Another Florida City Passes a Seawall Height Ordinance to Fend Off Sea Level Rise Flooding

As sea level continues to rise and flood real estate, coastal communities are starting to wake up to the fact that a laissez-faire approach to seawalls won’t cut it any more. If the height and maintenance of seawalls isn’t regulated by cities and towns, there’s a chance floodwater is going to course over the lowest seawall in a series and flood the owner’s and neighbors’ properties, not to mention critical roads and infrastructure.

This week, the city commission in Delray Beach — located in southern Palm Beach County, Florida — responded to sea level rise flooding from inadequate seawalls along the Intracoastal Waterway. By a unanimous vote, the commission approved seawall ordinances similar to a breakthrough seawall ordinance passed two years ago in Broward County, Florida, that covered Fort Lauderdale and other coastal cities and towns.

Delray Beach’s new regulations close a gap that allowed private property owners free range over their seawalls, even if they were deficient and causing flooding problems for the surrounding area.

“The city is where the rubber meets the road,” Vice-Mayor Shirley Johnson said. “The county isn’t going to say this is going on. The state isn’t going to do it. And the federal government? They’re so far away they don’t even halfway know what’s going on, even though the Army Corps of Engineers does their level best. … So the city is left to do the work of enforcing, monitoring, being aware.”

The seawall regulations require the owners of new construction properties to build seawalls 4.2 feet over the base flood elevation as identified in FEMA Flood Insurance Rate maps. If the owner builds a seawall under that height, it must be designed to allow the construction of a height extender to bring it in line with the regulation.

City officials said they don’t plan to aggressively enforce the seawall regulations. According to the regulations, however, if flooding is reported from a deficient seawall, the city will require the owner to “demonstrate progress toward repairing the cited defect within 60 days of receiving notice from the city, and complete any necessary repairs within 365 days of receiving notice.” Property owners could face fines if they fail to meet the requirements.

In addition to the seawall height and maintenance requirements, the new regulations require sellers to disclose to buyers that the property of interest is subject to the new ordinances. The following language must be included in sales contracts: “This real estate is located in a tidally influenced area. The owner may be required by county or municipal ordinance to meet minimum tidal flood barrier elevation standards during construction or substantial repair or substantial rehabilitation to the property or the seawalls, banks, berms, and similar infrastructure or when required to abate nuisance flooding.”

With sea level rise continuing and, quite frankly, accelerating, more coastal cities and towns are bound to consider similar seawall regulations. Real estate sellers and owners and real estate agents in coastal areas need to stay aware of what’s happening in their communities as the regulations can have costly consequences.

The cost of building or repairing a seawall can run well into the tens of thousands of dollars or even higher, depending on the length of the seawall and the materials used. In addition, acquiring permits for seawall construction from federal, state, county and local governments can require a fair amount of paperwork and take longer than 365 day project completion limit.

Video: A Failed Sea Wall, Sea Level Rise Flooding & You

Coastal cities and towns are taking different approaches to sea level rise flooding. Some communities are ignoring the problem and hoping it will just go away, which is irresponsible considering that the burning of fossil fuels continues to warm the Earth, ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica continue to melt, the ocean continues to expand, and sea levels continue to rise at an accelerating pace. Some communities are acknowledging the problem but are waiting for it to hit a critical point before they respond — which might be too late. And still others are taking the responsible approach and planning and implementing projects to fend off the floodwaters, but even this approach, as you’ll see in the video, is not risk free.

To protect their property and jobs, buyers, sellers, owners and real estate agents need to know how their community of interest is tackling the challenges posed by sea level rise flooding. And, as this video about a well-intentioned but failed sea wall project in my South Florida community attests, if local government officials are up to the job.

My city clearly illustrates the available options and consequences of which approach a coastal community takes to dealing with sea level rise flooding. Within a half-mile stretch along the Intracoastal Waterway near our downtown core, we have: 1. A section of sea wall currently being raised to protect a roadway, critical infrastructure and million dollar townhouses; 2. A section without a raised sea wall that chronically floods for the four or five month king tide period between September and January with devastating consequences for several property owners; and 3. A section of sea wall that was raised a few years ago that has structural faults that are allowing floodwaters to inundate a park.

As you can see, the city’s approach to managing sea level rise-driven flooding runs the gamut of what’s possible in all coastal communities: Try to protect the property, let it flood, or make an attempt to stop the flooding that, unfortunately, fails. All have lessons for buyers, sellers, owners and real estate agents.

If the improved section of sea wall manages to hold back the floodwaters, then the the city may have found a viable solution — at least on a short-term basis. Sea level rise isn’t ending any time soon. (It’s also important to note here that South Florida is built on porous limestone which can allow sea water to flow under sea walls rendering them ineffective.) The section that’s being allowed to flood shows what can happen if a city doesn’t take on the sea level rise challenge, but the waters, as waters do, continue to rise. And the section with the failed sea wall shows the very real and expensive consequences of a well-intended approach that failed.

The failed section of seawall is falling short for two easily visible reasons: 1. Engineers left a yard-wide gap in the seawall so the cruise boats could easily be serviced — which, even with protective measures installed after the fact, allows floodwaters to course through into the park; and 2. Floodwater bubbles up in joints on the park side of the sea wall, indicating some kind of structural failure. Bottom Line: A failed sea wall is as good as no sea wall at all. Property behind it will still be inundated.

With seas continuing to rise, and mere inches of it posing a threat to property, structures, roads and critical infrastructure, it’s clear that buyers, sellers, owners and real estate agents can’t afford to ignore the problem. They need to know: 1. How their community of interest intends to take on the sea level rise challenge; 2. How the plan, if any, will impact their property; 3. Whether or not the plan makes sense; and 4. If local officials are up to implementing the plan and taking corrective measures if it fails.

Without this level of knowledge, buyers, sellers and owners could be floored when floodwaters show up on their street or at their doors and they’re hit with higher maintenance costs, higher insurance premiums, higher taxes and, if applicable, association fees. They could also have to park a block from their home, take off their shoes and socks, and wade through the floodwaters to reach their doors.

Video: King Tide Season: The Sea Level Rise Stress-Test

King tide season returned to coastal communities this week, and with it came the king tide/sea level rise flooding that periodically inundates roads, real estate and whole neighborhoods. This video, produced for SeaLevelRiseRealEstate.com, features a discussion of the many ways the king tide months — roughly from September-January — provide the perfect stress-test to give real estate buyers, sellers, owners and agents a sense of how well their communities are battling against sea level rise flooding. It also gives them a read on the level of risk sea level rise flooding poses to their property of interest.

As ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica continue to melt and the ocean heats and expands due to global warming, sea levels are gradually rising. Add the many inches of sea level rise accumulated over the last hundred years or so to the ancient king tides — higher than normal tides due to the unique alignment of the sun and moon in the fall — and you have a recipe for disaster.

Coastal communities all over the world face a greater threat of flooding during this period In the U.S. this can lead to an enormous amount of property damage as well as damage to roads, water pipes, sewer pipes and other critical infrastructure. The end result is that property owners in affected areas can face higher carrying costs, including expensive repairs, insurance premiums, and taxes as communities implement plans to stave off the flood waters.

During the king tide period, buyers, sellers, owners and real estate agents need to take the time to see what’s actually happening in their communities, find out how much worse it could get, study what their local government intends to do to mitigate the flooding, and reach a dry-eyed understanding of how this will impact their carrying costs and property value. This information will help them to make informed decisions regarding real estate transaction.

Are Dredging and Beach Replenishment Effective Ways to Protect Real Estate Against Sea Level Rise?

In this video, a massive dredger scours sand and mud from the seafloor off Delray Beach, Florida, and pumps it onto the land where it’s used to replenish the eroded beach. The $8 million project is intended to rebuild the beach for tourism and to protect millions of dollars in real estate.

Every year, cities along the Atlantic, Pacific and Gulf of Mexico coastlines spend millions of dollars on beach nourishment projects. In my hometown, Delray Beach, Florida, a massive offshore dredger just started pumping slurry — sand and water — onto the seriously eroded beach to replenish it. The $8 million project is expected to last weeks. (You can see how it works by watching the video I created of the project.)

This type of dredging to replenish a beach has benefits and costs. In our case, the cost of beach replenishment is easily offset by the tourist dollars it attracts to the community. Without a beach, it’s unlikely people would come here and spend money to stay in hotels and dine and shop in the bustling downtown district. The beach also lures real estate buyers into purchasing single family homes, townhouses and condos.

Beyond the economic advantages, the replenished beach also acts as a barrier that protects valuable real estate from storm surges and erosion.

Despite the many positives, beach replenishment has some downsides. It can be harmful to marine animals and shore birds. If the causes of erosion aren’t (or can’t) be addressed, it will have to be repeated on a regular basis. And it can be expensive; and the costs are growing, especially in areas where sand is not in abundance and it has to be trucked in.

Sea level rise is sure to exacerbate the challenges faced by towns that rely on sand replenishment to maintain their beaches. Every inch of sea level rise increases the force of tides and wave action on beaches. The higher and more powerful storm surges that come with climate change and sea level rise will also be problematic.

For now, most cities and towns that rely on beach replenishment appear committed to the practice to protect their tourism trade and valuable real estate. Whether they will be able to foot the bill when the seas get higher and their beaches require more frequent nourishment projects is an X factor that all real estate buyers and owners in coastal areas prone to erosion need to consider.

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