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No Bluffing

Coastal homeowners shouldn’t be held hostage to erosion

by John Betsch
As reported by the  Pacific Legal Foundation , a nationwide public interest legal organization defending limited government, property rights, individual freedom and a balanced approach to environmental protection, the following case (while in the state of Washington) has applicability and parallels to any waterfront property owner.

The story starts almost 20 years ago when Vicki and her husband bought their dream property on Lummi Island.  Their home sits above a coastal bluff with a breathtaking view of the water and Mount Baker.  Vicki soon discovered that shoreline erosion was accelerating along the toe of the bluff.  But that was not a big problem, because there was an easy and economical solution:  place some large boulders in front of the bluff to dissipate the wave attack and protect her home and property.

This, however, is when the real nightmare began.  In the late 1990s, Whatcom County adopted a hard line policy that the type of erosion occurring on Vicki’s property is part of a “natural process” that must be protected – even if it meant putting her life and home at risk. [In 2006, Ms. Luhrs filed for an emergency permit to slow down the ongoing erosion and protect her home.  The County denied the permit, stating that erosion due to wave attack is an anticipated seasonal occurrence and cannot constitute an emergency Instead of allowing her to build shoreline armoring, county officials said she must use inadequate soft, bio-engineered methods such as planting grasses along the sheer bank.]  Thus, despite multiple expert reports, including reports from the County’s own geologist, concluding that it was only a matter of time before wave attack and shoreline erosion destroyed Vicki’s home, the County denied every request to protect her property.  For nearly ten years, Vicki appealed these decisions through various courts and agencies.

During the course of litigation, Whatcom County made it clear that it would rather see Vicki’s property destroyed than allow her to place rocks at the base of her bluff.  In fact, when asked by a judge from Washington’s Court of Appeals whether, when the day comes, Vicki will just have to watch her house go down the bluff, the County callously answered “That does happen, yes.”  The County’s policy of valuing the potential environmental benefits of natural disasters over the lives and property of its own citizens is unacceptable . . . and unlawful.

You see, in Washington, every landowner has the right to protect his or her property from destructive natural forces.  This is a simple proposition.  And one that is guaranteed by our constitution.  As another appellate judge told the County during arguments, if a revetment is necessary to protect Vicki’s property then “constitutionally you have to allow it,” otherwise, “you’re gonna have to pay her for her property.”

In January, Whatcom County gave up its fight and issued Vicki the necessary permits to construct her protective revetment.  Earlier this month, the revetment was installed at the base of Vicki’s bluff, protecting her home from the threat of wave erosion.  The bureaucratic nightmare that she has been living for the past decade is finally over and Vicki can rest assured that her home will not fall down the bluff during the next storm.

This struggle should serve to caution regulatory agencies considering a similar, hard-line “environment over people” policy:  you are free to make endless pronouncements about what you want to do with other people’s property, but you cannot not strip the landowners of their fundamental rights.

Watch Mrs. Luhrs tell her story:

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Before/After photo courtesy Pacific Legal


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