PORTLAND — Despite countless examples of the risks inherent in owning oceanfront property, many coastal landowners still seem surprised when nature comes to collect.

This willful naivete about the real cost of owning coastal property is disappointing, and doesn’t bring towns, states or the federal government any closer to finding equitable solutions to the problems driven by permanent development along dynamic shorelines.

Twice in August (on the 14th and 17th), the Maine Public Broadcasting Network will rebroadcast a 2009 documentary video produced by the Maine Sea Grant entitled, “Building a Resilient Coast: Maine Confronts Climate Change.”

Between 2007–2008, the Maine Sea Grant, in cooperation with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, the Center for Research and Evaluation, and the Maine Coastal Program, surveyed and interviewed nearly 600 coastal property owners and town officials in southern and midcoast Maine.

In the technical report on the project (available through the Maine Sea Grant website, www.seagrant.umaine.edu), property owners describe different measures they took to limit destruction from shoreline erosion: They raised seawalls, armored embankments with rocks, dug diversion ditches and trucked in sand to replenish overwashed dunes.

Sea walls, rip-rap and concrete, despite the solidity and security they suggest, are still only temporary answers to the focused erosive forces that can undercut, rearrange, pummel and carry away.


Because waves and storms are an inevitable part of living on the Maine coast, those stabilization structures, if a homeowner opts to build them, will always require maintenance.

That’s a fact of coastal ownership as inescapable as animal chores on a working farm — the work is part of the deliberate choice to live there.

But a number of the respondents to the Maine Sea Grant survey feel the burden of maintaining their sea-sprayed real estate is too much.

Rather than accept low-interest loans for damage repair, most property owners want direct financial grants or want the government to pay — even though that only passes the buck to their neighbors.

The owners say that permit restrictions on repairing storm damage are unfair, and the overwhelming majority feel that state and federal governments are impinging on their property rights.

Some owners suggest that the onus is on general contractors, who should provide stronger building design and construction. But outfitting a house with reinforced walls, blow-out panels and hurricane tethers doesn’t fix the problems of a vulnerable site any more than adding a few big rocks at the high-tide line will change prevailing wind patterns or ward off storm surges.


Furthermore, the majority of coastal landowners interviewed don’t trust the risk-awareness information provided by local, state or federal agencies. They dismiss information from the University of Maine and Maine Geological Survey as having an “agenda,” and deem the Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers untrustworthy.

If not scientists, then whom would the owners consult to learn what they can or cannot do with their waterfront property? Who in this cast of players doesn’t have an agenda?

“Realtors” topped the list.

In coastal municipalities where private-property rights are a volatile issue, planning for a sustainable future typically has nothing to do with the environment. When ardent property-rights interests say “sustainable,” they really mean “affordable.”

Implicit in many arguments for revamped coastal management plans is the belief that rules and regulations for development should relax to alleviate expenses.

True sustainable practices come at a price, which means bad shorefront decisions will have to get more expensive. Setbacks need to widen, even if that means a smaller allowable development footprint — or no footprint at all. Penalties for waterfront tree removal and other code violations need to be prohibitive, not just folded into the cost of doing business.


Resilience of Maine’s coastal communities will only come with adaptation to natural variability, not from staunch refusal to admit our personal responsibility for the land we occupy.

Straight answers about the potential impacts of coastal change are available and accessible, even if they aren’t the answers many coastal landowners want to hear. Buy an oceanfront lot, and the hazards of erosion, storm vulnerability and property loss are part of the deal.

Nature doesn’t care who pays for damages or how high the assessment runs, and neither does a real estate agent — but the neighbors do.



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