Big Brother at the Beach

This article by Joel Hirschhorn on 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:

“…If there is any place where smarter development is urgently needed, it is on coastal lands, which contrary to the thinking of pro-sprawl conservatives is limited. Someone who wants to live in a coastal area is not likely to see living in Missouri or South Dakota as equally attractive. When people and developers refuse to see the folly of living at the water’s edge, then government must step in and effectively protect people from themselves and nature from people.”

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.” ]

“Coastal population density has skyrocketed. In 1960 it was 187 people per square mile, rising to 273 in 1994, and projected to rise to 327 by 2015, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The average population density for the entire nation is just 76 people per square mile.”

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.

“In the many areas devastated by the recent tsunami, enormous amounts of foreign aid will probably ignore the wisdom of curbing seaside redevelopment, just as Americans have refused to learn from hurricanes. U.S. homeowners expect the government to always bail them out when disaster strikes.”

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.

“Make no mistake. Seaside sprawl developers turn hazards into disasters, and impact all of us. Rows of McMansions that bully many American shorelines offer great views for their occupants. But shore sprawl kills scenic views for the general public, either from the land or the beach. Coastal house size keeps increasing because of a booming rental business. In North Carolina, a 10,000-square-foot house with 16 bedrooms was built as a single-family house to skirt some development limitations; it will rent for as much as $20,000 a week. Lots cost from $500,000 to $1 million in North Carolina coastal areas.”

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.