23 minutes ago
Monday, December 29, 2008
Mother Nature Vs. Property Laws
A new report by the US Geological Survey (USGS) says that the next few decades could see "rapid" ice melting in the arctic and a major rise in sea levels. The News Journal ran an article covering the report here along with a cool interactive map that shows how the Delaware coastline would change as sea levels rise. That map can be found here.
Now, let's put aside the whole "global warming" debate for a moment and just assume that the report is accurate. We can argue later about what's causing it, but it looks like the arctic ice is indeed melting and sea levels are indeed rising. The real question is what happens when the seas rise and ultimately overtake what is now dry land?
This is where things get tricky. You see, like in most states, individuals cannot own the water. Delaware law allows property boundaries on the coastline to extend as far down as the low tide line (check out the Delaware Coastal Zone Act for reference). But what happens to a beach property when the low tide line reaches well onto, or even over, the property lot lines? Does that property simply cease to exist? Does the property owner simply lose the right to any land? As far as the law is concerned, I think the answer is yes. This means, among other things, billions of dollars of lost property and rent value for Delawareans and billions more in lost property tax revenue and tourism revenue.
One way to look at this problem is from the economic point of view. Like any other investment, property comes with risk. Flood, fire, sea rise...these are all risks involved with getting into the game of owning property. If the risks begin to increase with the threat of rising seas, property owners will simply have to choose whether to stay "in the market" or sell their property and invest in something else while they have the luxury to do so. For those that do hold onto their beach properties, they'll have to be okay with the idea that someday their investment will be gone, stuck under a few feet of seawater.
Another way to look at this issue is from the political point of view. For many years, taxpayers have reduced the risks of property ownership on the beach by paying for beach replenishment and dune construction. In my view, these are wasteful programs that simply delay the inevitable. "Polishing the brass on the titanic," so to speak. When these programs no longer serve their purpose to hold back the rising seas and the storm surges, we'll either have to ramp up our efforts or abandon them. Sure, we can go the Netherlands route and start building dams and levees and pump trillions into projects that would either maintain or create dry land out of what would otherwise be a home for fish. In light of our economic and social problems, this kind of brass polish seems like a poor use of our tax money.