Coastline management issues are taking on added significance these days, both in policy and in conservation circles. One part of the discussion of coastal policy focuses on the increasing costs of storm-related damage to North Carolina’s coastal areas and property. This cost includes taxpayer outlays for the restoration and maintenance of natural areas, like animal habitat and beaches, as well as federal assistance for storm-damaged private properties.

Federal insurance subsidies for coastal storm relief under the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) effectively transfers wealth from taxpayers in general to specific property owners in vulnerable coastal areas. FEMA has significantly reduced the monetary risk of owning property in areas that experience damaging weather conditions. Given this, it’s no surprise that home owners have been willing to rebuild repeatedly in places like North Topsail Island, NC. The pattern is similar elsewhere. With many more properties situated along our storm-sensitive coast, the dollar value of property loss is increasing, and is an increasing concern.

Another aspect of coastal management focuses on the dynamics of coastlines and barrier islands themselves. Attempts to stabilize these natural areas with man-made structures may reduce the long-term stability of these coastal areas.

In the main, a number of approaches are vying for taxpayer dollars, and coastal management policy attention. These include shoreline building restrictions that would move developable areas significantly further from exposure to the oceanfront (the avoidance strategy), and ‘living shoreline’ projects. The permanent construction of protective features like seawalls is another appraoch. All would likely make shore properties significantly more expensive.

One difficulty in coming up with a workable plan for effective and economically feasible protection of shoreline areas is the problem of understanding the natural mechanisms involved in beach erosion and other problems. Engineering models like those used to understand the properties of steel, concrete, and other construction materials do not work well with natural, dynamic systems, according to geological experts. And wave patterns, which contribute significantly to the movement of sand and sediment along the coastline, are much more complex than previously thought. Ocean water near the coasts moves at different speeds and in different direction at different depths. It has defied adequate modeling so far. The things we really want to know are the likely effects of storms, water movement and water level, and even beach stabilization projects on the long-term stability of the coastline. Without these, it is practically impossible to decide how much and where coastal development makes sense.

During the latest NC legislative session legislators reversed the previous NC coastal management policy. A pilot project would allow permanent construction of shoreline stabilization structures like seawalls and jettys (or groynes). And the projects don’t guarantee success. Some geologists are concerned that permanent structures may prevent North Carolina’s barrier islands from reconstituting themselves naturally. The opportunity costs can be high, according to engineers, scientists and economists.

There are good economic reasons to argue for avoiding vulnerable coastline development. Some analysts recommend withdrawing federal assistance, including FEMA-subsidized insurance. The existing structure of FEMA encourages moral hazard —undue risk-taking with oceanfront construction in NC and in similar hazard-prone locations.

Coastal property owners receive a wealth transfer from taxpayers in general, because the costs of recovery through FEMA are financed by all taxpayers. Benefits go specifically to property owners. If property holders were instead paying a market price for flood or hurricane insurance, it’s certain that coastal development in North Carolina would be drastically different than it is today—and almost without doubt, much less extensive. Risk-rated insurance premiums would ensure that those who benefit also bear the costs.

No matter what the ultimate cause of weather and wave patterns along the North Carolina shoreline, it seems clear that the costs of trying to maintain existing development will escalate. Insulating property owners from those costs will encourage more building, and expose more property, not less, to the destructive forces of nature. By implication this exposes taxpayers to an expanding liability for the expanding cost.

If we continue to rely on state and federal dollars to address the problem, we should be prepared to incur higher taxes, or to forego some government services instead. It’s partly a question of the science, and mostly a question of the real opportunity costs of continual destruction and replacement, subsidized by taxpayers as a whole.