Globe Editorial

State should help shore up seawalls, but not everywhere

April 9, 2011

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THE CHRISTMAS weekend storm that broke through Scituate seawalls and wreaked havoc on 400 houses has pushed the deteriorating state of many coastal defenses onto the radar screen of state policymakers. At a time of strapped state and municipal finances, no one needs another costly infrastructure problem, but this one cannot be avoided. Billions of dollars in private and public property depend on repairing the seawalls and beaches that shield more than 100 miles of the Massachusetts coast from the worst fury of storms. The state will have to help towns make these improvements, but it must also be selective in its approach.

A review by the state of shore-defense infrastructure in 2009 spelled out the dimensions of the problem. It identified 139 miles of structures and beaches that need $627 million in repairs to be restored to their original condition. State Department of Conservation and Recreation officials also estimate that it would cost more than $1 billion to strengthen and raise existing coastal defense structures to protect against the increased threat from the sea that will come with global warming.

To help towns and cities pay for improvements to shore defenses, legislators have put forth two worthy ideas. One is a low-interest loan fund — similar to ones the state uses for new school buildings and wastewater treatment facilities — that would also assist inland communities in paying for dam repairs. Another is to let towns use the property-tax surcharges of the Community Preservation Act for shore defenses. (Currently, the surcharges can go toward historic preservation, open-space acquisition, and affordable housing.)

But not all seawalls can or should be rebuilt. With climate change expected to raise sea levels above the capacity of concrete and boulder barriers to protect structures in certain areas, coastal communities should discourage shorefront development in those locations — and the state should not help fund seawall projects that encourage it. In some cases, public purchase of highly vulnerable properties might make more sense than the rebuilding of a breached seawall.

No matter what, the sums involved will be formidable. But the risk of inaction is enormous. In Marshfield alone, for example, 25 percent of the property-tax base sits within a mile of the shore. All along the coast, seawalls and breakwaters — most of them more than 50 years old — protect not just houses but harbors, roads, and utility facilities. Some towns have recognized the need and dug into their own coffers to do repairs — others will need the assistance of the proposed revolving fund. The Legislature should get it up and running as soon as possible.