Poughkeepsie (N.Y.) Journal, January 29, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: U.S. coastal communities are endangered by land-use policies that allow building right on the water's edge, plus powerful storms that sweep away anything in their path. A precautionary approach might include policies to control growth in danger zones, plus policies to protect local economies from being "developed" to a point where they no longer serve the needs of local people.]

More disasters of Hurricane Katrina-proportions are a certainty because the United States has no policy to control growth in danger zones at the water's edge.

In a single generation, land along the nation's fragile coasts has been gobbled up, concentrating wealth at the shore, threatening the environment and putting at risk millions of people and property worth billions of dollars.

While the Hudson River Valley is among the least-prone coastal areas to hurricane damage, the estuary shares many of the other stresses affecting U.S. coastal communities. Here, the desire to live on the water that is fueling a building boom around the country is compounded by our proximity to New York City and its many commuters and second- home owners.

Thousands of new homes and hundreds of thousands of square feet of office and retail space are proposed for construction on the shores of the Hudson River in the mid-Hudson Valley alone. Development throughout the Hudson's vast watershed has already been linked to measurable declines in the water quality of the streams that feed the Hudson River estuary.

A three-month Gannett News Service examination found:

** Approximately 23 percent of the nation's estuaries do not meet state and federal clean water standards for swimming, fishing or supporting marine species. While much of the Hudson is safe for swimming, the state advises against eating many fish species because of contamination.

** In many seashore towns, once-robust commercial fishing and shipbuilding industries have been replaced by tourism-driven economies and lower wages.

** Demand for waterfront property has driven home prices so high that workers who staff the shops, restaurants, schools and police departments can't afford to live nearby.

** Industrial pollution remains a burden, as cleanup costs impede some revitalization efforts. New York's Brownfield cleanup law has helped communities and developers subsidize the cost of cleaning polluted waterfronts, but contamination remains costly.

Communities could decline

If runaway land consumption and relentless growth in automobile use continue unchecked, many healthy shore communities could face sharp declines over the next 25 years, according to Dana Beach, director of the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League and an authority on coastal sprawl.

"When we modify watersheds (with roads and buildings) we are changing the physical attributes, the biological attributes of the water bodies embedded in those watersheds," Beach said.

Paved surfaces, for instance, interrupt the water cycle, preventing rainwater from percolating into the ground and recharging underground water reserves. The pavement tends to increase stream erosion and degrade habitat because rainwater cascades quickly off of pavement, filling streams with explosive force. Pollutants such as salt and oils from roads flow off pavement directly into streams.

That, and other changes to the watershed, have contributed to a wholesale change in the composition of fish species in many Hudson River tributaries -- with fewer overall fish species now present than a few decades ago.

The federal government has a patchwork of regulations and agencies that focus on pollution, flood control, the environment and growth patterns.

The state controls some land-use decisions on the coast, as shown by New York's decision last year to deny St. Lawrence Cement Co.'s plans to build a cement plant on the Hudson River in Columbia County. That decision was based on a federal law executed by the states that is intended to protect the nation's coastline.

Most land-use decisions, however, are in the hands of the smallest governments -- the cities, towns and villages. Volunteer planning boards consider development proposals and make decisions based on the zoning ordinances on the books.

Those boards are considering proposals for thousands of waterfront condominiums, single-family homes, restaurants and retail and office space in the valley -- including Kingston, Poughkeepsie, Beacon, Newburgh, Fishkill, Lloyd, Hyde Park and Esopus.

In coastal communities across the country, local residents, professional activists and others are struggling to check encroaching sprawl and development.

New advocacy taking hold

But the traditional position of many environmentalists -- opposed to any and all new construction near sensitive marshes, wetlands and waterways -- is giving way to a new and more savvy form of advocacy.

It's evident in places such as Kingston, where a coalition of groups, Friends of Kingston Waterfront, has proposed an alternative development plan for two riverfront parcels where developers want to build more than 2,500 homes, as well as businesses.

The advocates push "smart growth" and "new urbanism" ideas, that seek to concentrate construction in areas already developed, where public infrastructure such as water and sewer service and schools can serve the new population. The strategy is to concentrate population growth in these areas, leaving outlying areas open for wilderness, recreation or farming.

Recently, the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration formed a partnership to promote smart- growth principles to coastal communities.

"Our role is to provide coastal communities with the best information possible so they can make informed decisions about where and how to grow," said Tim Torma, an EPA manager in the agency's smart-growth program.

EPA experts are assisting planners in Aquidneck Island, R.I., to implement a master plan for developing 10 miles of coast on Narragansett Bay north of Newport, R.I.

"This really gives voice to what island residents said they wanted," Tina Dolen, Executive Director of the Aquidneck Island Planning Commission. "They told us they wanted environmental protection, access to the water, roadways that were not so dangerous and a better-looking commercial development area."

Gannett News Service conducted the investigation of coastal development.

Dan Shapley contributed local context to this report. He can be reached at dshapley@poughkeepsiejournal.com

On the Web

Hudson River Estuary Program: www.dec.state.ny.us/website/hudson/hrep.html

Copyright 2006 PoughkeepsieJournal.com