'Free-market approach' to conservation
is up for reauthorization
By Mary M. Shaffrey
Winton-Salem Journal Washington Bureau
Published November 13, 2005
First authorized in 1982, the Coastal Barrier Resources
Act was designed to get the federal government out of
the business of building or rebuilding in fragile coastal
The act eliminated federal subsidies for flood insurance
and infrastructure on undeveloped or sparsely populated
barrier islands, and its boundaries now include more than
3 million acres along the Atlantic Ocean, Gulf Coast,
Puerto Rico and the Great Lakes, including about 35,000
acres in North Carolina.
Described as a "free-market approach" to natural-resource
conservation, it set out three main goals: saving human
lives by discouraging development in areas prone to hurricanes
or flooding; protecting natural resources; and saving
It didn't tell people how they could develop their land
- it simply said that the federal government wouldn't
bail them out if their homes or businesses were lost to
flooding and had not been insured under the federal flood-insurance
program before Oct. 1, 1983.
By many accounts, the act is working. The U.S. Fish and
Wildlife Service estimated that its provisions will have
saved $1.2 billion by 2010, and said that the policy has
curbed development in many places mapped into its boundaries.
Even so, the pace of coastal development has continued
to accelerate. A recent federal report said that over
the last 30 years more than 37 million people and 19 million
homes have been added to coastal areas.
As Congress begins considering reauthorization of the
Coastal Barrier Resources Act, this year's devastating
hurricane season has raised interest in a usually bureaucratic
"CBRA reauthorization isn't going to change the
way (the law) is managed. Any pieces of land in the Outer
Banks that would be affected are already covered. This
(reauthorization) is not going to change that," said
Rob Young, an associate professor of geology at Western
Under the current act, Congress may allocate up to $2
million a year to administer the program - maintaining
and updating the official maps, making recommendations
to Congress about areas that could be included or excluded
from the program, and deciding whether a private property
is inside the boundary.
Young and others think that the reauthorization is a
good time to push to extend the boundaries of the coastal-barrier
protection act and include limits on disaster aid to developed
During a congressional hearing last week on the reauthorization,
Young recommended the establishment of a Shore Retreat
Advisory Commission. It would identify shorelines to be
excluded from receiving federal aid for development and
be patterned after the Base Realignment and Closing Commission,
which made recommendations earlier this year about which
military bases should be closed or consolidated. The federal
government, he said, could help communities build farther
away from the shore rather than funnel money into areas
likely to be damaged by hurricanes. The burden of rebuilding
after storms could be left to local governments, he said.
In his testimony before the House Subcommittee on Fisheries
and Oceans, Andrew Coburn underscored Young's point.
"The nation needs to come to its collective sense
about the future of development along our beaches and
seriously consider retreating from eroding shorelines,"
said Coburn, the associate director of the Program for
the Study of Developed Shorelines at Duke University.
Steve Ellis, a vice president of the group Taxpayers
for Common Sense Action, told the committee that a visit
to Dauphin Island, Ala., in 1999 -- six months after Hurricane
Georges battered the region - showed him that the coastal-barrier
protection program had worked, at least in part.
"The western half of the island, which was particularly
vulnerable, had remained undeveloped ... but right outside
the CBRA boundary, on land virtually indistinguishable
from the CBRA unit, reconstruction of damaged vacation
homes was well under way," Ellis said.
The Mobile (Ala.) Register reported last week that 500
homes on Dauphin Island have been destroyed as a result
of hurricanes since 1979. It also said that the huge number
of claims along the Gulf Coast from Hurricanes Katrina
and Rita would likely force the federal government to
spend billions of dollars bailing out the national flood-insurance
program and result in changes to how it works.
FEMA, which administers the flood-insurance program,
gets about $2 billion a year in insurance premiums from
the 4.6 million homeowners enrolled in it.
Claims from Katrina and Rita alone could total more than
$22 billion - 11 times what the program collected in premiums
last year, according to a congressional report.
"Add Katrina and Rita to the battering that Florida
has absorbed in the last two years, and we have a sobering
glimpse into the future of U.S. shorelines during a period
of enhanced storm activity," Young said.
• Mary M. Shaffrey can be reached in Washington at (202)
662-7672 or at email@example.com