A year ago, with the destruction of Tropical Storm Irene still raw, Rep. James Albis, D-East Haven, took a look at computer modeling that showed his district after a category 2 hurricane.

It was pretty much underwater.

So Albis suggested forming a task force to look at the spectrum of issues around managing the Connecticut coastline for what many believe are the new climate realities. Three raucous public hearings, a parade of experts and countless meetings later, the Shoreline Preservation Task Force has its answers in the form of 37 recommendations.

It also has a dose of reality.

sandy in branford

Branford’s shore was hit hard during both Tropical Storm Irene and Hurricane Sandy. Photo by Jan Ellen Spiegel

“The biggest immediate concern is the fact that the state is kind of broke,” said Albis, who wound up leading the 20-person task force drawn mostly from the legislature, but also from various expert ranks. “Many of the recommendations had financial implications. I’ve been told that any bill with a fiscal note this year is basically DOA.”

Financial issues aside, the recommendations also seem poised to re-ignite controversies that nearly sank shoreline protection legislation last session. Task force members have been complimentary beyond diplomatic in assessing how well they’ve worked together.

But it is evident that old battles over private property rights, home rule vs. state mandates, the authority of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, the use of classic shoreline armoring — seawalls — and the truth that shoreline communities get a huge percentage of their tax base from heavily taxed shoreline properties will erupt again as these recommendations wind their way through the legislative process.

“I would argue that there are still a number of things that are not yet resolved,” said Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, a task force member. “So even though we came to terms on something approaching consensus in generating a report, there are still — if not divisions — fundamentally different points of view on how we might best move forward in this.

“What I see happening going forward, if there’s going to be legislation, it will be moderate in scope and tone.”

Private property

One of the key battles would likely be fought over private property rights. Language reasserting such rights was inserted into last year’s legislation and language that called for “strategic retreat of property ownership” for certain coastal areas was eliminated, largely at the insistence of Sen. Len Fasano, R-Hamden, who is a task force member and represents East Haven, including the hard-hit Cosey Beach area. He owns a home there, as well as a beach club that was seriously damaged by Irene and again by Sandy.

“My concern is some folks may try to use those two storms to further their goal of retreating from the shoreline,” Fasano said. “While I think there should be better planning and I think we need to do things that are smarter, I don’t want to see people who are being forced from the shoreline against their will.”

That concern, along with home rule issues and the urgent need for municipal revenue from high shoreline property taxes resulted in the task force treading lightly in some areas. A proposal for state-mandated shoreline setbacks based on local geography was voted down.

Language on other recommendations like pre-authorization for storm damage repairs, streamlining approvals for seawall and other reinforcing structures and consideration of the broader impacts of individual shoreline actions was parsed to accommodate not just those concerned with individual rights, but also the-more-than-a few task force members who repeatedly expressed concerns that the suggestions would simply condone the rebuilding of structures that had already failed.

“If it had been up to me, I would have been more forceful on considering the environment and considering impacts of shoreline structures on neighboring properties and on the environment,” said member Jennifer O’Donnell, principal engineer with Coastal Ocean Analytics. “I wasn’t voted into my office so I don’t have to worry about making my constituents happy and finding something that will be politically feasible.”

DEEP too powerful?

DEEP came in for a good deal of criticism from the public and a number of task force members who felt the agency wields too much power through regulations and practices that are often a mystery to those unschooled in government operations.

“DEEP is a formidable agency,” Fasano said. “They get mad when I say this, but it’s the truth — they are equivalent to the IRS. When the IRS has you in their sights, cut a deal, because it can only get worse. DEEP is exactly that.”

A whole section of recommendations focused on ways to rein in DEEP, speed its processes, improve its relationship with municipalities, and there was even discussion about whether to spin off certain DEEP responsibilities to cities and towns. The very first recommendation is for DEEP to produce a best practices guide for permitting coastal structures, though the task force insisted it be done under its guiding eye.

DEEP legislative liaison Robert LaFrance conceded that processes were often slow and the agency is working on improving its regulatory relationships. Commissioner Dan Esty, he said, would be meeting with task force next month

“The commissioner wants to address them, set the record straight,” LaFrance said. “We did just pass a law last year and we really want to let that roll out a bit.”

But Steinberg saw DEEP’s shrinking staff and finances at the root of the agency’s problems. “We have to find a way to provide DEEP with the resources to do the job we’ve mandated they do,” he said. “I see DEEP as part of the solution.”

In fact the bulk of the recommendations are focused directly or indirectly on municipalities. From better enforcement of consideration of sea level rise in planning and zoning to a specific mandate that propane and other fuel tanks be secured before a storm — much of what the task force is after would likely fall on local government.

Branford ahead of the curve

It’s exactly the sort of thing the town of Branford — battered in both Irene and Sandy — is already beginning to do in much the way the task force envisions. In recent weeks it changed zoning ordinances to waive most variance requirements for shoreline property owners who want to or have to elevate to meet Federal Emergency Management Agency specifications. Branford also waived building and zoning fees for storm repairs and made it harder for homeowners to skirt FEMA regulations.

“It’s not a mechanism to go build the Taj Majal,” said Laura Magaraci, Branford’s zoning enforcement officer. “It’s just a measure to get them out of the flood zone.”

For Paula Brown, whose shoreline cottage flooded during Sandy, it means less time and money to elevate her house to FEMA standards even though she’s not required to. Even without the extra costs, she expects the price to hit $200,000. “It’s a daunting task,” she said. “I only see one solution to keep this from happening and that would be to have the house raised.”

Janice Plaziak, the town engineer and flood plain manager, said Branford could benefit from a number of the task force recommendations — the mandate to secure propane tanks and the pre-authorizations for storm repairs. The only access road to the 400-plus homes where Brown lives flooded and partially collapsed in both storms.

“It’s a challenge,” Plaziak said of preparing Branford’s long coastline for more storms and higher seas. “In addition to it being people’s private property — and we have to respect private property rights certainly — we also still have the fact that it’s a huge tax base.”

And task force members have not lost sight of that

“We’ve had a lot of people complain, well we’re just dealing with people along the shoreline who are rich people living large and why do we need to be focusing on that,” said Rep. Lonnie Reed, D-Branford, a task force member. “The reality is that’s your grand list.

“Those people are big property tax payers,” she said, “and those people help maintain and improve our schools so it impacts everyone.”

Money problems, Reed added, cannot be an excuse.

“If you don’t address it, the issue does not go away,” she said. “We invest now or we invest later.

“We’re going to have to figure out how to prioritize because it’s a public safety issue. It’s a community issue.”

Despite the differences, one recommendation seems to have widespread support as the best place to start — an inventory of high hazard areas and shoreline infrastructure at risk.

“We can’t really implement any solutions until we know what we’re dealing with, so that’s, I think, number one,” Chairman Albis said.

But as for the money for those solutions, he added: “I think we may have to pass on some of those things.”

Jan Ellen is CT Mirror's regular freelance Environment and Energy Reporter. As a freelance reporter, her stories have also appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Yale Climate Connections, and elsewhere. She is a former editor at The Hartford Courant, where she handled national politics including coverage of the controversial 2000 and 2004 presidential elections. She was an editor at the Gazette in Colorado Springs and spent more than 20 years as a TV and radio producer at CBS News and CNN in New York and in the Boston broadcast market. In 2013 she was the recipient of a Knight Journalism Fellowship at MIT on energy and climate. She graduated from the University of Michigan and attended Boston University’s graduate film program.

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