Posted 8/13/12

Save The Coast

Save The Shore
Photo by Steve Kotchko

After Tropical Storm Irene devastated parts of the Connecticut coast last year, destroying or damaging homes and businesses, the legislature decided it was time to take a long, hard look at how to protect coastal towns in the future.  The result?  A Shoreline Preservation Task Force was created.

The panel held public hearings in Branford, Fairfield, and Groton this summer, gathering a wide array of opinions, comments, and complaints from shoreline residents and businesspeople.  Now it’s time to absorb the testimony and devise recommendations for the 2013 General Assembly to consider.

Rep. James Albis (D-East Haven) is chairman of the bipartisan Task Force.  His community has been especially prone to storm-related flooding over the years.  Albis said the panel will be dealing with more than just storm threats.  “We know that sea levels are rising and we need to address the specific and unique needs of shoreline homeowners, businesses, and municipalities with regard to rising sea levels, shoreline erosion, storm preparation, response and restoration.”

Any discussion of action steps tied to the Connecticut shoreline will also touch off the expected battle between environmentalists who want to protect untouched wetlands and developers and others who want to capitalize on the never-ending public desire to live, work, and shop near the water.

Being realistic, Albis said the legislature will not do things that cause a “retreat” from the shoreline, because the economic pull of the coast is too strong.  “Towns rely on (shoreline) properties for property tax revenue—that is generally their big base,” he explained.

Beyond municipal government interest, there is the personal investment in the shoreline to complicate matters.  “We do have a lot of properties that have been in (particular) families for 60-plus years, and it is very difficult to give up property like that,” said Albis.  The emotional attachment often leads to the post-storm TV news interviews so often seen.  A shoreline resident eyes the debris pile that used to be his summer home and tells the TV interviewer:  “We love this place—we will rebuild.”

These days there is no guarantee such homeowners will get their wish.  State and federal governments and insurers can make restoration impossible if they decide certain beach areas have become too dangerous for habitation, or if they make insurance costs to cover that area prohibitive.

In the last few years, shoreline residents, the State Insurance Department, and insurance companies wrangled over attempts by insurers to demand that beachside homeowners install hurricane shutters and other equipment that are very expensive in order to continue insurance coverage or avoid exorbitant new premiums.  In the 2012 legislative session, lawmakers approved a measure designed to protect homeowners and businesses from so-called “hurricane deductibles” in the future.  Some shoreline residents were hit with the higher deductibles after Irene even though Irene was a tropical storm by the time it blew into Connecticut.

A normal deductible is usually $500 to $1000 while the hurricane deductible could amount to 1% to 5% of the home’s value.  The new law removes any vagueness in State Insurance Department guidelines, and mandates that insurers cannot invoke hurricane deductibles in claims actions if a future hurricane officially falls to tropical storm status before it strikes Connecticut.

“I think the legislature needs to be working in tandem with the insurance industry to come up with some solutions,” said Albis.  “One thing the insurance companies have been doing is giving premium benefits to people who fortify their homes,” he said.

A fortified structure could include straps that help tie down roofs.  Many shoreline homes are built on raised pylons or similar devices often concealed by break-away latticework.  The raised structure allows any storm surge to roll underneath the home without internal water damage.  The home is safe once flood waters recede.

Albis said his Task Force may consider proposing a state loan fund that would offer financial assistance to shoreline homeowners who are interested in “fortifying” their homes, but are hard-pressed to make the new financial investment on their own.

As for the more controversial issue of designating certain shoreline spots off-limits for development because of flood risks or the need to preserve wetland for overall protection, Albis hinted his task force may just stick its toes in the water.  “What I’d like to see (in 2013) is identifying some areas of open space and say ‘let’s not build here in the future,’” he said.

There is no question that shoreline development, where by moneyed interests or individual homeowners has been a controversial issue for years in Connecticut.  Long before the damage caused by Irene, weather experts warned that Northeast coastal interests had become complacent about the threat of hurricanes, encroaching on the shoreline bit by bit in town after town, pushed by the desire to create big-ticket real estate listings with the words “gorgeous water views.”

When interests compete at the State Capitol, the all too frequent response by lawmakers is to do nothing, for fear of upsetting important people or angering constituents who will remember at the next election.

Albis hopes that does not happen to any recommendations his Task Force churns out in the coming months.  “Clearly something needs to be done and I think it would not be responsible for us to just punt the ball down the road (for future legislatures),” he said.  However, Albis conceded that “the issues are so complex and touch so many areas of governance, that there is no way we can possibly address every issue in one year.”

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