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Document Type

Comment

Abstract

Herodotus once said “[t]his is the worst pain a man can have: to know much and have no power to act.” The words of Herodotus resonate today in the debate over the habitability of the coast. Despite advances in technology and science, which have provided government and citizens alike with the knowledge of the physical and financial dangers of coastal development, society has lost control over the ability to limit and discourage development in coastal areas that are repeatedly subject to disaster. The cavalier and defiant spirit of American culture has led us to encourage and subsidize growth at the foot of our own Mount Vesuvius thereby leading to a perpetual reenactment of the same disaster. Hurricanes, floods, and coastal erosion are not new phenomena; however, the toll of these natural disasters on humans has been exacerbated by increased development and human habitation along the coast. In essence, coastal communities represent the quintessential conflict between humans and nature. Many local and state governments have sought to promote coastal development as a means to generate economic prosperity by expanding the tax base and increasing employment opportunities. Both the governments that have promoted such growth and the private citizens that have a proprietary or other financial interest in these areas have an incentive to protect their interests. This translates into harnessing modern technology to preserve coastal property damaged by natural events. Thus, many coastal communities have a cyclical life existence. First, the coastal community is created. Second, the coastal community is damaged or destroyed by a natural event. Third, the coastal community is reborn as disaster relief is provided and repairs are made. This cyclical pattern—creation, destruction, and repair—embodies the life of many American coastal communities. The resources spent at the federal, state, and local level that contribute to the coastal community lifecycle are staggering. While the federal government spends billions of dollars to fund agencies such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which runs programs like the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), state and local governments are left to cover the shortfalls in federal disaster relief expenditures. This cycle is repeated because in today’s political climate it is considered outrageous to refuse to rebuild a coastal community after a natural event. Imagine the outcry had political leaders decreed that New Orleans would not be rebuilt after Hurricane Katrina. This Comment posits that the coastal community lifecycle will be broken in the future as a new coastal community ethic and corresponding public policy agenda emerge in response to the effects of climate change and society’s internalization of the costs of rebuilding coastal communities. This ethic will embrace the belief that living along the coast, to a certain extent, is an individual choice and that the costs and responsibilities associated with that choice should be borne by the individual rather than the government. Moreover, this Comment explores the ways in which a new coastal community ethic will redefine the American coastline, asserting that one approach governments may use to minimize coastal costs is to withdraw basic services like utilities and road repair projects from coastal communities. The question that then arises is whether the government can change its public policy for free. If the government refused to rebuild a coastal community’s infrastructure would property owners be entitled to compensation for a “taking” of their property under either the Fifth or Fourteenth Amendments? After analyzing landowners’ takings claims, this Comment concludes that the government can change its coastal community public policy without compensating landowners. The legal explanation, however, may differ from the political one. Part I of this Comment provides a brief historical overview of coastal property damage, describes the financial costs associated with natural disasters along the coastline, and discusses the extent of coastal development in the United States. Part II explains the major causes that have led to explosive coastal development, including perceived technological advances in protecting coastal property and social policies such as the National Flood Insurance Program. Part III discusses the factors that may change the traditional coastal community lifecycle, such as climate change and the internalization of costs associated with maintaining coastal communities. Part IV explores whether the government could withdraw basic services from the coast and refuse to rebuild damaged infrastructure without compensating landowners. Although the government may not have to compensate landowners with legal damages, it would likely have to appropriate funds to garner political support for this policy change. Part V concludes that the government’s refusal to rebuild coastal communities’ infrastructure is a powerful, economically efficient tool that could be used to reshape the American coastline.

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