Rising Waters and Political Wrangling Bad Science and Property Rights Policy Can Be A Dangerous Mix

Growing up on Virginia’s Middle Peninsula, Lewis Lawrence remembers an island in the middle of the Ware River with tree trunks the size of five-gallon buckets. That island has long since vanished beneath the sea. The patch of six counties jutting into the Chesapeake Bay and bordered by rivers north and south is unmarred by the skyscrapers and ubiquitous tattoo parlors of Virginia Beach, 60 miles south. But the Middle Peninsula is changing.


As acting director of regional planning for the Middle Peninsula Planning District Commission, Lawrence helps local governments tackle development issues, including the triple threat of erosion, storm water and sea-level rise. The commission brainstorms the worst-case scenarios: Who will evacuate the elderly when the storm hits? Where will vulnerable families find shelter? How will emergency workers navigate flooded roads?

Tea Party-affiliated groups say local planners and government officials are allowing climate-change concerns to dictate such things as tree removal and building allowances on their private property. They accept that sea level is rising; they do not accept that human industry fuels global warming and contributes to sea-level rise.

property rights © Ohkayeor/Flickr

“What troubles us is that we’re seeing property rights infringed upon by bad science,” says David Rector, president and founder of the Essex [County] Tea Party on the Middle Peninsula. “The science is agenda-driven and coming from government agencies.”

Rector and others see any actions related to curtailing personal freedom in favor of environmental progress as part of a larger government strategy to advance Agenda 21, a plan aimed at encouraging sustainable development adopted at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in 1992. At the Middle District Planning Commission, Lawrence said he had never heard of it until Tea Party members raised the issue.

This is a microcosm of the politics of climate change, a narrative playing out in various communities nationwide. Activists complain about political agendas while waves lap at the coastline and puddles settle in the road. But in southeastern Virginia, sea-level rise is only part of the problem.

Scientists are not only measuring sea-level rise in the Chesapeake Bay area, they are also examining the rate at which the land is sinking. Southeastern Virginia is still suffering repercussions from glacial movement during the ice age. In addition, scientists believe a meteorite hit the area 35 million years ago. As a result, coastal Virginia may be sinking faster than sea level is rising.

These studies are taking place at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS), a premier research institution and marine science graduate school for the College of William & Mary located right on the Middle Peninsula. But when one group, Concerned Citizens of the Middle Peninsula, sponsored a forum on global warming titled “The Great Global Warming Swindle,” they invited outside experts.

Featured speakers described global warming as a fad. One was S. Fred Singer, a physicist and emeritus professor of environmental science at the University of Virginia. Singer, who is a widely quoted global warming skeptic, said he expects sea levels to rise about eight inches by the year 2100.

Sea-level rise can vary by region. Singer’s estimates were not specific to southeastern Virginia, and other scientists hold different views. Last year, in fact, University of Arizona scientists said Virginia Beach was among four cities—along with New Orleans, Miami and Tampa, Florida—that could lose 10% of its land area by 2100.

Although John Boon, a marine scientist and professor emeritus at VIMS, has written a book about sea-level rise, he avoids 100-year predictions. Boon prefers evidence from the past. Taking both sea level and land subsidence into account, a gauge measuring the tide at Gloucester Point, Virginia, has registered a rise of 1.4 feet during the past 100 years.

“The inference is that we should be very concerned about what is going to be unfolding over the next 100 years,” he says. “How could anyone turn around and say there is no problem?”

Warm water drives storms. If more storms strike in a place where sea level is higher, the storm damage will be greater, explains Roger Mann, director of research and advisory services for VIMS.

A 1933 storm swamped land around New Point Comfort Light, a lighthouse on the peninsula. To this day, tourists see the lighthouse by canoe. That storm was a Category 2 hurricane, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Although the 1933 hurricane produced a storm surge one foot greater than Hurricane Isabel in 2003, the high water mark was comparable in 1933 and 2003, according to a VIMS fact sheet

Planners and county officials grapple with the cost of protecting coastal residents. But in the small pond of Middle Peninsula politics, activists make waves, packing meetings to complain, publishing letters likening one county’s comprehensive plans to “Soviet style central planning.” At a Middle Peninsula Planning Commission meeting earlier this year, the crowd was so rowdy that police were called to maintain order, Lawrence says.

“As the political discourse un-folds…significantly more time is spent talking, and so policy decisions are not advancing forward as they used to,” he says. “It is almost as if an anchor had been thrown off the stern.”

At the end of the day, he hopes one message is clear. “Think critically before you spend another $2 million to build that McMansion on the waterfront, because that road floods,” he says. “It used to flood once a year—now it floods 10 times a year.”