Environmentalism

How the Government Subsidizes Unsustainable Development

'The rest of us are assuming all of the risks.'

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Over at Yale Environment 360, Rona Kobell (*) writes about efforts to build—and rebuild—on ecologically precarious barrier islands. You should read the whole article, but the passage that's most likely to interest Reason readers is this one:

Bolivar after Ike.

Historically, residents of barrier islands have not always looked to the government for millions of dollars in salvation efforts when the sea encroached. Often, they simply left. When Hog Island, on the Virginia Coast, eroded to the point where it was uninhabitable in the 1930s, residents barged their houses to the nearby towns of Willis Wharf and Oyster. Similar tales have repeated themselves in Texas and Louisiana, where barrier islands were popular refuges for pirates but often not considered fit for long-term structures.

But in the mid-20th century, planners and developers began to view the nation's barrier islands as resort towns in the making—a steady source of tourism dollars, property tax revenue, and construction jobs. Federal and state governments spent big on bridges, dunes, beach replenishment, and public piers to encourage settlement. Government-backed flood insurance encouraged that process, as did the federal government assuming the role of rebuilder-in-chief, said Rob Young, a geologist who directs the program for the study of developed shorelines at Western Carolina University.

"Why do we rebuild on barrier islands?" asked Young. "Because the people who are doing the rebuilding are making a sound economic decision." The owners may rebuild the home, he said, but "the rest of us are putting back all the infrastructure. We're raising the road. We're putting back the beach. The rest of us are assuming all of the risks."

Development in these areas wouldn't necessarily cease altogether without those subsidies, but it would certainly take a different, lighter path. But when the government's greener elements try to rein in those unsustainable projects, they generally do this not by spending less but by spending more, blocking builders both through regulation and through land acquisition. The result is basically a contest between two interest groups to see which can play the political game more capably. (That said, conservationists have also acquired a lot of this land privately. Kobell notes, for example, that the Houston Audubon Society now owns more than 2,000 acres of the 11,689-acre Bolivar Peninsula.)

The full piece covers the science as well as the economics of barrier-island development. To read the whole thing, go here.

(* Full disclosure: She is my spouse.)

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  1. conservationists have also acquired a lot of this land privately

    More of this, please, and less spending my money to make someone else spend more money.

  2. the program for the study of developed shorelines at Western Carolina University

    WCU is in the Smokies near Asheville. Is it not odd that the study of developed shorelines isn’t being done at East Carolina University which is less than 10 miles from the shore?

    Maybe they’re worried about a hurricane washing the program away.

    1. Ashville is a proggie haven filled with environmentalists. Any college less than ten miles from a developed shoreline probably gets a ton of money from that development, so not odd at all.

      Just a guess.

      1. I hate to say it but that’s probably true.

    2. ECU isn’t really all that close to the ocean shore either, but UNC Wilmington is.

    3. Probably worth noting that not all developed shorelines are on an ocean either.

      1. What do you mean? Why I have often visited the Michigan Ocean!

        1. You’re thinking of the Gulf of Chicago. Only Superior is a true ocean.

  3. Well at least they have created sustainable employment, which is probably the real goal.

    1. We could fix unemployment real quick if we hired people to smash windows as soon as they rolled out of the glass factory. And think of the money we’d save melting the glass back down and reusing it again!

      1. Recycling too? Wow thats like double sustainable. At some carbon credits and some stimulus to that and will have utopia built over night.

  4. “(* Full disclosure: She is my spouse.)”

    Ok Jessie, how bad did you screw up that she made you pimp her article? Did you mix her favorite blouse in with the colors or was it something serious like blowing too much money are the strip club.

    Come on, fess up, inquiring minds want to know.

    1. In my experience you have those two scenarios reversed.

  5. She is my spouse

    Don’t want to upset Shackford by using an inappropriate term?

  6. “Historically, residents of barrier islands have not always looked to the government for millions of dollars in salvation efforts when the sea encroached. Often, they simply left.”

    And just as often, they rebuilt on the island themselves. With their own money.

    Grand Isle, LA (A place I love to visit) has been totally wiped out by hurricanes over the last few centuries. They simply rebuilt. These days, the government bails them out, which I oppose, but as the article says, they are making a smart economic decission.

  7. Not a bad article, but discussion of Biggert-Waters and its subsequent weakening would have been illuminating.

  8. Government subsidies; kill them with fire. All of ’em.

  9. “The result is basically a contest between two interest groups to see which can play the political game more capably.”

    Or in some cases, the result is a contest between various government agencies to see which can spend more taxpayer money to assure their preferred result.

  10. The most irritating thing about this is that the barrier islands would actually make MORE pleasant vacation destinations if they WEREN’T developed up as resort towns.

    We’re not subsidizing the preservation of a nice vacation spot, we’re subsidizing turning nice vacation spots into over-priced tourist traps.

    What’s wrong with keeping the hotels on the mainland and just having a bridge going out to a vast, pristine, beach area?

  11. my co-worker’s mom makes $75 every hour on the laptop . She has been fired from work for ten months but last month her paycheck was $13904 just working on the laptop for a few hours. use this link………..
    ????? http://www.netcash50.com

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