Delaware’s Most Vulnerable County Abstains From Vote On Sea Level Rise Mitigation Options

by McCarter & English: Climate Change & Renewable Energy
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In our continuing our discussion (see here and here) of the Delaware Sea Level Rise Advisory Committee ("DSLRAC"), the efforts of the DSLRAC took an ironic - but perhaps predictable - turn when the delegate for the Delaware county likely to be most directly affected by sea level rise abstained from voting on any of the dozens of options developed by the DSLRAC to address the effects of sea level rise.

After developing a list of over 60 "Options for Preparing Delaware for Sea Level Rise" (PDF available here), over the past months the DSLRAC held public engagement sessions in each of Delaware's three counties and solicited public comments on the proposed options. These options fell within four broad types of responses to sea level rise - whether to accommodate, avoid, protect or retreat from the consequences of sea level rise. After consideration of the public comments, the DSLRAC - which includes representatives from municipal governments, business advocacy organizations, citizen advocacy organizations and the cabinet-level departments of the State of Delaware - voted on each of the options before the final list will be presented to Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control Secretary Collin P. O'Mara. The Sussex County delegate, however, abstained from voting on any of the options, reportedly at the request of Sussex County Council.

Sussex County's abstention from the debate - and thus its refusal to vote for any of the options to mitigate the effects of sea level rise in Delaware - is ironic given the effects of sea level rise the DSLRAC found were likely to directly impact Sussex County, which is bordered on the east by the Atlantic Ocean and the Delaware Bay. For example, the DSLRAC found that between 35,000 and 55,000 acres of land in Sussex County was likely to be inundated by sea level rise by 2100, or between 6% and 9% of Sussex County (see here (PDF) at 19). The inundated areas would include low lying resort communities on the Atlantic Ocean, the Delaware Bay and the Inland Bays (id.). In addition to the obvious impacts on tourism and costal recreation, the DSLRAC found that Sussex County was likely to particularly feel the impact of sea level rise on a broad range of infrastructure and resources, including such key items as roads, bridges, evacuation routes, future development areas, and the availability of drinking water (see id. at x-xiii). These risks were apparently not enough to sway the County Council, with one Councilman reported as disputing the existence of sea level rise ("They don't have no facts. It's almost BS, to be honest with you"; "If it hasn't happened in the last 7,000 years, why's it going to do it now, all of a sudden?"), despite the scientific evidence presented by the DSLRAC. Another was reported to have stated that "Sixty percent of our tax base comes from one mile off that beach," but nevertheless suggested that the effects, if any, were "years down the road" and could be dealt with at a later date.

Despite the position of Sussex County Council, various coastal towns within Sussex County, including Dewey Beach and Rehoboth Beach, are looking at actions they can take without County involvement to address the potential impacts of sea level rise, and the Delaware General Assembly has declared the week of September 14-22, 2013 "Sea-Level Rise Awareness Week" to, among other things, "increase the awareness, education and knowledge of Delaware residents" about sea level rise. While the DSLRAC proceeded with the vote on options despite the Sussex County abstention, and will present those options to Secretary O'Mara, Sussex County's position highlights the controversy that continues to surround climate change and sea level rise, even in the places likely to be most affected by sea level rise, and despite the overwhelming consensus among scientists.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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