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Monday, June 18, 2012

The business of beaches

Stephen Colbert and others are ridiculing the North Carolina General Assembly for legislation that denies global warming and sea level rise. I'm not surprised by the General Assembly, but it isn't that legislators are misinformed or plain stupid. (Perhaps they are, but that's a different blog.) My lack of surprise arises instead from an understanding that beaches in North Carolina are big business for Democrats and Republicans alike.

Fifty to seventy years ago, the North Carolina shoreline was sparse, and its primary activity was solo commercial fishing... a way of life that has mostly disappeared. These days, from the South Carolina border to the Virginia border, about half of the North Carolina beach has been developed for tourism -- not as intensively as Myrtle Beach or Panama City, I'm happy to say, but developed nonetheless. Development provides profit for land owners, jobs for local residents, and a tax base for coastal counties. That's a very seductive combination of incentives to continue development.

Environmentalists have always had concern about coastal development in North Carolina because the barrier islands inevitably shift and change shape -- a fact that no one denies. Nevertheless, how much taxpayer money is spent after every hurricane to reconstruct roads? How much taxpayer money is used to prop up the underwriters of property insurance for the six-bedroom beach homes that slide into the water regularly? How much taxpayer money provides free ferry service where bridges cannot be built?

I'm not saying that all beach development is bad or that no taxpayer money should be used for the purpose. I go to Wrightsville Beach regularly, and I don't want to be a hypocrite. My point is that state government is not about to seriously restrict coastal development, regardless which political party is in charge. Given that the undisputed migration of barrier islands hasn't forced a change in policy, it doesn't matter how many scientists put forth evidence of sea level rise.

Meanwhile, I think I'd like to go to Portsmouth on the Cape Lookout National Seashore while it's still above water.