SECOND THOUGHTS ON SUPER-STORM SANDY

Posted on December 18, 2012 by Gregory Sharp

A prior post by Michael Rodburg described New Jersey’s coastal regulatory programs, Sandy’s impact on that state and the policy choices it now must face.  This alert will focus on Connecticut’s experience with Storm Irene and Super-storm Sandy and the challenges for government at all levels that the storms have presented.

Connecticut is known as the “land of steady habits,” but after being hit by two significant storms within a fourteen month period, many people are beginning to question the sustainability of the state’s historic coastal growth patterns and the ability of the current regulatory scheme to address the challenges that climate change is bringing to coastal states like Connecticut.

The impact on Connecticut from Sandy was not as great as the impact on New Jersey, because the storm atypically turned West as it approached Long Island, and the eye of the storm hit the New Jersey coast head on.  However, Connecticut was not spared, because Sandy’s peak easterly winds occurred during a spring high tide event.  This combination of factors pushed a record high storm surge into western Long Island Sound, which narrows as it approaches its westerly outlet through the East River separating Manhattan from Brooklyn.

Due to this constriction, the water had no where to go but up in the western Sound, and it over-topped seawalls and flooded many residential areas in Fairfield County which had not historically been subjected to flooding.  It also threatened several utility sub-stations in Bridgeport and other urban centers, which were only saved by emergency flood proofing efforts.  Sadly, for many East-facing shorefronts, Sandy flooded out structures that had just been re-built following the ravages of Irene.

Ironically, like the programs in New Jersey discussed in Michael Rodburg’s post, Connecticut has had a decades old and robust coastal regulatory program.  The first legislation in 1939 was prompted by the deadly 1938 Hurricane.  In 1969, legislation was adopted to regulate and protect tidal wetlands.  These two programs have evolved since their initial passage and now require State permits respectively for dredging, installation of structures, and placement of fill in tidal and navigable waters, and for similar regulated activities in tidal wetlands.  The legislature strengthened the coastal programs in 1979 by authorizing a comprehensive coastal zone management program which required government agencies to make permit decisions in the coastal area consistent with the goals and policies of the Coastal Management Act (“CMA”).

Despite this expansive regulatory edifice designed to provide natural resource protection, minimize armoring, and offer preferred regulatory status to water-dependent uses in the coastal area, Sandy clearly challenged the adequacy of the current scheme.  One problem is that the statutes, particularly the CMA, have come decades too late to effectively steer development away from the coast.  A second is that the CMA’s goal of encouraging only water-dependent uses to be located in the coastal area has not been followed by the 34 towns in the coastal area which have the power to determine land use patterns through zoning.

The flaws in the current regulatory scheme prompted some environmental groups after Irene to call for a phased “retreat from the coast,” which immediately drew fire from property rights advocates in the legislature, and a legislative Shoreline Protection Task Force was created in the 2012 legislative session to study the issues.

Aside from the property rights issues involved in a governmental strategy of retreat, a significant problem in Connecticut would be that many coastal communities have a limited industrial/commercial tax base.  As a result waterfront properties comprise a disproportionately large share of the municipal grand list.  For government to try to force property owners out, or buy them out would leave many communities with a major revenue hole.  At a time of declining state revenues and a looming budget shortfall, it will be interesting to see how Connecticut’s General Assembly reacts to the impacts of Irene and Sandy in the legislative session beginning in January of 2013.



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