A recent Maine Sunday Telegram piece by columnist Jim Fossel was supportive of a bill pending in the Legislature to financially help shoreland owners rebuild or replace facilities damaged by recent severe storms along the Maine coast. I would support such legislation – with some important reservations. First, we need to recognize that due to global warming and accompanying sea level rise, such storms are becoming more frequent and more severe. This is not going to change any time soon. That means the financial commitments we make today are going to continue and become more costly in the future.

That said, I would emphasize a somewhat earlier Maine Sunday Telegram editorial on the same subject that added the concept of “retreating” (I would use the word “relocating”) with respect to financial assistance to shoreland homes, businesses and facilities that suffer storm water damage. In short, we need to realize in our efforts to help those harmed by recent (and future) storms that not all property owners or damaged structures are the same.

For example, the owner of an older home or business (not a water-dependent use) suffering first-time storm damage might be given some level of taxpayer assistance to rebuild, but only if they relocate their home or business to a safe location.

I would not assist any non-water dependent home or business owner who wants to rebuild in an unsafe, storm-prone location. Nor would I assist any non-water dependent home or business owner who previously received insurance or public (federal or state) assistance for storm water damage, who rebuilds in a storm-prone area (Maine’s Camp Ellis experience comes to mind).

The owners of water dependent activities docks, loading, storage, boat repair facilities, etc. are in a different (a higher priority) category. Many of these businesses and facilities were no doubt built long before the current crisis arose. Taxpayer assistance in rebuilding is warranted, but even here attention should be paid to where the rebuilt facility is located and how close to the water it needs to be.

In most harbor areas, more and less flood- or storm-prone areas can be identified. Obviously, taxpayer assistance should be highest for those owners of water dependent activities willing and able to rebuild in less flood- and storm-prone harbor areas. Owners of water-dependent activities who would rebuild on more flood- and storm-prone harbor areas should receive less taxpayer assistance (possibly none if future damage potential is high). Some existing harbor areas may be so prone to damage from future (sea level rise and more intense storms) that they should be abandoned altogether. New harbor developments – like proposals on Sears Island – should keep these factors in mind.

Finally, taxpayer assistance to owners of water-dependent activities rebuild must recognize that not all water-dependent facilities/structures are the same. Dock and boat loading and unloading facilities need to be at the water’s edge. Storm-related damages may be unavoidable; assistance programs here may be higher. Marine goods storage, repair and office facilities do not need to be at the water’s edge; they can be situated on nearby higher ground. Assistance programs here may be lower. If no such land is available, the future viability of the harbor is called in question.

With these reservations in mind, a program of public (taxpayer-funded) assistance to owners of property damaged by recent and future sea level rise and coastal storms is certainly possible. Whether such a program is carefully crafted and put in place is for the Legislature to decide. But one should note that Maine’s coastal economy (fishing, lobstering, aquaculture, seaweed harvesting and processing, recreation, Bath Iron Works, Eimskip, etc.) is diverse, large and growing. The task at hand seems worth doing.

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