Tag Archives: Waterfront property

Waterfront property owners face options in response to sea-level rise

Rising sea levels and isolated floods will be an increasing challenge for waterfront property owners, according to experts I interviewed for a story published this week in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

The Vechey home and bulkhead before the big move. // Photo: John Vechey

Changing conditions call for property owners to consider their options with regard to their shoreline — not just for today but for the long run. What I learned while researching this story is that every waterfront site will respond differently as the highest tides go higher and higher.

Before I started my inquiry, I thought the obvious answer would be for people to build taller and stronger bulkheads — despite well-known environmental damage. And that may be the only answer for some. But for others, that approach could be a waste of money, as bigger walls degrade the owners’ enjoyment of the beach as well disrupting natural systems. Alternatives include moving or raising a house or even replacing a bulkhead with “soft shore” protections.

After the home was moved back from shore and the bulkhead removed. // Photo: John Vechey

Sea levels in Puget Sound are rising slowly at this time, with the actual rate dependent on location. We live in a tectonically active area, with major movements along continental plates. As a result, the ground is sinking in most areas around Puget Sound, adding to the relative rise in sea level.

In Seattle, the sea level has risen about 9 inches since 1900 and is expected to rise an additional 4 to 56 inches (4.75 feet) by 2100. The uncertainty reflected in that range relates to whether greenhouse gases continue to increase, thus accelerating the rate of melting of land-based ice in the polar regions.

Some changes can be expected regardless of the human response over the next 80 years. For example, one analysis looking at Whidbey Island suggests that there is a 99 percent chance that by 2040 — just 13 23 years from now — sea level will be at least 2.4 inches higher than today with a 50 percent chance that it will be 7.2 inches higher. After 2040, the tides will keep rising even faster. Take a look at the related story “Average high tides are creeping higher in Puget Sound.”

John Vechey of Orcas Island, who I featured in my story, took sea level into account when deciding whether to remove his bulkhead while seeking to improve the beach for family activities and for the environment. His solution was to move his house and give the beach more room to function naturally.

Moving a house will not be the answer for everyone, but I can safely say that everyone should consider their long-term picture before making any investments that will last a lifetime — and that includes changes to the shoreline.

I believe it is generally possible, certainly with professional help, to calculate elevations for the house and any low spots on the property, add one to four feet above the current high-tide mark, and then consider tidal surge, which is the wave height caused by weather conditions. In some counties, professional help is available if you are considering whether to remove a bulkhead. Check out the “Shore Friendly” website and “Resources in Your Area.”

At this time, future sea levels do not enter into regulatory considerations about where a person can build a house. One problem is the uncertainty surrounding the amount that sea levels will actually rise. But some environmental advocates say it is time to require additional setbacks, not only to protect the environment as tides push back the natural beach but also to protect homeowners from future losses.

For some people, sea-level rise is a distant worry, but for others the threat is just around the corner. I was reading this morning about how high tides are already affecting Naval Station Norfolk. Check out “Rising Seas Are Flooding Virginia’s Naval Base, and There’s No Plan to Fix It” by Nicholas Kusnetz of Inside Climate News.

A new Government Accountability Office report, released yesterday, cites estimates of future property damage totaling between $4 billion and $6 billion per year in the U.S. as a result of sea-level rise and more frequent and intense storms. The report outlines the need for a coordinated federal response.

Sen. Maria Cantwell discusses the new GAO report and calls for better planning in the video below.

Puget Sound restoration depends on shorelines

The Encyclopedia of Puget Sound has published the final two parts of a seven-part series on shorelines, bulkheads and nearshore ecosystems.

As we researched the series, I was able to interact with a lot of interesting people — from coastal geologists to property owners. Today’s experts in shoreline ecology credit the late Wolf Bauer with many of the ideas that have become commonplace in shoreline restoration. I was pleased when Washington Sea Grant produced a video tribute to Wolf, who died in January at 103 years old.

One story I wrote, which was published today, involved a boat ride along the eastern shoreline of North Kitsap, which was the perfect setting for describing the geology and natural forces that shape the shoreline. I must thank Hugh Shipman of the Washington Department of Ecology and Paul Dorn of the Suquamish Tribe for their expertise. Check out “Sources of Sand.”

On an earlier boat ride, I joined up with a group of shoreline property owners who were learning about nearshore ecology and the benefits of bulkhead removal. The boat trip, sponsored by the Shore Friendly Kitsap program, is part of a pilot project to introduce the idea of removing bulkheads.

The tour departed from Brownsville and went up through Liberty Bay near Poulsbo, where we observed a mixed assortment of houses and associated shoreline structures. Some of these waterfront homes were protected with massive rock bulkheads; some featured stubby wooden walls; and some were surrounded by vegetation with no bulkhead at all.

“Taking this boat ride lets you see what the natural shoreline should look like,” said Lee Derror, a Tracyton resident who has been contemplating whether to remove her bulkhead, built of creosote timbers.

Cost of removal is a major obstacle for many property owners — unless their bulkhead is already failing. The other major concern is whether alternative “soft shore” protection will be enough to protect their shoreline from excessive erosion.

Leaving Liberty Bay, the boat headed to Port Madison on Bainbridge Island to examine the Powel family property, where a bulkhead was removed in 2013. The 1,500-foot bulkhead removal is believed to be the largest private removal so far in Puget Sound. (See Kitsap Sun, Aug. 29, 2013, or the Shore Friendly webpage.)

Jim Brennan, a consulting marine biologist, told the passengers that accommodations were made to protect a historic boathouse on the Powel property by placing large rocks around the foundation. Also, the beach was sloped back to absorb incoming waves. Other than that, the shoreline is expected to eventually look much the way it did in the 1800s, with a reconnected salt marsh providing food and protection for migrating salmon.

Lee Derror told me that property owners should take a look at their shoreline from the water side, especially if they plan to remove their bulkhead. The Kitsap tour was especially helpful, she said, “because you get to rub elbows with the experts.”

Kitsap’s Shore Friendly pilot project — one of five projects in the Puget Sound region — will help property owners determine if bulkhead removal is right for them. It includes with a visit from a volunteer, followed up by an assessment from an independent geotechnical engineer. The last time I checked, county officials were hoping to offer additional boat rides in the future.

Pilot projects operating in other counties have taken somewhat different approaches, as I described last week in the story “Shoreline Restoration Turns to Private Property Owners.” The second video is from efforts on San Juan Island.

The state’s Shore Friendly website includes web links for people to connect with outreach efforts in their own counties. Go to “Resources in Your Area.”

Below are the seven shoreline stories written by science writer Eric Scigliano and myself for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound and the online magazine “Salish Sea Currents.” These are published by the Puget Sound Institute, which is associated with the University of Washington. Funding came from the Environmental Protection Agency.

Shoreline owners are on the front lines of ecosystem protection

Waterfront property owners are a special class of people, and I mean that in a good way.

When it comes to sensitive shoreline habitat, they are the front lines of protection. When storms cause property damage, they see more than their share — and they pay handsomely for the privilege in both the cost of property and taxes.

Driftwood helps rebuild natural habitat after a bulkhead is removed, as in this example from Maury Island. Photo: Christopher Dunagan
Driftwood piles up and helps rebuild natural habitat after a bulkhead is removed, as in this example from Maury Island.
Photo: Christopher Dunagan

As I interviewed people and conducted research for a series of stories on shoreline armoring, I came into contact with dozens of shoreline property owners who were learning about the latest science on the nearshore environment. They wanted to know how to better manage their property. Some were contemplating removing bulkheads where the wave energy allowed, knowing that many bulkheads built years ago are not really needed.

The latest stories in our series, published in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, are:

Although I believe that most shoreline property owners are environmentally responsible, I do wonder about people who have damaged shoreline habitats to improve their view or water access without obtaining the required permits. It seems at every hearing regarding shoreline regulations, somebody will speak up and say, “It’s my property, and I can do what I want!”

One of the interviews that did not make it into the series was a discussion I had with Jay Manning, a South Kitsap native who went on to serve as an assistant attorney general, director of the Washington Department of Ecology and the governor’s chief of staff when Chris Gregoire was in office. Jay now serves as a member of the Puget Sound Leadership Council, the governing body for the Puget Sound Partnership.

Jay and I got to talking about how waterfront property owners occupy a special place — literally and legally — when it comes to protecting the public’s interest in shoreline ecosystems. A balance of public and private rights is embodied in the state’s Shoreline Management Act, which demands the highest level of protection for water bodies and adjacent lands.

The public’s ability to enjoy natural resources along the waterfront “shall be preserved to the greatest extent feasible,” the act states. “To this end, uses shall be preferred which are consistent with control of pollution and prevention of damage to the natural environment, or are unique to or dependent upon use of the state’s shoreline.”

As an assistant attorney general representing Ecology, Jay learned that shoreline ownership embodies a special public-private relationship.

“It’s much more significant, I think, than what you find with upland properties,” he said. “The full array of (private property) rights that you find in upland areas does not apply to shoreline areas.”

State law builds upon the Public Trust Doctrine, an ancient and enduring principle that retains certain rights to the public for all time, regardless of ownership.

Jay, a shoreline property owner himself, says the Puget Sound Partnership has identified the protection and restoration of shorelines as a key element in the recovery of Puget Sound.

A few years ago, many cities and counties routinely approved bulkheads without giving it a second thought. But that has been changing as local jurisdictions adopt new shoreline master programs. Now, one cannot get approval to build a bulkhead unless a house is imminently threatened by waves or erosion.

So far, about half of the 12 counties in the Puget Sound region are operating under the revised requirements, along with nearly 90 percent of the 101 cities.

Unfortunately, Jay noted, rules related to shorelines have never been as rigorously enforced as those related to water quality, for which the threats to human health are more obvious. Counties and cities vary greatly in the amount of effort they put into land-use enforcement.

For some people, it just seems easier to move ahead and get the work done, thus avoiding delays and costs of permitting, consulting work and mitigation. Some people don’t believe that shoreline regulations make much sense.

But, as many local officials told me, they would like the chance to talk with property owners about the value of shorelines, explain the regulations and discuss various alternatives that might even save money. Most regulations, after all, have a basis in science, and we can all learn from what the latest studies are telling us.