Bill Offers Tax Break for Building Seawalls, Elevating Homes

Video and text by TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — Should the priciest waterfront homes get a tax break for guarding against climate change? A bill in the General Assembly does that by allowing cities and towns to offer a new property tax reduction, much like discounts offered veterans and senior citizens.

House bill (H5030), sponsored by Rep. Lauren Carson, D-Newport, creates a one-year window for owners of homes along the coast and in floodplains to get a discount on their property taxes for elevating, moving, tearing down, or building walls or levees to keep encroaching waters at bay.

“Rising waters in Rhode island are eroding the value of our coastal homes,” Carson said at the Jan. 24 hearing.

It would be up to municipalities to decide if they will offer the tax deal, but according to the legislation certain costs to address climate change can be carried forward to future years if the amount exceeds the annual property tax bill.

Carson submitted the bill on behalf of the Rhode Island Association of Realtors. Carson and the association’s David Salvatore noted a recent article in the Providence Journal showing that Rhode Island lost $44.7 million in real-estate appreciation between 2005 and 2017 because of the risks and costs of flooding and climate change.

“If we don't do something soon, the map of Rhode Island will change in the coming decades,” Salvatore said of the coastal regions threatened by rising seas.

Rep. George Nardone, R-Coventry, pushed back on the legislation, saying the tax break unfairly benefits the people who can most afford to pay for the work.

Carson said not all homes are upscale beachfront mansions and that many middle-class properties are in river floodplains in Cranston and Warwick.

“I don’t want to erode the property tax base in those towns, so let’s keep those homes expensive so they keep paying a lot of taxes,” Carson said.

No one testified against the bill, but the environmental legal group Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) submitted a letter expressing concern that the legislation encourages construction of seawalls and other structures that harden the shoreline. These barriers have the unintended consequence of accelerating beach erosion and threatening ecosystems.

“Coastal armoring can have significant external costs to the long-term health of the shoreline and to public access to the coasts,” according to the letter by CLF staff attorney James Crowley.

CLF also wants to be sure the legislation addresses environmental justice issues, such as low-income renters and property owners who have “the least capacity to adapt” to climate change.

The bill passed the House in 2018 but never made it through the Senate. The latest bill was held for further study by the House Committee on Municipal Government.