By Pam O’Dell
On April 22nd, Judson Turner, Director of the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (GEPD) issued a department memo effectively eliminating a 25-foot construction buffer in coastal salt marshes.
The barrier, which is only 6 inches shorter than a standard-sized parking lot length, was previously enforced by Carol Couch, former GEPD Director in accordance with the Coastal Marshlands Protection Act.
The memo (which ironically occurred on “Earth Day”) was immediately met with opposition from environmentalists.
Citing language in Georgia’s Erosion and Sedimentation Act (a part of Georgia law intended to prevent erosion of Georgia’s inland watersheds-and the ‘mudding’ of Georgia’s rivers) Turner’s actions effectively allow development closer to the seashore.
The altered standard (not formally part of either law or department regulation) requires only that developers not build on coastal marsh areas where “wrested” vegetation (vegetation visibly altered by water flow) exists.
The new standard, which was not mentioned in the recorded minutes of monthly meeting of the Department of Natural Resources (GDNR) board meeting, affects land on Georgia’s100-mile coast.
Coastal buffers protect marshland habitat for hundreds of species. They also provide distance from storm events threatening both life and property.
A 2012 study conducted by Georgia Tech’s School of City and Regional Planning entitled: “Tracking the Effects of Sea Level Rise in Georgia’s Coastal Communities” notes in its Executive Summary: “Communities should consider taking action now to shape their land use, development, and redevelopment policies to encourage activity in areas that are not expected to be affected by SLR [sea level rise]. By proactively identifying land threatened by SLR and discouraging development in those areas, communities can reduce the cost associated with reactionary responses ten, twenty, or fifty years from now.”
The report, funded by Georgia Conservancy (largely considered a moderate environmental group) uses conservative data to estimate the effects of sea level rise on the Georgia coast within the next 100 years.
The report reveals that nearly 14 percent of the area expected to be under water in 2110 is already developed.
Measuring both the “biophysical and social vulnerability” of Georgia’s three coastal counties, the report analyzes the current economic costs associated with projected inundations.
Those costs are incomprehensibly high for 2012. Yet, we continue to build.
Perhaps encouraged by Senate Resolution 747, which passed the Georgia Senate last legislative session, Congress passed the Homeowner Flood Insurance Affordability Act repealing much of the Biggert Waters Act of 2012. President Obama signed the bill on March 21, of this year. Ironically, in the middle of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) designated “Flood Safety Awareness Week (March 16-22).
The Biggert- Waters Act was intended to bring FEMA back from ‘deep red’ debt (currently set at 24 billion). It directed the agency to update federal flood maps and to shift risk from the federal government to coastal home owners.
Implementation of the Act caused premiums within federal flood zones to rise substantially. 5.5 million citizens receive a flood insurance subsidy from the federal government. Some subsidies exceed 50 percent of the cost of insuring a home.
In return for the subsidy, coastal communities must make agreements with the federal government not to build in vulnerable areas.
Fiscal conservatives contend that coastal living is a luxury that the American tax payer should not subsidize.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) tide gauge located at Fort Pulaski, Georgia records a ten inch sea level increase since 1935 (NOAA, 2012).