02/07/2013 02:43 pm ET Updated Apr 09, 2013

Smart Retreat From Shorelines: Cuomo's Buy and Demolish Plan

Three months after hurricane Sandy, thousands of homes along New York's magnificent harbor lie flattened to the ground. Many more have flood damage. And after two historic storms in two years, there is growing recognition that something needs to be done. But what?

From Christie to Bloomberg to Obama, politicians have toured the devastated neighborhoods and vowed to rebuild. FEMA is updating flood maps and the mayor's office is working on more stringent building codes.

Governor Cuomo, meanwhile, has articulated a radical, unprecedented "retreat from the shore" plan.

"There are some parcels that Mother Nature owns, " Cuomo warned in his State of the Union address. "She may only visit once every few years ... and when she comes to visit, she visits."

To encourage people to relocate, the governor has proposed spending $400 million of the federal disaster funds for New York on demolitions and buyouts. Market rates prior to the storm for severely damaged homes in flood plains. Bonuses for those in higher risk areas. Extra incentives if entire neighborhoods took up the offer. All homes in most vulnerable shoreline communities, including those that sustained no damage, may become eligible.

Cuomo's Recreate NY - Home Buyout Program is unprecedented in its scope. Someone somewhere might decide it's un-American. That it's about government meddling in people's affairs.

It is also sensible.

Along the New York shoreline, where the trend has been build more and more, the seas will likely rise in our children's lifetime. We need to rethink how we live. Raising houses on stilts and building soft barriers will help, but only for a while. The smartest long-term solution is a smart, strategic retreat.

Cuomo's proposed buyout is voluntary - as it should be - though that fact may be lost on the critics. It aims to help lower and middle-class homes, not luxury buildings. Financing would be limited to the median home price in the neighborhood.

And, contrary to some suggestions, it would not open up the coast to the highest bidders. To use the governor's apt metaphor, the parcels would be returned to their rightful owner for good. Instead of human habitats, the areas would revert to marshy coves, sand dunes, and oyster beds, the spongy natural defense systems that once lined New York's long shoreline.

Retreat is never easy. It suggests defeat and weakness. For third- and fourth-generation residents, the decision might be particularly difficult.

Such a retreat, if approved by the federal authorities, is also likely to be the first of many.

Climate change is the biggest threat to national security, yet we have little public dialogue about it.

Cuomo's proposal is a rare breath of fresh air and common sense in a political landscape where Mother Nature is rarely a guest and the knee-jerk response is to rebuild. It exemplifies leadership and foresight. It may come too late for those who have begun rebuilding. But at least one devastated Staten Island neighborhood is ready to vote with its feet.