The Destructive Relationship Between Sea Level Rise and New Coastal Real Estate Development

Living in a coastal community that’s experiencing sea level rise flooding, I’m amazed at the hundreds of millions of dollars of new commercial and residential real estate being built in neighborhoods that are flooding today or that will soon be subject to floodwaters as the seas continue to rise.

When I ask my real estate agent friends what they think about the situation, they are always quick to remind me that Florida’s economy is heavily reliant on new building projects and the jobs, investment and tax dollars they bring for its very survival.

Many cities and towns along he Atlantic, Pacific and Gulf of Mexico coastlines are equally addicted to new development to keep their economies rolling and their governments solvent. There is, however, clearly a downside to this relationship.

As sea levels continue to rise, those same coastal cities and towns are going to have to start to invest heavily in flood mitigation strategies, such as raising roads and water and sewer pipes, building or raising sea walls and installing pumps. In some cases, they may even have to buy-out homes and whole neighborhoods that flood repeatedly. When this day arrives — and it has already arrived in parts of the Florida Keys and other vulnerable locations — what seemed like a good idea today — allowing hundreds of millions of dollars in new development in areas vulnerable to sea level rise — will have enormous costs to taxpayers and property owners.

Taxpayers will have to pay the tab to protect the expensive new flood mitigation projects. And the higher taxes to pay for those projects, combined with the higher insurance premiums that go hand-in-hand with sea level rise flooding, could cause property values to plummet.

Linda Shi, an assistant professor in Cornell University’s department of city and regional planning, wrote an op-ed titled “The fiscal challenges of climate change” for the Boston Globe. In it, she explains the challenge posed by new coastal development in the age of rising seas. She studied the Massachusetts coastline in detail and discovered:”Statewide, 40 percent of local revenues come from property taxes; along the coast, 60 percent; and in some coastal suburbs, 70-80 percent. State expectations that local governments self-finance most of the services they provide inevitably incentivize continued development wherever possible, placing coastal sites and cities on a collision path with rising seas.”

Shi says the negative cycles could be reversed if cities and states included fiscal considerations into sea level rise flooding vulnerability assessments. She also said regional land-use planning agencies and non-governmental organizations could help by evaluating “how climate change affects local budgets, how fiscal vulnerability and adaptation choices impact the region and vice versa.” Their input would help communities to decide where to allow new real estate developments to minimize the eventual costs that arise due to sea level rise flooding.

The future costs of placing new developments in or near sea level rise flood zones is an important issue to consider today. Making informed decisions will protect subsequent generations from the high cost of protecting or decommissioning billions of dollars worth of real estate our generation knew was at-risk before ground-breaking shovels were turned.

Author: Larry Richardson

Larry Richardson relies on his journalism, real estate, photography and videography experience and education to create SeaLevelRiseRealEstate.com and annual editions of "7 Sea Level Rise Real Estate Questions for Buyers, Sellers, Owners & Real Estate Agents." Richardson, an inactive but licensed real estate agent in Florida with a dozen years of experience, also owns StepByStepChef.com, which features YouTube videos with over 10 million views