Legal Issues When Managing Public Roads Affected by Sea Level Rise: Georgia
15 Pages Posted: 28 Aug 2019
Date Written: June 1, 2019
The low-lying barrier islands and beach communities of Georgia are increasingly vulnerable to sea level rise. Coastal areas near Tybee Island, for example, have already experienced approximately ten inches of sea-level rise since 1935, and this trend is expected to accelerate in the future.1 As low-lying areas like Tybee Island become more frequently inundated, damage to critical infrastructure such as roads will result. Such regular damage will make maintaining roads more costly. To avoid expensive maintenance, decision-makers may face hard questions about whether to continue maintaining public roads or whether it is more cost-effective to abandon them. Sea level rise and coastal flooding will not follow jurisdictional boundaries, and their effects will likely touch all levels of government simultaneously. For Georgia’s coastal communities, adapting to sea level rise will be a group effort that will need to happen at a local level.
The state, counties, and municipalities have a legal duty to maintain existing public roads. In cases where a poorly maintained road results in harm to life or property, the government entity could face a lawsuit for failing to maintain the road or negligently performing its responsibilities. Depending on the circumstances, a court may hold that the entity must pay damages or that the entity must continue to maintain the road adequately, or both.
This paper first addresses the threshold question of jurisdictional control of roads for government entities faced with questions about maintaining or abandoning roads damaged by increased coastal flooding. It then explains the multi-step analysis that governments must take to evaluate their duties to maintain roads in order to avoid liability. The paper discusses in detail how counties and municipalities can discontinue their duties to maintain roads through the process of abandonment. Lastly, this paper discusses how abandonment can lead to takings liability. This paper is not intended to provide legal advice. Rather, it is a policy paper designed to highlight potential legal questions that are likely to arise in the context of community adaptation to sea level rise. Communities facing such questions should consult with their legal counsel when considering adaptation actions.
Keywords: sea level rise, roads, government duties, abandonment, takings, adaptation
JEL Classification: K32, L98, R42, R52
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation