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Reason Foundation

Big Brother at the Beach

Leonard Gilroy
January 17, 2005, 10:59pm

This article by Joel Hirschhorn on Planetizen.com exemplifies the nanny-state mindset that makes a libertarian's skin crawl. He uses the tragic tsunami disaster as a starting point from which to assail coastal development in the U.S. I'll comment on a few bits below: The idea that we need government to step in to prevent people from coastal living is preposterous. Hirschhorn is seemingly oblivious to the fundamental connection between humans and the ocean that spans the millenia. Oceans have always been a vital resource for food, commerce, recreation, serenity, etc.; there's an innate, human draw to the ocean that for many coastal dwellers outweighs any attendant risks of living in close proximity. But Hirschhorn apparently sees the coasts as risky and fraught with peril, so much so that it is "folly" to live there. Since coastal dwellers aren't going to move to South Dakota on their own, he thinks we need the government to step in and protect them from (1) natural risks that may or may not materialize, and (2) their own uninformed choices. Another instance of the tired, old "we need more government because you're too stupid to make the right choice" meme. [I won't even dignify the "pro-sprawl conservatives" epithet with a response. Suffice to say it isn't unexpected from a writer whose recent book, Sprawl Kills, begins with a chapter entitled, "Sprawl Shills, Recognizing the enemy." ] These stats are obviously intended to provoke a feeling of alarm in the reader. But for perspective, many low-density U.S. suburbs currently have population densities far higher than the projected 2015 coastal density. And since coastal property is a finite resource and is either already built out, protected, or undevelopable in many areas, one would expect to reach the maximum density limit sooner rather than later. Also, the national density of 76 people per square mile stat has little relevance, which should be obvious to anyone who glances out the airplane window over "flyover country." There's a lot of sparsely inhabited, undeveloped land in this country, folks (around 94%, according to the latest federal figures). Since population density in the U.S. can range anywhere from near 0 to over 9,000 people per square mile (NYC), a national average doesn't give you a meaningful benchmark to compare to the density associated with any particular land category. I agree that taxpayers should not have to foot the post-disaster bills for coastal homeowners and others in hazard-prone areas. I liken coastal property ownership to smoking or other types of risky activity: you know the risks before you begin, and if you choose to take the risks then you should be the one responsible for any negative consequence that follows. However, the idea that we have "refused to learn from hurricanes" is puzzling. What are we supposed to do...shut down Florida and relocate everyone? Of course not. You do what happened after Hurricane Andrew; you revise building codes to require more sturdy construction methods. If you're in below-sea-level New Orleans, you build a levee around the metro area, improve your water pumping station capabilities, and continually work to improve evacuation procedures. Hurricanes and other natural disasters are inherently chaotic and unpredictable, and all we can do is prepare ourselves in the best way possible for a future event and hope that it doesn't happen. I'm not sure how coastal development qualifies as "sprawl," but I suspect that it's just being used as a rhetorical device to simply mean "ugly and undesirable." But the implicit idea that Joe Q. Public has some inherent right to a pristine coastal view is frustrating. State parks and national seashores offer opportunities for those who place a premium on unobstructed ocean views. If you want to see a pristine mountain, do you go to a ski resort? No, you go to Denali. And I'm not sure why NC coastal lot prices and the example of the atypical large house are relevant here. I assume that he's trying to say that if there's more house, there's less of a scenic view. But with the use of term "McMansions" and the irrelevant references to lot prices and the large house's size and weekly rent, I'd suspect that he's also engaging in some subliminal class warfare to stir the passions. The bottom line is that we live in a market economy, and where there is a supply of developable coastal land and a demand for coastal homes, developers have every right to step in to meet that demand. Similarly, activists have every right to form land trusts to protect coastal property from development. Society-at-large shouldn't have to foot the post-disaster bills for those that choose to build in hazard-prone areas, but that doesn't mean that you need Big Brother to prevent people from living there in the first place.

Leonard Gilroy is Director of Government Reform


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