Sunday, January 29, 2006
Gannett News Service
Building surge hurts shores
Added pollution puts ecosystems at risk
Staff and wire reports
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industries have been replaced by tourism-driven economies and
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
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
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
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 email@example.com