Shifting sands: We continue to build and live along the N.C. coast, but should we?
R.J. Lehmann is a senior fellow at R Street, a nonprofit, nonpartisan, public policy research organization. Lehmann says people need to understand the full risk of developing in high-risk zones, such as on the coast or in floodplains. Government insurance programs, such as the National Flood Insurance Program and the state’s Beach Plan, can distort risk for property owners.
When the market is able to fully consider risk, the price will signal whether building in certain areas is worth it, Lehmann said.
“I think we get a little ahead of ourselves when we talk about retreat. The first thing we have to do is stop providing incentives to build in those places in the first place,” Lehmann said. “First, do no harm. Then, we can move on to the next phase of what to do with people who are there now.”
The availability of coverage with the National Flood Insurance Program, zoning and land use regulations that don’t acknowledge the level of risk, as well as outdated flood maps, contribute to the perception that certain places are safe for development. North Carolina’s flood maps are up to date, but, Lehmann said, developers don’t always consider them when deciding where to build.
“There are any number of tools that will have to be implemented to deal with this problem,” Lehmann said. “I prefer using those tools that align the market with the proper incentives, so if the market can accommodate risk through insurance and incentives to build stronger and more resilient structures, that is always going to be the preference.
“There are some communities that have multiple, repetitive, severe losses that should be targeted for some kind of change, whether that’s buyouts or mitigation,” Lehmann said. “But you have to be cautious. It’s a powerful tool, and the government shouldn’t use it recklessly. It should be used wisely.”