REAL wellness is a value system marked by a conspicuous passion for safeguarding and enhancing one’s quality of life. It is founded on a wide range of principles that boost physical and mental health, many if not most of which can be categorized under the headings reason, exuberance, athleticism and liberty. A REAL wellness-focused individual is as interested in social, economic and environmental issues as he or she is about exercise, nutrition and other elements of one’s personal lifestyle.
From a REAL wellness perspective, it’s clearly time for a public educational campaign to persuade the populace that building on sand contiguous with water bodies is unsound. Properties destroyed by weather systems or otherwise should not be rebuilt; new laws are needed to create buffer zones between water bodies and man-made structures.
Life is not, never has been and never will be fair. Sweeping policies that change existing systems have winners and losers. In terms of closing off lands adjacent to oceans and rivers from any form of residential private property, including hotels and multifamily units as well as private homes, there will be significant disadvantages to some, primarily but not exclusively the very wealthy. But, there will be huge gains for the public interest in that tax revenues will no longer be squandered on relief efforts, including for those who put themselves in harms way. In addition, the most dramatic advantage of this policy will be guaranteed access of the public to all shoreline in America. This latter benefit will result from a policy requiring, at some to-be-determined date in the future, all grandfathered properties resting on shorelines to be removed, rendering these lands accessible for the public.
Seeds Within Catastrophes
All of which leads to Sandy, Katrina, climate change and the remarkable opportunities that are inherent in such disasters to change course by doing the right thing. I have a course-changing idea that would be economically wise and socially beneficial as a boost in the quality of life for future generations. All this, alas, entails hardships for the present few in order that not only the many but rather all future citizens will benefit.
It seems evident that climate change will exacerbate the number, intensity and effects of Sandy-like disasters for decades if not centuries to come (perhaps continuing until the next Ice Age). But, like forest fires, the catastrophic natural disasters of our time contain seeds of opportunities for renewal and advances. One such is a political climate suitable for establishing land use reforms that will save tens of billions of dollars AND boost quality of life for everyone who enjoys a stroll on a beach.
Superstorm Sandy buried Sea Bright, N.J. in sand and wreaked havoc throughout the Northeast United States, as Katrina did to New Orleans and the Southeast region of the nation. A key issue before the people affected by Sandy is the same as the conundrum that Katrina victims had to face: To rebuild or move?
Media outlets love to quote dazed residents of ruined communities who offer feel good statements of grit and determination to overcome adversity, folks like 77-year-old retiree Ira Kornblut. According to a story in the Wall Street Journal (Christopher Rhoads and Leslie Scism, “The Future Question for Storm Victims: Can the Past Be Rebuilt?” Wall Street Journal, November 16, 2012, p. 1), Ira raised his fist and proclaimed. “We’re coming back. We’re Sea Brighters!” Yeah-you go, Ira. But, if you don’t mind, would you kindly do it without taxpayer subsidies?
Despite politically correct declarations by politicians to make the misery go away and restore things as they were, reality suggests another course may be in order. Federal and state budgets are deep in the red, flood insurance reserves have not even recovered from Hurricane Katrina and the reality of climate change makes rebuilding as before seem what it truly is-senseless folly. (The National Flood Insurance Program operates under the Federal Emergency Management Agency. It pays a maximum of $250,000 per residential structure and $100,000 for contents; for businesses, the comparable figures are $500,000 for structures and $500,000 for contents. The FEMA flood-insurance program owes $18 billion to the Treasury for payments made after Katrina and years of subsidizing insurance rates for a good percentage of the 5.6 million residential and business policyholders. These subsidies allow risk-taking citizens to pay insurance premiums that are less than half the risk rate. In other words, we are all subsidizing those who build in flood plains, beachfronts and other near-certain disaster areas to come. Paradoxically, we have no access rights to shorelands reserved for those who own properties thereon that we help insure.)
The WSJ article cited above notes that an “unlikely coalition of free-market think tanks, environmentalists, business owners and insurers” favor a policy of returning coastal zones to nature and ending subsidizes for hazardous, doomed development. “The era of responding to hurricanes and the like with an avalanche of federal aid has passed.”
What Must Change
Throughout American history, taxpayer-backed loans and other assistance have been available to rebuild, regardless of the obvious reality of future disasters in flood prone and other vulnerable locations. That tradition must change. Katrina and now Sandy have brought out a few courageous public officials willing to address reality and common sense. Stephen Sweeney, the Democratic president of the New Jersey state senate, is one example. “People keep saying we’re going to put everything back the way it was. No, we’re not. It makes no sense to do the same thing over and over again, throwing good money after bad.” Mr. Sweeney’s suggestion for low-lying areas? The federal government should “write checks, level the homes and let the land return to its natural state.”
A Quality of Life-Based Proposal that Favors Future Generations
Legislation is needed that would allow the federal government to buy land and properties in vulnerable areas in order to enable localities to develop such hazardous environments as parks or open space.
In addition, a law rendering all shorelines public property by some future date fifty to 100 years hence should be considered. The goal must be to ensure access to beachfronts for everyone. No private homes, no hotels, no condos or other privately-owned property would prevent public access extending a quarter mile or so inland from the high tide water line.
The 1 percent types who control the beaches of Malibu and other oceanfront and similar water body shore access throughout the country would, as noted, have another half to full century to enjoy their exclusive access. In time, however, all lands that abut the oceans, bays, rivers and other natural bodies deemed subject to climate change would revert to the public, and everyone would have opportunities to enjoy what today are exclusive domains.
Americans have a long tradition of migration toward the sea, despite the risks of hurricanes and erosion from storms and natural wave action. The sea would still be there under a plan such as herein sketched, but private properties would not be permitted closer than a quarter of a mile from the water lines. Of course, even that distance presents great risks, but those who want to take risks with their own capital should be free to do so. The American people do not benefit from subsidies they pay that enable a few to build in low-lying areas. At some point in the future, with incremental steps following every disaster, quality of life changes in such lands should be put into place. The twin goals of such a policy is to eliminate a massive amount of economic waste and to render to all for fair enjoyment the sands and seas, rivers and other water bodies that all have a right to enjoy.