Tourist Storm Protection

According to a story in Saturday’s Virginian Pilot, Virginia Beach is slated for more beach widening this summer.  The total cost of the project is $22.6 million, with the federal government providing $14.7 million (65 percent) and the city of Virginia Beach paying the remaining $7.9 million.

The newspaper article says that this project is a “part of a long-term plan to protect the commonwealth’s shoreline from storms.”  That sounds like a worthy idea, especially in this era of sea-level rise.  But, let’s not kid ourselves.  This project is not about protecting the shoreline or about resiliency, the buzzword of the day.  After all, if one is going to protect the shoreline and make it more resilient to stronger storms, one would not try to do so by putting down a substance that will start washing away the day after it is put down.  The owner of one of the ocean front hotels stated quite plainly the real purpose of the project:  “…having  a wide beach is important, not only for safety, but for what we’re selling to our guests.”

I do not have an objection to spending public funds to enhance a tourist attraction of the Commonwealth.  After all, tourism is one of the state’s largest industries.  The Virginia Tourism Corporation reported that, in 2017, tourism accounted for $25 billion in domestic visitor spending, supported 232,000 jobs, and brought in $1.7 billion in state and local tax revenue.

I do have an objection to who is providing the funding for the beach widening.  Why should the American taxpayers be putting up $14.7 million to help pad the wallets of the owners of oceanfront hotels in Virginia Beach and the tax revenues of the city and Commonwealth?  I realize that this amount is just a tiny drop in the ocean of federal spending, but considering that the federal government is on track for a trillion dollar deficit this year and there are substantial national infrastructure and disaster needs elsewhere, it does not seem right that federal funds are being spent to add sand to Virginia’s resort area, only to have that sand begin to wash away immediately.  (This will be the third time since 2001 that the beach will have been widened or replenished.)

The direct beneficiaries of the beach widening should be the ones paying for it.  That means the hotel owners in Virginia Beach, especially those on the oceanfront.  It also means the owners of the oceanfront houses in Sandbridge.  (The article reported that Sandbridge beach is also scheduled for widening, although that work will not be part of the “big beach” widening, but will be done under a separate contract.)  The city should levy a tax on these entities for beach widening or replenishment and keep the revenues in a separate fund for that purpose.  The hotel and rental house owners could choose the extent to which they passed this additional tax on to their guests.  The Virginia Beach city council considered this approach in 2011, when it looked as if the federal government might be out of the business of beach widening, but quickly shot the idea down, according to the Virginian Pilot, and instead enlisted the state’s Congressional delegation to lobby for federal funding.

Because the state also benefits from the tourists attracted to Virginia Beach (sales tax revenues, income taxes from jobs related to tourism, etc.), it would be appropriate to use state appropriations or grant funds to pay a portion of the cost of beaching widening or sand replenishment.

Disclosure:  I am not a totally disinterested observer.  This will be the sixteenth year that we have rented a house at Sandbridge for a week and I foresee  rentals in future years.  The above proposal would probably ending up costing me, but I think that would be fair because I would be the direct beneficiary of any beach widening.  However, having  just returned from our annual week there with the grandkids, I really do not see any reason to widen that beach at this time.  However, that is a different issue.

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11 responses to “Tourist Storm Protection

  1. Yep, I agree but the problem is that as long as there is Fed money “available”, you can’t leave it on the table…. but this is totally small potatoes compared to the Federal flood insurance program which basically encourages and rewards folks building in flood prone places.

    If the Fed every pulled out of the subsidized flood insurance program , many beach places would be changed dramatically – starting for the banks who would no longer finance mortgages for such risk.

    • I cannot argue with the sentiment that a locality or state should take advantage of any available federal funding. My larger point is that federal money should not be available for projects such as this.

  2. I totally agree with your sentiments.

    I believe that Sandbridge has a special service district that levies a tax to pay for its sand widening projects. See: https://scholar.lib.vt.edu/VA-news/VA-Pilot/issues/1994/vp941102/11020476.htm

    So, you can vacation in Sandbridge guilt free, knowing that you are paying your fair share of sand replenishment!

    I’m not sure about the Virginia Beach resort area. I would note, however, that city inhabitants and visitors do pay a meals and lodging tax that should raise more than enough money to pay for the replenishment. Where that money goes, I’m not sure. I recall various efforts to capture that money for convention centers and other economic development projects.

    • Oops, I didn’t did all my homework. I do note in the article you referenced that the taxing district was set up to raise only the city share of the cost. The city was still depending on state and federal funds for 65 percent of the cost.

  3. “As long as there is Fed money “available”, you can’t leave it on the table….” That goes for a lot of things including our grand scheme for health insurance subsidies — Medicaid expansion, anyone? It’s an endemic problem: when the feds endorse ‘Solution A’ and actually fund it, why decline the dollars on principle — unless there’s no alternative solution on the table or you don’t think it’s a problem that needs solving. Virginia’s tourism industry is in competition with the other States and we need to take our share of any subsidies available. Likewise, Virginia’s shoreline residents need to claim all the FEMA insurance payouts they can get so long as this counter-productive subsidy persists. As LG implies, that doesn’t make it right.

    This is also another example of what Steve H was talking about the other day: State subsidies — in that case, for nuclear and “green” electric generation — which may be what the public wants, but which give the subsidized players a big advantage in the wholesale electric markets where the competition to sell capacity and energy is supposed to be based strictly on each generator’s economics (thus treating independent generators and the big legacy utility generation alike regardless of who owns them or what State they are located in). Do we really want to put the competition out of business, thus destroying the market?

    What we ought to have is (1) a national consensus on what goal these subsidies are attempting to achieve, and (2) a national carbon tax or the like to advance that goal evenhandedly. Instead we have a State-by-State patchwork of rules that undermines regional, multi-state grid markets; as of now there is no federal rule on the subject. Whether climate change is your concern or not, this mess, under-the-radar but affecting us all, is what can happen when there’s no federal leadership at all. I’m not holding my breath for a federal solution here but one is badly needed.

  4. I know you specified Medicaid subsidies but did you know that regular employer-provided heath insurance is also subsidized and actually is the largest tax expenditure in the tax code?

    So decisions are made with respect to whether the government should or should not (for instance) not tax employer-provided health insurance. I don’t consider not taxing health insurance or providing 410K/IRA that are not taxed until you retire – as “leaving money on the table” – in the same way that Fed grants are made “available” to localities if they apply for them.

    but when it comes to health insurance – there are subsidies for most of it whether it’s employer-provided, or Medicare, or Medicaid or ObamaCare and one’s health care is a different critter than folks sunbathing on a beach for fun and taxpayers paying for it.

    We subsidize health care and retirement – but that’s different fram sand beaches… I guess one could argue about what should or should not be subsidized but in the case of health care – as long as we have EMTALA – which requires hospitals to treat you even if you don’t have insurance – that’s also a “subsidy” right?

    • You are right–we need to make decisions on what will be subsidized. Fifty years ago, the United States made the decision that ensuring a minimum level of health care for vulnerable citizens (Medicaid and Medicare) would benefit society as a whole. Providing wide beaches that primarily benefit property owners along those beaches does not measure up to the same level of societal benefit.

  5. How does this fit with the crazed rhetoric on climate change and rising sea levels? If things are as bad as some predict, we need to be moving uses away from the existing sea coasts.

    And, yes Medicare and Medicaid are more important than rehabilitating beaches.

    • No just rising sea level but the land is sinking. But we are talking a slow process. Meanwhile presumably with some adaption techniques such as building on stilts and beach management, there are potentially many decades of qulaity vacations there.

      We used to have a cottage on Lake Erie and they had to be build on 6-ft stilts not due to climate change, but every spring the snow melt down the river caused a 5-7 ft deep floods of the cottages, on rare occasions into the first floor (what a mess). My grandparents on both sides had neighboring cottages.

    • Not just rising sea level but the land is sinking. But we are talking a slow process. Meanwhile presumably with some adaption techniques such as building on stilts and beach management, there are potentially many decades of quality vacations there.

      We used to have a cottage on Lake Erie and all of the cottages had to be build on 6-ft stilts, not due to climate change, but every spring the snow melt down the river caused a 5-7 ft deep floods of the cottages, on rare occasions into the first floor (what a mess). My grandparents on both sides had neighboring cottages. The Army Corp of Engr tried to fix the issue every year but it always got worse, unless they finally solved it.

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