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Coastal quandary: rebuild or retreat?

Executive BranchHurricane Sandy (2012)National Oceanic and Atmospheric AdministrationFEMAAndrew CuomoChris Christie

Foremost on my mind as the days lengthen is where I might get my ocean "fix" once summer arrives. Sometimes I crave the New Jersey shore where I vacationed as a kid, other times the Maryland beaches since I lived there during summers in college.

This year, I am wondering how these places fared during superstorm Sandy. The news can't be good, since Congress recently dispensed the first infusion of $50.5 billion approved for recovery efforts related to the devastating storm.

That's right: Billions and billions of dollars were dedicated to one big storm.

Nature has sent a clear message to New Jersey boardwalks, New York neighborhoods, Maryland and Delaware beaches, and Chesapeake Bay shorelines that it wishes to reclaim some real estate. That is because coastal ecosystems — with dune systems, salt marshes, upland forests, tidal mudflats, shallow bays, expansive beaches and reefs — don't function within defined boundaries but instead ebb and flow with tides and storms, as we saw last fall.

Working against these natural processes inevitably results in lost lives and property. Following nature's lead results in a thriving, functional shoreline that provides a buffer from the powerful ocean and offers recreational opportunities and abundant natural resources for everyone to enjoy.

Balancing human uses and nature's intentions is what Congress set out to achieve in 1972 with the Coastal Zone Management Act (CZMA), which encourages coastal states to promote policies and programs "to preserve, protect, develop and where possible, to restore or enhance, the resources of the Nation's coastal zone for this and succeeding generations." Some states have done better than others with regard to this balancing act, with many requiring review and new setbacks before approving the return of coastal structures damaged in major storms.

It was only recently that Maryland required landowners located near certain sensitive lands to have a minimum 200-foot buffer from tidal water and wetlands, a 100-foot increase over the previous setback requirement. In New Jersey, a permit was not required to reconstruct any development that legally existed before 1994. This changed in January, when Gov. Chris Christie signed emergency regulations issued by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to establish new requirements for constructing, reconstructing, relocating and elevating structures in flood hazard areas defined by updated flood elevation maps.

For me, the piecemeal implementation of the CZMA raises questions. Why are we taking care of the coast state by state, when beaches and storms don't recognize such boundaries? Also, rather than rebuilding after damaging storms, should we consider giving the ocean more space in order to protect, and even benefit, people and nature?

It's an option. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, coastal managers realize that in many situations attempting to stop erosion is a losing battle and that repeated maintenance will be too costly or ineffective. Instead, implementing "managed retreat" — which allows the shoreline to advance inward unimpeded while buildings and infrastructure are either demolished or relocated inland — may sometimes be a preferable strategy.

Currently, managed retreat is being considered by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has proposed dedicating a portion of the state's Sandy disaster relief funds to buy vulnerable coastal properties at fair market value from willing landowners. Once acquired, such properties would be left to lie fallow or be reserved for recreation or conservation.

The coasts are special, which is why millions of us visit them each year. However, nature has its own plans. If we don't listen, we may be in for more damage and lost lives in the future. If we give the ocean some room, we will reap the rewards of a vibrant, living and resilient coastal landscape capable of feeding and protecting us while still providing the solace we seek in the crashing waves.

Sara Kaplaniak writes from Pennsylvania. This article is distributed by Bay Journal News Service.

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