Legislators are working toward crafting a compromise bill from two existing proposals that take very different approaches in dealing with the effects of flooding and storm surge on coastal properties.

Their goal is to produce a bill in time for a vote by the state legislature this session.

One of the two existing bills seeks to make projections of the rise in sea levels a factor in coastal land-use and construction decisions. The other would make it easier for coastal property owners to build seawalls and other "armoring" structures to protect their homes and businesses.

State Sen. Edward Meyer, D-Guilford, co-chairman of the General Assembly's Environment Committee, said Thursday that his committee approved both bills so that a compromise bill could be developed. This week, he said, a small group of lawmakers has begun meeting to create the compromise bill that would be presented to the full legislature for a vote.

The first bill, sponsored by The Nature Conservancy, has been significantly revised from its original version, Meyer said, to address concerns that it would have allowed the taking of properties deemed to be at high risk for severe flooding and storm damage. Testimony presented during a public hearing on that bill cited data showing sea level rising about 2.4 inches per decade over the last century along the state's coastline and the increasing frequency and severity of storms, all the result of climate change.

"There was a tremendous amount of opposition from shoreline property owners that this would allow the state to use the legal process to force 'strategic retreat' from the coast," he said, adding that some feared it would allow an expansion of the eminent domain powers of government.

The original language of that bill, to "encourage a fair and orderly legal process to foster strategic retreat of property ownership," has been changed so that it now would "encourage the strategic realignment of development."

State Sen. Andrew Maynard, D-Stonington, co-chairman of the newly formed Long Island Sound Caucus, said he expects the new version will direct the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection to reach out to coastal property owners and local land-use agencies about the predicted sea level rise and storms so that can be considered when reviewing construction plans and permit applications.

"There is a reality that needs to be considered," said Maynard, who also is a member of the Environment Committee. "But nothing we're trying to do will increase the reach or scope of DEEP."

Maynard said he also is hoping that the new version of the bill will clarify who has authority over granting permits for coastal development - a local agency or DEEP. Currently, DEEP has jurisdiction over areas below the high-tide line and local agencies have jurisdiction above it, but a precise determination of where the high-tide line falls is needed, he said, particularly with sea levels on the rise.

State Sen. Len Fasano, R-North Haven, co-chairman with Maynard of the Long Island Sound Caucus, is the sponsor of the bill that would have made it easier for shoreline property owners to "armor" their homes and businesses with seawalls and other structures. He said that bill grew out of the frustration of property owners in his district who could not get DEEP permits for seawalls, jetties and other structures after Tropical Storm Irene.

"My bill was a direct result of the storm," Fasano said.

During a public hearing on the bill, David Sutherland, director of government relations for The Nature Conservancy, testified that in many cases sea walls do not protect properties, and instead create problems for adjacent property owners and destroy tidal wetlands, among other drawbacks.

"Communities need the ability to be very deliberate in determining whether or where to allow them," Sutherland said.

The compromise bill now in development, Fasano said, is an attempt to "figure out how we can manage rebuilding along the shore in a safe-harbor fashion."

"The statutes now allow you to protect your property along Long Island Sound," he said. "The question is, what's the best manner to protect your property?"

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