Neighbors influence neighbors’ decisions

A recent article in the News-Times suggests that a landowner’s decision to install a riprap structure to protect their property can be influenced by their neighbor’s decision to do so, which could lead to excessive armoring of the coastline. The article refers to a study published in the January 2021 issue of the Journal of Environmental Economics and Management that says there may be two reasons for the “neighbor effect.”

One: “When a property owner begins steps toward armoring, it offers a learning opportunity for other neighbors to gain insight into the process and the cost.”

While that statement may be true to a point, the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department couldn’t care less about your insight. Your application is processed on its own merits or lack thereof. The permit process is arduous and requires a design by an engineer, which isn’t always a guarantee of success — but that’s a story for another time.

OPRD makes you jump through many hoops, and some of them are high and small. The “monkey-see-monkey-do” theory may work if your neighbor gets a new lawnmower or fishing boat, but you can’t just contact OPRD and ask them to open up the permit faucet. You have to prove you have an erosion problem regardless of yours neighbor’s circumstances. Permits are oftentimes issued in groups, but not because of a petitioner’s insight. It’s because the Pacific Ocean doesn’t just pick on one lot at a time. It erodes stretches of beach, which vary greatly in length and can affect small and large groups of properties.

Contrary to popular belief, the average oceanfront homeowner is not wealthy. They are regular folks who have the majority of their life savings invested in their home, just like everyone else. Riprap is very expensive, and most people don’t have tens of thousands of dollars sitting around that they can throw at a project just because their neighbor is doing it. People have abandoned property because they couldn’t afford to protect it. Being as the Pacific is not singularly selective, structures are often installed on more than one property at a time — the Pacific Ocean made the decision for them.

Ideally, the work should be done from the beach, but there are times when that’s not possible, so access has to come from the upland side. This requires heavy equipment and staging areas for rocks weighing several tons. Access roads have to be installed, and this is disruptive beyond belief. If there isn’t enough room between a house and the property line, then a neighbor comes into play — it’s to their advantage to participate now so the process won’t have to be repeated for them at some point in the future. One could put this under the “neighbor effect” heading, but insight has nothing to do with it. It’s the prudent thing to do at the time.

Two: “Neighbors may worry about the spillover effect — the shift of waves and water from on armored property to their property, and the potential increase in damage to their property.”

The key word in that sentence is “potential.” If an application listed the possibility of increased erosion caused by a neighbor’s revetment as a reason for needing a structure, you would hear them laughing in Salem all the way from Brookings. The theory of deflected wave energy increasing erosion on adjoining properties has been shouted from the shoreline for years, but not a single piece of documented evidence to support that has ever floated to the surface. It sounds like a reasonable assumption, but since they’ve been placing riprap on the coast since the first oceanfront properties were developed over a hundred years ago, one could logically assume the courts would be full of lawsuits filed by neighbors because the “spillover effect” cause all kinds of damage. It’s never happened.

Neighbors sometimes file applications together, but it’s because the Pacific Ocean has created a common problem, not because of shared insight or possibilities, and OPRD is not in the habit of issuing permits that would allow excessive armoring. If anything, the exact opposite is true. 

David Fields is a resident of Tidewater.


More In Opinion