Report warns rising seas, erosion threaten coast

File photo. A new study by the state Coastal Erosion Commission says Crane Beach in Ipswich loses about 4.6 feet of beachfront each year to rising sea levels and erosion.

BOSTON — Rising sea levels and erosion threaten the economies of communities along the coast, according to a new report, and state and local officials are being pressed to do more to curtail waterfront development.

A report by the 13-member Coastal Erosion Commission recommends moving buildings from the water’s edge, building artificial barriers along the coast, elevating structures on wooden pilings and re-nourishing beaches with sand. Nearly 85 percent of the state’s 6.7 million residents live and work in cities and towns on the coast, the report notes.

“We need to take bold steps now to prepare and adapt to a rapidly changing climate,” said Jack Clarke, director of policy and government relations at the Massachusetts Audubon Society and a member of the commission.

The report’s findings, under review by Gov. Charlie Baker, could shape policy toward coastal building and affect property values from Salisbury to Provincetown.

Statewide, more than $1 trillion worth of coastal real estate — from Boston’s skyscrapers to Plum Island’s beachfront homes — is potentially at risk from erosion and damaging storms, according to the report. In Essex County, more than $100 billion is at risk.

The state also has significant exposure to eroding shores, with more than $7.2 billion worth of assets located along the coast, from buildings to parks and beaches, according to the report.

Forty-one coastal storms from 1978 to 2013 caused damages of more than $600 million in Massachusetts, according to the report, which based the estimate on claims filed with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

New England coastal waters are rising at an annual rate three to four times faster than the global average, according to the state Office of Coastal Zone Management, which attributes the trend largely to climate change exacerbated by human activity.

Scientists predict the world’s oceans could rise 3 feet by the end of the century and that New England could see more winter storms such as those that battered the coast in 2011 and 2012. That will mean more erosion in vulnerable communities such as Newbury, Newburyport, Ipswich and Salisbury.

Many communities are already feeling the impact. Plum Island — which bears the brunt of erosion in the North Shore — has lost about 100 feet of beach to the sea in the last 20 years, the report says. The problem has been exacerbated by recent storms that have destroyed homes, though local officials suggest that the sand isn’t eroding but shifting to other areas.

In Ipswich, Crane Beach loses about 4.6 feet a year, while Swampscott’s Phillips Beach loses 2 feet a year, according to the report.

A main recommendations of the report is the creation of a program authorizing the state to purchase storm-damaged coastal properties using a previously approved, $20 million fund. A similar proposal was approved by the state Senate earlier this year, but the measure is stalled in the House of Representatives.

The report suggests that more should be done to fortify the coast with seawalls, jetties and other barriers to protect existing properties. In Essex County, for example, only 46 percent of the region’s 150 miles of coastline is protected with man-made barriers. Statewide, about 27 percent of vulnerable coast is protected.

The commission includes state and local conservation officials appointed by former Gov. Deval Patrick. A similar commission in 2006 made more than two-dozen recommendations, including a program in which the state purchased 37 miles of coast that are now off-limits to development.

Doug Packer, Newbury’s conservation agent and a member of the commission, said much of the change needs to happen locally because communities are largely in control of the zoning laws for waterfront development.

“The push is going to have to come on a local level,” he said. “I don’t think the federal and state governments want to wade into changes to zoning regulations and other things that need to be done to bring about this change.”

But Packer said local governments face unique challenges discouraging residents from living along the shoreline.

“These are your friends and neighbors, people who pay taxes and live in your town,” he said. “How aggressive should cities and towns be to move people away from the coastline? It’s going to be a tough road to hoe.”

Ken Whittaker, Gloucester’s conservation agent, said the city is discussing steps to restrict activities that contribute to erosion such as banning all-terrain vehicles from sand dunes and strengthening coastal zoning regulations.

“We’re trying to protect the dunes because that’s the first line of defense for us,” he said.

But Clarke and others say many North Shore communities are still not doing enough to restrict coastal development. Much of the reason has to do with the allure of tax revenue from pricey waterfront real estate, he said.

Despite the state’s stance on discouraging coastal development, for example, the MassWorks Infrastructure Program recently approved a $3 million grant to developers of the proposed Beauport Hotel, a $25 million project slated for the site of the former Birdseye fish processing plant along Gloucester’s waterfront.

“It’s all about the waterfront view,” Clarke said. “But the reality is that municipal officials should be zoning development away from the coast, not putting more people in harm’s way.”

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