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CBRA is working for county taxpayers

Christian Wagley Special to The Star

The recent visit of U.S. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt to Gulf County was a great opportunity for him to experience the splendor of northwest Florida and to learn about local issues. As reported by The Star, Secretary Bernhardt graciously listened to officials asking for the removal of the protections of the Coastal Barrier Resources Act (CBRA) from the Gulf County coast. Upon his return to Washington he will learn why those claims for relief have never advanced: They are without merit.

First some background: In the early 1980s, Congress designated much of the Gulf County coast under CBRA, along with hundreds of other then-undeveloped areas along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. These areas were designated as no longer eligible for Federal subsidies like flood insurance and beach nourishment funds, as Congress acknowledged that these low-lying and storm-prone areas would need constant inputs of money to repair damages. Although development in a CBRA area is not prohibited, and landowners can build as they wish consistent with local regulations, CBRA is a signal that the federal taxpayer is not to be saddled with the risk of developing in these areas. A 2016 study estimated that CBRA has saved U.S. taxpayers an estimated $9.5 billion, with billions in additional savings forecast in the decades ahead.

For the last 20 years, Gulf County has alleged that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS)—which originally mapped these areas and administers the program—erred in its inclusion of the St. Joe Peninsula and Cape San Blas areas because these areas were already developed when the law was passed in 1982. The County alleges that its coast was not “undeveloped,” as there was a road and utilities available down the center of the Peninsula and Cape. Three out of the past four Congressmen to represent the area—including Rep. Neal Dunn--have filed bills to remove the Gulf county coast from CBRA.

But Gulf County’s argument relies on its own personal definition of the word “undeveloped” rather than the definition set forth in the law, essentially asking to create a new set of rules that only apply to them. It’s a lot like playing a game of pickup basketball in which one kid tries to create a new set of rules in the middle of the game—rules that favor his or her style of play.

In this case, the term “undeveloped” was defined in Federal law as areas with a density of no more than one structure per five acres of land where there was not paved roads and utility infrastructure to each lot. USFWS occasionally reviews and updates its maps, reflecting natural shoreline changes as well as the fact that modern mapping technologies are more precise, which sometimes leads to changes in areas covered by CBRA.

In 2016 USFWS made a thorough review of aerial photography and other information regarding the level of development in place on the St. Joe Peninsula at the time of the law’s enactment. That review confirmed that the area was very sparsely settled and nearly the entire Peninsula met the criteria in the law as “undeveloped.”

One exception was found—a small subdivision of 47 acres did not meet the definition of “undeveloped.” Congress properly acted upon this new information and removed this area from the protections of CBRA in 2019. The fact that the USFWS acknowledged that a mapping error was made and supported its correction shows how willing the agency is to support legitimate corrections.

Congress has also been a pretty faithful keeper of the integrity of CBRA, filtering out frivolous bills that would shrink the system without justification, while passing legislation that legitimately corrects past mapping errors. This has been the case regardless of which party controls the House of Representatives, as both major parties find something to like in how CBRA saves taxpayer money and helps to protect the environment while not regulating development or restricting property rights in any way.

Rather than accepting the overwhelming evidence that its coast was properly included, since 2011 Gulf County has spent some $380,000 in taxpayer money hiring Washington D.C. lobbyists to fight the CBRA designation and the related denial of funding for an earlier beach nourishment project. Over the past three years the County has spent over $100,000 on this issue with the Capitol Hill Consulting Group and its assigned lobbyist--former U.S. Rep. Steve Southerland. This information comes from lobbying firm records that they are required by law to report.

CBRA helps to protect the Gulf County coast from overdevelopment, reinforcing the good work County officials have done to limit high density construction along the waterfront and to care for the health of St. Joe Bay. The County has shown its ability to respond to the lack of Federal subsidies by working with property owners to raise funds to support projects like beach nourishment.

With the beachfront and low-lying areas such risky and environmentally-harmful places to build, local officials should look to incentivize new growth and development in and around Port St. Joe, which has a walkable and human scale downtown of the type that is prized by a new generation of Americans. Infrastructure is already available there, and it is much more cost-effective for government to provide services here than to the high-maintenance areas along the Gulf.

CBRA is working for Gulf County and America’s taxpayers. We invite the County to join with the majority of coastal communities that celebrate their inclusion in CBRA and the many financial and environmental benefits it provides. Doing so ultimately helps to better protect the beaches, waterways and marine life that are the foundation of the area’s economy and quality-of-life.

Christian Wagley is coastal organizer for Healthy Gulf, a nonprofit organization devoted to the Gulf of Mexico and the waterways and communities along its shores.