7:43 PM EST, January 11, 2013
When the General Assembly was looking at how to protect the Connecticut shoreline from rising sea levels and violent Atlantic storms just months after Hurricane Irene struck in October 2011, a bill surfaced calling for the state to begin planning for a "strategic retreat" from flood-prone locations along the shoreline.
The proposal got nowhere. Few in the Capitol were ready even to contemplate asking property owners to surrender water views and beach rights, no matter how desperate the circumstances.
The legislature wound up instead passing a less far-reaching bill, yet one that has the virtue of having introduced the topic of climate change and rising sea levels into the calculus that governs shoreline development.
By chance, the law, PA 12-101, went into effect the same month that mega-storm Sandy ravaged the shoreline. That second catastrophic storm in only 14 months underscored the urgency of swinging into action to protect the coastline and its inhabitants.
Connecticut sustained about a billion dollars' worth of damage from Sandy and the two big storms of 2011. Fortunately, no one in Connecticut drowned because of Sandy, but in New York City, 35 of the 43 deaths were drownings, including people trying too late to escape from areas that had been ordered to evacuate.
As Connecticut struggles to recover from these severe blows and looks ahead to a precarious future for its shoreline, protection needs to be one of the state's first orders of business.
The legislation sets the foundation for this work by bringing Connecticut's 1980 Coastal Area Management Act into the era of climate change, rising sea levels, and erratic and violent weather. The changes are not bold, but they are the right thing to do, given the complexity and sensitivity of the job ahead.
For the first time, the state and its municipalities will be able to factor in potential rises in sea levels in their regulatory policies and planning.
Both the state and its municipalities now will have the authority to consider risks from increasing sea levels in the plans of conservation and development that guide their land-use policies.
The law also takes the guesswork out of defining the high-tide line, below which the state has permitting authority over construction of docks and other structures, dredging and filling. The boundary had been the regularly shifting debris line left behind by the tide. The new jurisdictional line will be determined by precise elevations that can be ascertained by a surveyor if the situation calls for it.
The law favors natural as opposed to structural solutions to beach erosion and flood protection. This preference is based on the sound assumption that man-made structures such as sea walls and bulkheads often can do more harm than good, magnifying beach erosion by intensifying the force of waves. Beaches, dunes and salt marshes have been shown to make shorelines more resilient to storms. The Department of Energy and Environmental Protection wants to create a pilot program to help municipalities carry out such projects and is making preparations for a study into where such methods might work best along the shoreline, based on evidence from the two recent storms.
THE SEA IS COMING
On Monday, a bipartisan task force created last year to recommend additional legislation to preserve and protect the shoreline reported out its proposals, setting a fresh agenda for the lawmakers to consider in dealing with climate change, rising seas and severe storms.
Lurking in the wings in this discussion remains the issue nobody wants to face: How long will it be before it is necessary to sound a retreat from the advancing sea?
Connecticut is not there yet. Its best hope to forestall that possibility is to make wise and informed decisions with the full realization that the high tide line is creeping inland and the storms are getting more ferocious.
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