Kaylee Collin, right, and Spencer Stone walk through water along North Avenue in Camp Ellis in Saco, Maine on Sunday, March 4, 2018. The Beaches Conference in Kittery last week featured an acted-out forum on sea level rise. Credit: Gregory Rec | Portland Press Herald | AP

KITTERY, Maine — A “town planner” of a coastal community, a “scientist” and a summer “homeowner” whose house is two blocks back from the ocean face an audience. The topic is sea level rise and each one of them has a lot to say.

“I understand the importance of it, I do,” said the town planner. “There’s just so much information. It’s vast and it’s overwhelming. I don’t know how to get everyone in the same room, speaking the same language.”

“I’ve had city councilors say I come on too strong. My colleagues are talking about 50-, 100-year plans. I want actionable items now, in five years, in 10 years. It’s not a popular point of view. But the research is there,” said the scientist.

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“No one in this town is reading those articles,” said the planner in response. “They’re too complicated.”

“I want to see the town do something as long as it doesn’t infringe on my rights,” said the property owner, whose family has owned the house for 35 years. “People want to keep their property. It’s that simple. This place is so special, I want my great grandchildren to use it.”

The conversation was acted out by members of the University of New Hampshire PowerPlay Interactive Development team, a group of actors who address issues through interactive dialogue to help groups see different sides. The team was the opening act of the afternoon portion of the Beaches Conference 2019 at the Kittery Community Center last month.

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The Beaches Conference drew hundreds of people from Maine and New Hampshire including state and federal environmental officials, municipal leaders and those involved in environmental, conservation and beach monitoring work. Topics included coastal habitat resilience, coastal monitoring, building resilience in communities, improving water quality and new developments in the law regarding beach access.

A centerpiece of the conference was sea level rise and the impact it will have on coastal communities now and in the future. The news is disquieting, said Erika Spranger-Seigfried of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

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While climate scientists are talking about the rising seas possible by the end of the century, she said, UCS in its report “Underwater: Rising Seas, Chronic Floods, and the Implications for US Coastal Real Estate” looked to current risks to real estate and risks in 2045 – within the range of a typical 30-year mortgage.

The study found more than 300,000 coastal homes with a collective market value of $117.5 billion are at risk of chronic inundation in 2045; and another 14,000 commercial properties are also at risk. In New Hampshire by 2045, about 2,000 residential properties will be at risk of being inundated, equaling $645 million at today’s value. In Maine Congressional District 1, all of southern Maine, 1,093 homes will be at risk, equaling $495 million.

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Spanger-Siegfried said this reflects simple sea level rise, and does not reflect the impact of coastal storms. “What happens in the later part of this century is important, but what happens in the next 15 to 20 years is going to be important, too.”

These issues are today very much on the mind of Mike Bellamente of Keller-Williams Coastal Realty in Portsmouth. With a background in environmental nonprofits, he said he thinks a lot about how rising seas affect coastal properties and how Realtors can ethically deal with the situation given clients who may or may not be receptive to the message.

“My view of the world is very different now than it was 15 years ago when the first IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report was released,” he said. “I assumed everyone would feel the same way I do. Now, I realize it’s really tough to engage people on this. People have a finite pool of worry.”

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That sentiment is often true of potential home buyers. “If you have waterfront property, someone is going to pay a premium for that land. Still, since 2005 (as more people become aware of sea level rise), those homes are appreciating, but appreciating at a slower rate,” he said. “Home prices are going up, but not as quickly as they would have been.”

Craig Foley, a Massachusetts Realtor and chair of the National Association of Realtors sustainability advisory group, points to a recent study by the University of Chicago. “This article pulled data showing that the value of properties in climate risk areas depends on whether you’re in a climate denial community or a community that accepts the science. Houses in believer neighborhoods tend to sell lower than in climate denier neighborhoods, by 7 percent.”

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He said we’re living in a “parallel universe,” of those concerned about the impact of sea level rise on properties and those who simply want a home on the coast. “The reality is if someone wants to live on the coast and they’re retiring and this is their dream, they don’t care about what the data says.”

At least in Maine, no real estate agent or anyone else is “bound to tell you whether a property is in a flood hazard area and you have to have flood insurance,” said Sue Baker of the Maine Floodplain Management Program.

“I’ve seen people whose homes are this far above the flood plain,” she said, placing her thumb and index finger about an inch apart. “And they don’t want to carry it. About 20 percent to 25 percent of all claims come from those just outside of the floodplain. In Maine, we have 8,200 policies and given the amount of shoreline and buildings, we’re way, way underinsured.”

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Bellamente added “not all real estate agents are created equal. There are not only climate deniers out there, but also people who are apathetic.”

“We tend to dig our heels in the ground,” Foley said, adding sea level rise is on the increase, whether or not anyone wants it to be. “And it’s scaring everyone out there that these issues are coming and we have to face them.”