GOVERNOR BAKER has a chance to make future blizzards less dangerous than the storm that slammed Massachusetts Tuesday, while at the same time opening more coastline for public use. A bond bill passed by the Legislature last year set aside $20 million for the state to purchase houses in high-risk areas like Plum Island, remove them, and then convert the land into recreational areas or wildlife refuges. Moving residents away from high-risk areas would help reduce the tragic impact of the destructive flooding that often accompanies storms. And it would be a win-win for taxpayers, who’d gain access to more coastal areas and no longer have to pay the cost of providing rescue services and subsidized flood insurance. By making use of the buyback money, Baker can also get the Commonwealth started on what is likely to be one of its thorniest challenges over the next century: relocating residents from coastlines threatened by rising sea levels and storms whose intensity may only get worse.
Buybacks on the coast aren’t a new idea; they’ve been used in North Carolina and other coastal states, and a limited federal version exists. But they got a crucial boost in Massachusetts in last year’s bond bill and in draft recommendations of the Legislature’s coastal erosion commission, a panel created at the behest of state Senator Bruce Tarr, which earlier this month urged tapping the money. Participation would be completely voluntary for homeowners. And the funds would be available only for properties that have suffered repeated damage. Storm-battered Plum Island would be the most obvious candidate for the buybacks, but plenty of other coastal communities could also be eligible.
As the erosion commission’s recommendations make clear, property buybacks are not the only necessary response to a problem that’s only going to grow more acute. Rising sea levels, and stronger storm surges, pose potentially catastrophic risks, as New York City learned during Hurricane Sandy. To mitigate those risks, the Commonwealth will also need smarter building codes and stricter rules against adding more structures to high-risk areas. The state will also need to strengthen and repair existing sea walls where appropriate.
Of course, with federal flood insurance premiums rising, and storms like Sandy providing graphic warnings of what may be coming to coastal Massachusetts, most homeowners in risky areas won’t need any prodding from the Commonwealth to leave houses threatened by climate change. But “managed retreat” from endangered shorelines requires a multifacted approach that recognizes that some homeowners will need assistance leaving. Often people who live in coastal properties are wealthy, and the prospect of using public dollars to buy out their seaside homes might rankle some citizens. The administration should set a reasonable upper limit on buybacks, and shouldn’t bail out homeowners who chose to purchase shore homes after the risks of climate change became clear. But taxpayers are already subsidizing most owners of at-risk properties each time they rebuild with federal flood insurance payouts. Buyback programs like the one proposed for Massachusetts gives the public a real benefit in return, and should reduce the eventual human and financial toll of climate change.