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Lawmakers seek to fortify coast communities

Sep. 26—BOSTON — Rising seas and damaging storms fueled by climate change threaten coastal communities, and lawmakers are seeking protections to harden the shoreline.

The Legislature's Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture met virtually Wednesday to hear testimony on bills aimed at fortifying coastal communities.

Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr of Gloucester has filed a bipartisan bill that would create a new state entity and advisory panel to "identify, research, advance and deploy innovative means, methods, technologies and approaches for protecting and strengthening the resilience of the state's coastal shoreline."

The focus of the proposed Coastal Erosion Innovation Center would be to protect beaches, marshes, dunes and public and private property and infrastructure. The new entity would be authorized to issue grants for projects to help fortify the coast.

Tarr said there is an urgent need to protect against climate change by taking a more pro-active approach to coastal adaptation.

"All too often we hear of actions needing to be taken in the 11th hour — in the middle of a blizzard or hurricane," Tarr told the panel. "We simply cannot allow ourselves to be the victim of indecision and inaction in light of the challenges we are facing."

Some of the proposals heard by the committee are aimed at easing regulation.

Legislation filed by Reps. Jim Kelcourse, R-Amesbury, and Lenny Mirra, R-Georgetown, would allow the governor to enact emergency rules allowing fortifications and other engineering structures to be built in state-protected dunes and other coastal areas to prevent flooding and storm damage.

"It would allow the governor to take temporary measures to protect houses, roads, water and sewer systems, and other infrastructure," Mirra said. "With more storms and rising sea levels, this is something we're going to have to address one way or another."

Another proposal, filed by Sen. Patrick O'Connor, R-Weymouth, would allow communities to devote Community Preservation Act funds to the "rehabilitation of beaches, dunes, seawalls and other coastal infrastructure ... to protect open space, historical resources and housing from flooding, sea-level rise and storm surge."

Environmental groups have been sounding alarms about the impact of climate change on the state's coast, calling on lawmakers to fund adaptation programs. Many coastal communities are scrambling for money to fortify their shorelines.

Gov. Charlie Baker is seeking to divert a portion of $350 million in federal pandemic relief funds to the state's Municipal Vulnerability Preparedness program, which pays to fortify seawalls, prevent coastal erosion and reduce flooding.

Lawmakers are considering his proposal along with other funding requests.

Despite a record level of funding last year, demand for the grants outstripped the availability of funds, state officials have said.

Heidi Ricci, director of policy for the Massachusetts Audubon Society, said the state needs to ramp up efforts to fortify the coast to protect lives and property.

"Climate change impacts are going to be very costly, putting people and property at risk," she told the committee. "Establishing this kind of a framework to make sure that our buildings, roads and other structures are climate resilient is very important."

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