After the storm-swollen Scuppernong River nearly drowned Columbia, N.C., last year, town leaders were convinced that their waterside hamlet had become dangerously low. So they passed a measure requiring new buildings to be 2 feet higher.
It's an aggressive standard that eclipses many local height requirements in North Carolina, but it sailed through the Board of Aldermen with barely a crosswind. The easy sell came three months after Hurricane Irene wheeled onto the wooded shoreline near Columbia, driving a surge of seawater down the river's throat and through the small town.
That provided all the proof that elected officials needed. Townspeople had watched the water rise until it soaked into roughly 80 percent of Columbia's buildings, said town Manager Rhett White, who called the 2-foot standard "a fairly easy recommendation." It passed unanimously.
The case in Columbia seems to strike a winning argument for climate adaptation, but it started a storm of its own. State lawmakers appear poised to prevent similar policies, as comedian Stephen Colbert derisively put it, by passing legislation that makes sea-level rise illegal. The Legislature is considering a bill to stop local and state land-use standards from incorporating scientific projections of accelerated sea-level rise -- one basis for building structures higher.
The decision in Columbia to protect the town from storm-prone flooding shows that the reasons provided for adopting a policy can become more controversial than the regulation itself.
"Sea-level rise as such was not mentioned. It was not a part of the consideration," White said of the board's approval of higher elevation standards. If it were, "I don't think it would have even been considered."
North Carolina is no stranger to policies that restrict coastal development. It makes builders consider local erosion rates; the more shore that's lost annually, the farther back a house must be built from the water. And at last count, nearly half the state's 112 coastal communities had standards requiring structures to be built at least 2 feet above federally designated flood levels. Columbia jumped to 3 feet with its new policy.
But the natural forces spurring those policies tend to be hazards that people can see. Beach sands are surrendering to waves and storms, often at a visible pace. Hurricanes lash homes with wind and rain from above, while flooding them from below.
Rising oceans a 'very poor' argument
So to some, the Legislature's negative reaction to a proposal by the state's Coastal Resources Commission advising that land-use standards should incorporate 39 inches of sea-level rise by 2100 isn't surprising. The bill, which a Senate committee unanimously passed Thursday, says communities should consider only historical trends of sea-level rise, which might amount to 8 inches by 2100.
"Part of the problem is that sea-level rise is a very poor tool to justify immediate action in almost any way," said Spencer Rogers, an engineer who studies coastal construction for North Carolina Sea Grant, which is partly funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "The question is, what's the best reasoning to do that? It's often not sea-level rise and climate."
The long timeline associated with rising seas is one problem. But the state policy debate has also become mired in the national politics around climate change. The coastal commission's report, which came out in 2010, has been intensely criticized by NC-20, a group of economic developers and political activists representing the state's 20 coastal counties.
The group's chairman, Tom Thompson, says he doesn't trust mainstream climate scientists who say that greenhouse gases emitted by human activities could have a substantial effect on things like rising seas. He argues that climate change is similar to a previous fascination with "global cooling," even though the scientific research on the impacts of greenhouse gases is far more robust.