Editor’s Comments: A Different Kind of Home Bailout—Who Should Pay?

May 1, 2009

We’ve all heard a lot of debate recently about the nature of responsibility: banks’, regulators’, mortgage-holding homeowners’, and government’s. Should public funds be used to help people who made decisions that didn’t work out, even if the consequences of those decisions weren’t obvious at the time, or if forces beyond their control put them in an untenable situation later on?

While much of this discussion focuses on the country’s financial situation, a similar debate is taking place on the nature of government’s versus private citizens’ responsibilities-one that erosion control professionals should be aware of. The question is this: What responsibility does a local government have to help private property owners whose homes or businesses are threatened by erosion, such as from an eroding shoreline or river? And, if the government has once stepped in to try to solve the problem, does that imply an ongoing commitment to do so?

Two recent cases illustrate the issue. In Washington state, the Quinault River has shifted its course over the years, bringing it much closer to homes that, when they were built, were nowhere near riverfront property. Some homeowners are asking that the county-which has spent about $30,000 on previous erosion control measures that have failed to solve the problem-spend more to “fix the river.” Commissioners from Grays Harbor County are considering the options.

In Alaska, a similarly shifting river is threatening homes, but there, the government took a different stance. Rather than trying to stop the erosion or divert the Matanuska River, the local government decided to buy out homeowners whose property was in harm’s way and then demolish the homes. Some homeowners chose not to accept the buyout initially, and now the Natural Resources Conservation Service funds that supported the buyout program are gone-but the erosion problem isn’t. In this case, the question of responsibility is complicated by previous work that was performed about 20 years ago by the state’s Department of Transportation, which constructed dikes to prevent flooding. Some say the dikes didn’t do what they were intended to, and perhaps even diverted water toward some homes, rather than away from them, before finally failing altogether. The question is whether that initial attempt to control the river gave a false sense of security to those who owned affected property that the erosion control measures would continue.

The same question arises often with beach nourishment projects, in which local governments or federal agencies pay to add sand to an eroding beach to maintain it and protect the property behind it. Does that action imply an ongoing commitment to keep on nourishing the beach? If a property owner invests in a structure behind that beach, and the city or state later decides the beach nourishment is too costly or simply isn’t as effective as planned, does the government then have any responsibility to the property owner for damage that might not have occurred had the beach nourishment program continued? If the area was zoned for development in the first place, does the government have an obligation to help protect the homes that have been built there?

Have you had experience with scenarios like these in your community? How were they handled? Share your comments below.

About the Author

Janice Kaspersen

Janice Kaspersen is the former editor of Erosion Control and Stormwater magazines.