"Like a Foolish Man Who Built His House on Sand:" A Reflection on Federal Outlays to Protect Beach-Front Property

I am taking a few days of solitude at the Delaware Shore and I want to ponder with you one of our American spending priorities that irks me just a bit, especially on account of it’s direct violation of a Biblical axiom.

The practice is building on sand which Jesus uses as an image for foolishness:

But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.” (Mat 7:26-27)

Now here I am, mind you, sitting in a dwelling built on a sandbar as I write this! Hence, I am somehow partaking, albeit in a temporary, rent paying manner, in the very foolishness imaged by Jesus’ parable.

Consider too, as most of you know, the “beach” is not often where the mainland reaches the ocean. The beach, if it is of sand, is often  a barrier island, a sand bar really, with a back bay, and its front toward the ocean. These barrier islands can be as wide as a mile or two, and as narrow as a few hundred feet in places. (See photo upper right).

Always Changing – It is also the nature of these barrier islands, and even of mainland beaches, to shift and shape differently over the decades and centuries. They are dynamic systems, if you will, interacting with the sea currents and wave actions which form, deform and reform them. They are powerfully affected by hurricanes and “Noreasters” here on the east coast. Even beaches directly connected to a mainland shift and shape differently over the years.

So in the end it seems pretty clear why building on sand and especially on sand close to the ocean is a euphemism for foolishness.

And yet we do it in abundance. Here on the Delaware and Maryland shores, just about all barrier islands, whole cities and resorts have sprung up in recent decades. Ocean City Maryland really is a city, with condo buildings as high as 25 stories right along the edge of the water.

So here comes the spending question. I was out on the boardwalk and saw that the beach is much wider than last summer. In fact it now extends almost 300 feet out from the boardwalk. Lots of expensive equipment is still up at the north end of the beach continuing a “beach replenishment project.”  They pump sand from way out in the sea (about a mile away) up on to the beach. The cost for the Bethany Beach area alone (about 5 miles in length) is over 5 million dollars, spent over 3 three years. And most of the money comes from the Federal Government. I have no idea what the whole Delaware coast project costs but am sure it must be in the hundreds of millions.

Is this an appropriate use of Federal money? Is it even an appropriate use of State money? Frankly it is none of my business if someone wants to build a home or business out on a sandbar. But should I be asked to pay for this “foolishness?”

Now I realize the rhetorical tone of my question may disclose what is ultimately a more complicated question. For indeed, these beech front towns and cities are little economic engines, and sometimes not so little. And where there is an economic engine there is also a tax base.

So I can hear the local mayors, and state governors and federal senators and congressmen saying, “You gotta spend money to get money.” Hence to their mind, these beach front properties are worth protecting and restoring to the tune of many millions (and billions Federally) each decade. Indeed, this is about the third major project I have seen out at Bethany Delaware in the 25 years I have visited here.

This argument to spend works better for me at the State level.

But why is most of the money in these mega-projects federal?

And so I still must say we spend Federal money on the craziest things. Any owner of beach proximate property is by definition, a wealthy person. It’s just not possible to buy near the shore and not be prepare and able to lay out lots of bucks. Now it just seems to me that if someone (almost always wealthy) wants to build their house on a sand bar, I shouldn’t be asked to help foot the expenses.

If they want to replenish the beach as the ocean erodes their property (as oceans have always done in the waxing and waning of the beach front), then let them pay for it. Perhaps beach front owners, and all whole build homes and businesses out on barrier islands could contribute to a common fund (let’s call it the “fools fund” in honor of the Biblical text). Beach goers like me might also be expected to contribute to a local tax during our stay.

But in the end,  the Federal Government should not be asked to pay lots of money to protect the property of people who are already quite well healed.

And as we consider  this question consider the horrible condition of the federal debt. And before we too quickly ask the poor and the more urgently needy to take a hit, as we balance the federal budget, maybe its time to look at what and why we are spending huge amounts to protect the properties where we really shouldn’t be building any way.

Sand bars and barrier islands naturally shift about, eroding here, growing there. The way I figure is that the Federal Government ought just as well post a sign: Build at your own risk.

Disclaimer: I like the beach. I especially like Bethany Beech, and there are a lot of great people who live out here. But if you live in Nebraska, I’m not sure your federal tax dollars should have to go to build up my little corner of paradise. I, and those who come here, should enjoy the beach at our own cost. And if the beach and island shift about (as beeches do) we have to adjust without asking you, (or the poor), to pay for what is a biblical euphemism for foolishness, building on sand.

Somehow, in the last hundred years in America we’ve gotten into a bad and expensive habit of building cities and communities (too big to fail?) on sandbars and on land far too close to the ocean (littoral).

Photo Source:

http://www.geosci.unc.edu/faculty/glazner/Images/Coastlines/BarrierIslands/BogueBanks.jpg

Here is a video that shows the kind of storm damage that can afflict these parts, especially in winter storms called “Noreasters”

21 Replies to “"Like a Foolish Man Who Built His House on Sand:" A Reflection on Federal Outlays to Protect Beach-Front Property”

  1. I don’t know where to tell you to go where this doesn’t exsist. I read once that a porta potties in the mountains cost the tax payers 2 million dollars. one of those pork line items in a bill. Anyway don’t let it get you t ‘oo worked up. Enjoy your time off. One paraphrase from the Bible – If anything is lovely and pure think on these things. Have fun.

    1. Yeah, you’re probably right. Everyone is on the take. I sure do wish there were a reset button or something. Everyone complains of the out of control spending, but it’s always some other slob who needs to take the hit.

  2. Father,

    Some very good thoughts. I also love the beach!

    I will tell you that you shouldn’t worry about the folks in Nebraska, since we send them a lot of federal money for crop subsidies.

    So that makes the question, instead, why do we send money to Washington so that it can be sent right back to the states?

    Hmmmm . . .

    1. The likely answer is that many people think the Govt knows how to spend our money better than we do. Also these subsidies have accumulated over the years and began, often, in response to a critical need. But, in the end, they NEVER go away, even long after they are no longer needed and don’t make sense.

  3. One would hope (maybe against hope) that the federal government would have done a cost-benefit analysis regarding its contributions to the federal flood insurance program with respect to building near beaches. The building, maintenance, and occupancy of the residences near the beaches generate enormous income for people and businesses. So, if it’s cost effective (meaning, it produces more wealth in the national economy than it costs in federal taxes invested) it is beneficial to the national economy and not sinful – what’s not to like about that?

    1. A possible answer. But remember it’s political people doing the calculations. And their cost/benefit analysis may be factoring a lot of things in that have little to do with money.

  4. I don’t mind replenishing beaches IF everyone is allowed access to the beach. Parking, a bathroom/showers, these are basic necessities that one would need to enjoy a day at the beach.

    But then the rich people try to block citizens from accessing “their” beach. It’s an outrage to me.

    1. Yes, that’s a factor too. I think the law permits anyone to walk along the “littoral” (where the water and land meet). But if you were to go up on to the dry sand and sit under an umbrella you’d likely get the bum’s rush.

  5. It is ridiculous. And it will also be one of the first things to go in the event of a great chastisement. America is now a great engine for the rich and it’s inexorable move is to make them richer.

    1. I think this sort of insight is where the tea party meets the occupiers. Everyone is more than a little teed off that large corporations and otherwise wealthy people receive huge subsidies. If we’re really going to be capitalist, they why is the govt propping everything up? I think conservatives and liberals agree on the principle, though they disagree on whose ox gets gored.

  6. Msgr, an argument that you didn’t mention is “our money gets paid to the feds, and
    if we don’t claw it back here, someone else will make it go somewhere else”.

    Wish I could figure out how to break that cycle; it is like losing weight.. easy
    only in theory.

  7. I agree. Of course, why did we rebuild New Orleans? Projects like these should be paid for by those who profit from their existence. And if that takes away the profit, then that should put an end to the foolishness.

    1. New Orleans, which is actually further inland than Houston, existed for almost 300 years before being decimated by Katrina. That’s not a bad bet! Let’s abandon St Louis because of the earthquake of 1812, or CA and the rest of the West Coast states because of the San Andreas (and other faults). Or anywhere where there has been a tornado in recorded history! Or the entire Midwest because of the prospensity of the Miss & MIssouri and tributaries to flood. Ya gotta be reasonable. Msgr is speaking about newly minted foolishness over the past 2 generations! – PT

  8. The last job I held when I lived in Nebraska — no, I didn’t live on a farm, so I never got any of your tax money — I worked at the reservation center for a major hotel chain. The year four hurricanes hit Florida and the Gulf Coast (2004?), we had a flagship beachfront resort near Pensacola that was condemned and had to be knocked down after one of them. And Katrina ruined a hotel we had in downtown Nola which we’d just spent $11 million renovating (whose bright idea was it to found a city several feet below sea level? With jerry-rigged levees and breakwaters?).

    You’re the Greek scholar, Monsignor — would all this qualify as hubris?

  9. Msgr.,

    It is the weight of the buildings that exacerabates the errosion.

    The sand finds it more facile to inch away than be compacted.

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