Charleston, South Carolina, a densely developed peninsula surrounded by creeks and rivers that pour into the ocean, has reached the point where sea level rise flooding and the threat of ever more powerful storm surges threatens its very existence. The title of a recent article in The Post and Courier sums up the situation quite succinctly: “Charleston faces an existential choice: Wall off the rising ocean or retreat to higher ground.”
As the city celebrates its 350th year, the Army Corps of Engineers released a proposed plan to see it through 50 more. The Corps is calling for the construction of an 8-mile protective wall around the core peninsula along with pumps to help keep the city dry. Additional infrastructure improvements, such as raising flood-prone roads and clearing spaces to store water after heavy rains, may also be needed. The project would cost an estimated $1.75 billion with locals responsible for $600 million of the tab.
As with many other cities considering massive projects to protect valuable coastal real estate from inundation, funding for the proposed project is a major sticking point that has only been made worse by the budget-busting coronavirus pandemic.
Some residents see Charleston’s historic value and ability to draw 7 million tourists a year as reason alone to mount an aggressive effort to save it. They’re concerned that if they don’t get started soon, flooding will diminish the city’s value.
On the other hand, The Post and Courier article by Chloe Johnson hints that some residents exhausted from past floods are considering moving out. And at least one academic worries that the wall will give people a false sense of security that might result in increased investment in the peninsula. Andy Keeler, a climate expert at Eastern Carolina University, told the paper that this can result in a more painful economic collapse when sea level rise and storm surges eventually defeat the man-made defenses.
The Army Corps of Engineers estimates that without the wall and other improvements, Charleston will lose half of its historic structures to flooding by 2075. Real estate buyers and owners in Charleston and other coastal cities and towns confronting similar challenges need to consider the costs and benefits of proposals to rein in the water — and the potential that projects will never be built — when deciding how to react to the growing threat of sea level rise flooding and more powerful storm surges.
The Army Corps of Engineers recently presented a draft plan to the Monroe County Commission — which governs the Florida Keys — that would require the county to use eminent domain to force property owners in areas experiencing sea level rise flooding who don’t want to participate in a buyout program to sell their property.
The Corps’ $3 billion plan, intended to help the Keys to deal with sea level rise flooding, includes projects to elevate homes, critical businesses and buildings, like hospitals and fire houses. Where protecting real estate from floodwaters is prohibitively expensive or not technically possible, the Corps is proposing “retreat” — where the properties would be purchased and demolished.
Corps and county officials hope that most property owners would recognize the problem and voluntarily participate in a buyout program. To prevent the creation of neighborhoods with a checkerboard of demolished properties and inhabited homes, the Corps is proposing that the county be required to use eminent domain to force the remaining residents to sell their properties. The concern is that if residents remain in neighborhoods that flood, the government will still have to provide essential services and flood protection, which are the expenses they’re trying to avoid.
Susan Layton, a Corps chief of planning and policy, told the Miami Herald, “We don’t ever go straight to condemnation. We always start with negotiating and coordinating with homeowners and looking for willing sellers.”
Monroe County Officials are nervous about the prospect of eminent domain. County Mayor Heather Carruthers said she’s disturbed by that part of the Corps’ proposal. “I don’t know if we want to have that conversation now, if that’s a nonstarter for us,” she said.
The Corps will seek input from Keys officials and the public before the draft proposal is finalized in September 2021.
Because of their low elevation and exposure to the seawater on all sides, the Keys are at the front lines in the battle against sea level rise. How it adapts to sea level rise flooding will have an enormous impact on planning in the rest of the country. Buyers, sellers, owners and real estate agents in coastal areas should keep informed about what happens there.
How do you protect nearly 3 million residents and $311 billion worth of real estate in and around Miami from more intense storm surges driven by climate change and rising seas? That’s the challenge taken on by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the solution its proposing could have a massive impact on real estate owners.
According to a report in the Miami Herald, the Corps has drafted a proposal that includes 10-to-13-foot high walls, moveable storm surge barriers for canal and river openings, along with the elevation of 10,000 homes and floodproofing of 7,000 buildings. The proposal, due to be formally released this spring, carries an $8 billion price tag, 65% of which would be federally funded. Local governments would pick up the rest of the cost.
Included in the proposal is the purchase of 350 properties through eminent domain to make room for the walls. If the plan is approved, the Corps aims to start construction on the massive project by 2026.
The Corps’ plans could have a major impact on the real estate market in Miami and Miami-Dade County. Some property owners could face the prospect of losing their real estate to eminent domain. Those who remain could see a spike in their property taxes and a loss in property value due to the higher taxes and proximity to flood-control structures. For example, properties that lose their water views to concrete walls could witness a drop in value.
Clearly something has to be done to reduce the threat posed by storm surge driven by climate change and rising seas. To protect their real estate investment and financial futures, buyers, sellers, owners and real estate agents need to get involved when the final details are being hammered out over the next year.
One point to keep in mind is that the Corps’ plan only addresses storm surge, not sea level rise itself. Because South Florida is built on porous rock, seawater can seep under walls.
Another important point that needs to be considered is that Miami and Miami-Dade County aren’t the only coastal real estate markets facing upheaval due to climate change and sea level rise flooding. Cities and towns all along the Atlantic, Pacific and Gulf of Mexico coastlines are struggling to draft effective plans to combat rising waters. Coming up with the billions of dollars needed to fund their projects is a whole other problem.
New York City and the Army Corps of Engineers are considering five options to protect the city from sea level rise. Among them is a six mile long set of retractable gates that would stretch from Queens, NY, to New Jersey.
Supporters see many benefits from the gates. They say the barriers would be far enough off shore to be out of sight for most land dwellers, they’d hold back storm surges, similar to the one from Hurricane Sandy that swamped lower Manhattan, and they’d be better at protecting everyone, not just the wealthy areas that are being shielded from flooding by land-bound solutions currently being built.
Opponents, however, worry that by the time the gate project is completed in 25 years it will be obsolete because of sea level rise. They’re also concerned that it will create even more problems for the city by preventing stormwater runoff from escaping back into the sea.
Residents, government officials, the Corps of Engineers and environmental groups will make the final decision. In the meantime, real estate owners along the city’s 520-mile coastline and adjacent areas need to keep informed about the debate and get involved if their property will be impacted.
You can read more about the great New York sea level rise debate in this New York Times article.