The Coastal View

Old Problems: New Promises
by David C. Kyler, Executive Director, Center for a Sustainable Coast

In the mid-90's, under state requirements of the Georgia Planning Act, cities and counties in coastal Georgia adopted comprehensive plans intended to guide local development. Unfortunately, these plans are now usually neglected when officials make land use decisions. Likewise, public investments in water and sewer systems, schools, and other infrastructure tend to be driven by the demands of private development choices in the absence of a coherent strategy created by community consensus. In short, despite efforts by the state to induce good planning, many of our local governments still make decisions on a case-by-case basis with little overarching policy or vision. It is debatable whether this is due to the obsolete notion that unfettered private development ventures are inherently beneficial, or simply because short-term thinking is so much easier than long-range planning, and often more profitable, at least for a few.

The result is a haphazard approach to the region's growth that too often yields, by default, to the whims of any number of individuals proposing to build houses, commercial buildings, shopping centers, or even major facilities such as power plants. Mirroring this "disjointed incrementalism" at the local level, state environmental permitting decisions are made on a first-come, first-served basis with no long-term view on allocation priorities and only erratic attempts to address the sustainable capacity of resource systems. It seems that the presumption in most decisions is that resource supplies are limitless and, with minor permit conditions (often poorly enforced), the consequences of an individual project are negligible.

Equally troubling is a prevailing belief that all permit applicants should be accommodated, in spite of mounting evidence that unchecked growth threatens public health and existing resource users, including nature-based businesses. Typically put aside are profound underlying questions about the accumulating impacts on health and environment caused by innumerable individual permits. Meager state funding for monitoring and assessment thwarts reliable answers. But under current policies it is unlikely that growth will be restricted until its damage becomes alarming and quite costly, if not impossible, to reverse.

An important and promising exception to this blind obedience to indiscriminate growth has been brought by a convergence of issues surrounding water supply, and to a lesser extent, water quality. As if anticipating the concerns of coastal Georgia, Alabama and Florida, also downstream from Atlanta's boundless thirst, have raised interstate legal issues that demanded Georgia's overdue attention to water supply and the environmental consequences of excessive water use. A resolution of these conflicts among the states is pending in federal court. But over the past two years similar concerns about water allocation and long-term environmental quality within the state have recently culminated in the adoption of state water management legislation, strongly advocated by the Georgia Water Coalition.

The Coalition, with more than 75 organizational members representing over a 100,000 Georgians, has pushed hard for statewide water planning and protection of watersheds. Last year the Coalition led the successful defeat of an ill-conceived proposal that would have allowed the sale of water permits in Georgia, a first dangerous step in the privatization (and abusive exploitation) of a public resource. This year the Coalition helped block two more state bills threatening public waters. We now wait with considerable apprehension to see if Georgia will assume a new and much needed level of responsibility in its policies governing water as a critical natural resource.

If triumphant in that effort, after demonstrating that resource planning is not only possible but in the long-term interest of all Georgians, we may see further advancements in public awareness. It is hoped that these will lead to the realization that we can no longer allow the unwanted effects of change to be imposed upon us when the power to shape our future is already within our grasp. The question remains if our collective wisdom and political resolve will meet the demands of that challenge.
^ Top