State reaches out on sea-level rise; county not ready to act

May 14, 2013

Outreach, outreach, outreach,” said Susan Love, repeating perhaps the state’s No. 1 strategy for addressing sea-level rise.

Love, a planner with the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control’s  Delaware Coastal Programs, reached out to Sussex County Council last week, discussing the progress of the state Sea Level Rise Advisory Committee.

But you can reach out and still not necessarily touch someone.

Councilman Sam Wilson, for example, was blunt about what he considered the lack of information concerning sea- level rise.

“They don’t have no facts,” he said. “It’s almost b.s., to be honest with you.”

The state planner didn’t respond in kind. Love may not conquer all, but she is unflappable.

“We do feel that the science is sound,” Love responded calmly, acknowledging the state needs additional information to make more specific forecasts.

As the state gathers more data, she hopes it will be able to tell local governments they need to plan for, say, six or eight inches of sea-level rise by 2030.

Wilson wasn’t buying it. The state relies on imperfect science. Wilson relies on the Bible.

Responding to Love’s comments about sea-level rise, Wilson said that, according to the Bible, man has been on the earth for 6,000 to 7,000 years.

“It’s impossible to even try to tell me something’s going to happen in the next 10 years,” he said. “If it hasn’t happened in the last 7,000 years, why’s it going to do it now, all of a sudden?”

“That’s a very good question and comment,” Love said. She mentioned the tide gauge in Lewes, which has been operating since 1919. Delaware, she said, has seen a documented 13 inches of sea-level rise in the last 100 years.

Love also referred to the changes people see in their communities. Delaware bay-front communities warily watch each storm. Flooding is a regular topic in Dewey Beach.

Councilman Vance Phillips expressed concern that the Sea Level Rise Advisory Committee had not spoken with enough of the stakeholders, especially farmers and landowners.

It’s difficult to say how much is enough, but the committee has been working since 2010 and has held several well-publicized public meetings. A February meeting at Cape Henlopen High School attracted around 100 people.

Another sign that landowners have been heard was Love’s announcement that a proposed real estate disclosure rule - requiring sellers to tell buyers about flood risks - has been scrapped.

That led to reservations from Councilwoman Joan Deaver. She said she’s had 10,000 new residents from outside Sussex County move into her district, people who aren’t as aware of flood zones. “When the facts are in and it’s concrete … we should warn the people.”

Councilman George Cole got right to the point about why Sussex is likely to move slowly when it comes to regulating coastal development. “Sixty percent of our tax base comes from one mile off that beach,” he said.

While dismissing much of the talk about sea-level rise as “feel good” and the “popular thing” to do, Cole said the county would consider the issue when it’s time to update the comprehensive plan.

Love stressed the state will not dictate how county and local governments prepare for sea level rise. Instead, the state will be there to help those who want to plan. She said many municipalities are taking the issue seriously.

“It’s very important to think long-term,” Love said. She said the county, though not required to take sea-level rise into account, should carefully consider the placement of schools, hospitals and wastewater treatment plants.

Residents should do the same. Instead of putting your house on stilts one foot above the highest flood level, for example, make it 18 inches or, better, two feet.

Speaking briefly after Love, Rich Collins of the Positive Growth Alliance agreed that sea-level rise is real, but was optimistic about our ability to meet the challenge.

“Sea level is nothing new,” he said. “The Henlopen Lighthouse fell into the sea in 1926, the Indian River Inlet bridge, 1946.”

“It’s a natural thing,” Collins continued. “We’ve always dealt with it before. And we’re going to have to deal with it in the future. Because sea level rise absolutely is occurring. It’s just a scientific fact.”

Not all council members might agree with Collins’s assessment, but it would be foolish not take Love’s advice: “I would suggest you be as risk averse as possible.”

For more information, search online for Delaware Sea Rise Level Advisory Committee.

  • A number of accomplished writers will be appearing in the Politics column every Tuesday on a rotating basis to explore the dynamic world of politics at the local, county, state, national and world levels.

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