Editorial: Seawall exemption takes from the many to give to the few

June 3, 2014 

The water level at Debordieu Beach can rise to over the beach wall and has started washing away the sand from in front of the homes.

KIM KIM FOSTER-TOBIN — kkfoster@thestate.com Buy Photo

— IMAGINE SOMEONE built a house at the top edge of a very steep slope. It wasn’t the smartest thing to do, but the lot was beautiful, and the view from that elevation was spectacular. It’s a very expensive house, and beyond that, it’s someone’s home. Over the years, though, the cliff that was the front yard has eroded to the point that the house’s foundation is no longer stable; the only way to save the house is to build a massive retaining wall.

But the retaining wall would undermine the foundation of the next-door neighbor’s house. Worse, the house is so close to the road that it would be impossible to build the wall without jutting out into the road. It’s a narrow road, and even if it were legal to encroach on a public road, the retaining wall would make the road impassable.

It’s heartbreaking and perhaps financially devastating, but the fact is that the homeowner is just out of luck because, as our mothers told us over and over as children, our rights end where the next person’s rights begin. No one would imagine letting someone destroy the neighbor’s house in order to save his own, much less render a public road unusable.

Yet that is precisely what our General Assembly is poised to do.

It’s not a public road that our legislators are about to let the homeowner destroy. It’s a public beach. And it’s not the next-door neighbor’s house that is at risk, but houses a bit farther down the beach.

S.890 and H.4603, and a provision in the Senate version of the state budget bill, would allow homeowners on Debordieu Beach to rebuild a 4,000-foot section of seawall where the waves are now lapping over it and threatening to undermine the foundations of the houses behind it.

A seawall always increases erosion, until there is no public beach left. And in fact this already has happened on Debordieu, where you no longer can walk all the way down the beach at high tide without getting soaked. A seawall also increases erosion to the unprotected property on each end of it. This is why our Legislature wisely banned the construction of new seawalls, and significant repairs to existing seawalls, more than a quarter-century ago.

The proposed exemption from that ban, which the Senate already has tacked on to three separate bills and which could be a single vote away from House passage, does more than simply allow the seawall to be repaired. It allows the seawall to be rebuilt two feet farther out toward the sea — no longer on private land but on what little bit of public beach remains in front of it.

Supporters say not to worry, because the exception applies only to this one beach. But legislators are waiting in the wings to extend it to other beaches. And even if only this one encroachment were allowed, it still would be just as wrong as allowing that one homeowner to destroy the road and his neighbor’s house in order to save his own. This isn’t a close call. This proposal is wrong, and our legislators need to come to their senses and reject it.

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