Posted by: coastlinesproject | April 27, 2015

Massachusetts Erosion Commission:

The Massachusetts Erosion Commission



On March 5, 2015 the Massachusetts Erosion Commission met in Ipswich to take public comments on the commission’s recommendations for what people could do to protect their coastal homes. It was a colorful meeting and a sellout crowd.


One of the more prominent homeowners showed up with a lawyer flown in from the Pacific Legal Foundation, one of the most powerful anti-environmental organizations in the county. The PLC had been started by Ronald Reagan when he was governor of California and was liberally funded by the oil, tobacco and lumber industries and those ubiquitous Koch brothers.


The foundation had cut its teeth by arguing that tobacco didn’t cause cancer and went on to support placing nuclear power plants in some of California’s most seismically active areas. I guess they felt it was just a hop, skip and a jump to go from supporting nuclear power plants in seismically active areas, to supporting homeowners who wanted to build houses overlooking the equally active Atlantic Ocean.


They litigated against numerous coastal states arguing that a developer should be compensated for the loss of his investment if an environmental agency ruled that he couldn’t build a house on an eroding beach. The amazing thing is that they had won in one of the worst decisions ever made by the modern Supreme Court. The court decided that such an environmental ruling would be a “taking” under the Fifth Amendment, which gives new meaning to the expression pleading the Fifth.


But how often do homeowners fly in their own expensive West Coast lawyer to hold a gun to their state officials’ heads? The lawyer graciously offered to sit down with the committee members and go over their report line by line “so you can avoid litigation.” How subtle can you get?


Of course the assumption underlying the threatening argument was that the half mile long seawall his clients had built was working without a hitch. But, then a group of ragtag environmentalists requested to show some footage of the seawall taken from a drone the week before. In the spirit of full disclosure I will admit I was one of those ragtag environmentalists.


The footage showed that the seawall had collapsed in several places exposing foundations and leaving four homes dangling dangerously over the edge of the dunes. Then it went on to show that in only 6 months time the repair of the Merrimack River’s South Jetty had eroded three football fields worth of dunes off the north end of Plum Island putting up to a hundred more houses at risk.


The lawyer’s client was apoplectic. He had spend the last year carefully grooming the media to present his message that the $40,000 that each homeowner had spent to build their section of the seawall and the $10 million dollars that taxpayers had spent to repair the jetty had stopped the Atlantic in its tracks.


The chairman of the committee cut our film short, but its point had been made. Erosion was still running rampant on Plum Island. But the problem was, the lawyer from the Pacific Legal Foundation was right. According to the Supreme Court any common sense regulation to protect homeowners from losing their shirts, as much as to protect the environment, was essentially null and void.


All a homeowner had to do was hire a fancy lawyer, plead the Fifth and pay for yet another harebrained scheme to fight the Atlantic Ocean. State regulators couldn’t even suggest a setback to require a homeowner to build his house on the back of his lot instead of directly on the edge of the raging Atlantic. That was supposed to be a right, guaranteed by the Constitution and supported by the Supreme Court of the United States.


The problem was, the Atlantic Ocean didn’t know anything about constitutional law and couldn’t give a whit about rulings by the Supreme Court. It was just going to do, what it was just going to do.




William Sargent is the author of 20 books on science and the environment. His latest book, Islands in the Storm, is about Plum Island. It is available in local bookstores and through and at








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