North Carolina Coastal Development Policy The risk of hurricanes hasn't stopped developers from building along the state's coast. NPR's Ari Shapiro talks to University of North Carolina's Institute of Marine Sciences Director Rick Luettich.

North Carolina Coastal Development Policy

North Carolina Coastal Development Policy

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The risk of hurricanes hasn't stopped developers from building along the state's coast. NPR's Ari Shapiro talks to University of North Carolina's Institute of Marine Sciences Director Rick Luettich.


Even though North Carolina is vulnerable to hurricanes, developers have been steadily building along the state's coastline. Six years ago, the North Carolina state Legislature passed a law intended to help promote that growth. It effectively banned state and local agencies from considering scientific models that forecast rising sea levels. Some people ridiculed the law at the time, including Stephen Colbert.


STEPHEN COLBERT: If your science gives you a result that you don't, like pass a law saying that the result is illegal - problem solved.


SHAPIRO: Rick Luettich is director of the Institute of Marine Sciences at the University of North Carolina and joins us from the coastal town of Morehead City, N.C. Thanks for being with us.

RICK LUETTICH: My pleasure.

SHAPIRO: What did this law do?

LUETTICH: Well, the main thing - I guess main things it did - one is it put a moratorium on any new legislation related to coastal development until 2016. And during that time, it asked the commission that had provided in 2010 the original report on projections of coastal sea level rise to go back, redo its work but limit the time horizon over which it looked to 30 years as opposed to - the original work looked all the way out to 2100.

SHAPIRO: And what impact did that have on development?

LUETTICH: Well, I mean, the answers came out much smaller of course over a 30-year time period. And so any implications that the report may have had for development were diminished. Now, again, since they put into place a moratorium on any regulations at all, development essentially just progressed in whatever way it was previously set up to occur. And with the small increment of sea level rise that we anticipate over the next 30 years, it's done very little to try to discourage development in risky areas.

SHAPIRO: How aware are developers and homebuyers of the risks of building along the North Carolina coastline where rising sea levels will make storms more intense and flooding will become more common?

LUETTICH: You know, I think there's a spectrum. There are some that are very aware of it. There are some that are probably aware of it but, again, are in a situation of being able to transfer the risk, and therefore it's economically viable for them. There are others that aren't particularly aware of it. And, you know, it oftentimes takes an event to remind people. And this event, Hurricane Florence, may be the reminder that's needed for people to perhaps reconsider what the implications of policies are.

SHAPIRO: There's a narrative out there that says if only the North Carolina Legislature had not passed this law, the state would be more prepared for Hurricane Florence; there would not be such dense development along the coastline; things would be much better than they are. Do you think that overstates it, or is there something to that argument?

LUETTICH: It's probably again somewhere in the middle. I really think that the impact of this legislation is in the time period between 2050 and 2100. It's when, you know, my grandkids and great-grandkids are my age and are living along the coast. That to me is when the primary impacts of this legislation are. What's happened over the last few years may or may not have been substantially impacted by it.

SHAPIRO: The law expired in 2016. Now North Carolina has a new governor. Is the state today considering long-term scientific projections about sea level rise?

LUETTICH: I think they're pretty much sticking right with that 30-year horizon. It was a highly contested election, and both houses of the General Assembly are firmly in control of the Republican Party. So the fact that we have a new governor I don't really think has made much of an impact on issues such as this.

SHAPIRO: Rick Luettich is director of the Marine Sciences Institute at the University of North Carolina based in Morehead City. Thank you for talking with us today, and stay safe during the storm.

LUETTICH: My pleasure. I will certainly try.

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