Sea Level Rise Increases Conflict Over Public Access to Private Beaches

When buyers purchase real estate on the beach, they often assume they own the entire stretch of sand from their door to the water’s edge, but that’s not always the case. Property owners in states like California and Florida own the beach up to the point where water laps at their beach at high tide. The public is allowed to walk in the wet sand that emerges between mean high and low tide. States like New Jersey, North Carolina, Oregon and Texas, on the other hand, allow public access to all beaches.

State laws, however, aren’t always the last word when it comes to beach access. Federal law requires coastal communities to provide public access to beaches that have been restored using federal funds. Public access doesn’t end until a beach is eroded away again. (This article by Thomas Ankerson, director of the Conservation Clinic at the University of Florida College of Law, does a great job of explaining the legal issues surrounding beach access.)

As sea level rise causes more beach erosion, property owners are finding beach walkers ever closer to their back doors. In some communities, this is increasing tension that already existed between property owners who believe they have a right to the quiet enjoyment of their stretch of beach and the public who believe no one should have exclusive right to the sand.

In Florida, the state with the most beaches, battles are breaking out between some beachfront property owners and the public. A recent example is a conflict emerging in Palm Beach in South Florida. According to an article published this week by WPTV, a West Palm Beach TV station, private property owners in the tony resort community are posting poles that tell beachgoers where their private beach starts and warning them not to trespass.

Christine Stapleton, a form Palm Beach Post reporter and beach walker, posted a photo of a pole on Instagram. “Legally, these landowners do own the beach up to the mean high tide line,” she wrote in her post. “And Article X, Section 11 of the Florida Constitution clarifies that the state holds the seaward of the mean high-tide line (MHTL) in trust for the public.”

Stapleton then goes on to question the authorities’ role in allowing private property owners to unilaterally claim a section of the beach that should be open to the public. “So why does the Town of Palm Beach and Florida Department of Environmental Protection allow wealthy landowners to decide the location of the mean high tide line?” she asks. “Why does the town and DEP allow these landowners to decide when a public beach should be closed because of erosion and put up poles declaring the eroded stretch of beach private and claiming ownership?”

Palm Beach’s town manager told WPTV that the property owners need to follow state guidelines when they post poles.

As sea level rise continues, conflict between private property owners and beachgoers is bound to increase. It’s important for real estate buyers and owners to know their rights so they don’t overstep their boundaries and for the public to know where they’re allowed to tread so they don’t trespass. As Christine Stapleton told WPTV, “My feeling is let’s get together and make this work.”

Public vs. Private Interests Come to a Head Over South Carolina Seawall

Solving sea level rise flooding challenges requires public/private partnerships. For example, when a coastal community is defending itself against repeated flooding events, government officials may have to require that both public and private seawalls be raised to a certain height to create a continuous barrier to stop the floodwaters.

Sometimes, however, public and private interests are at odds and difficult decisions have to be made. Such is the case at Debordieu Beach in South Carolina.

According to an article in The State newspaper, the owners of four homes built a sandbag seawall to protect their property from severe beach erosion at a point where a wooden seawall is failing. In keeping with state law, staff members at the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) ordered the seawall removed.

The property owners responded to the order by exploiting a loophole in the law. They found a scientist at Coastal Carolina University who agreed to study how well the sandbags performed as a seawall after they were buried during a beach nourishment project. Such experiments can be approved by the DHEC if there’s a chance they will succeed.

The staff members remained steadfast in their opposition to the seawall, saying that the science is established. Past experience has shown the seawall will make erosion of the public beach even worse. South Carolina has banned hard seawalls for this reason for many years.

On a 3-to-2 vote the DHEC’s politically appointed board voted to overrule the staff and allow the sandbag seawall to remain.

Observers are concerned that the board’s decision will lead to more property owners installing sandbag seawalls or other experimental methods to protect their real estate with the potential loss of sandy beaches.

This type of public/private conflict is occurring in other areas, too. For example, property owners in Charleston, SC, and Miami, FL, are concerned that high barriers proposed to stop storm surge will block their views. And homeowners in Miami Beach, FL, have sued the city after roads elevated to stop sea level rise flooding have actually led to their property being flooded by rainstorm runoff.

As sea level continues to rise, there’s bound to be more conflict between public/private interests. In cases where what’s good for the public isn’t necessarily good for a private real estate owner, following the science for the greater good is the best policy. Seeking solutions that help property owners to adapt to any changes made that impact their property or fairly compensating them when sacrifice is the only solution has to be part of the mix, too.

The Loss of Louisiana Marshes to Sea Level Rise Puts New Orleans Real Estate at Risk

Over the course of the last several decades, people have come to recognize the value of coastal marshlands as both incubators of aquatic birds and marine life and as buffers to floods and storm surges that can quickly inundate valuable real estate. A recent study published on the American Academy for the Advancement of Science’s Science Advances website reached the troubling conclusion that sea level rise is occurring at such a fast pace that the marshes that protect New Orleans and surrounding communities could vanish beneath the waves in the next fifty years.

Scientists studied over 8,000 years of marsh history to determine that the marshes have reached a “tipping point” where they are being consumed by the ocean faster than they can adjust to higher sea levels. The study’s lead scientist, Torbjorn Tornqvist, a professor of geology at Tulane University, told the Washington Post that even with efforts to reduce the production of earth-warming greenhouse gases, the marshland’s fate could be sealed. “We know the rate of sea level rise, even with the best action you can imagine, it’s still going to ramp up further,” he said. “Given the slowness of the ocean responses, it’s going to last for a very long time.”

The ocean has been gnawing away at the protective marshlands for decades. Experts blame the loss on the penning in of the Mississippi River channel, which used to spread land-building sediment broadly across the river delta, and on channels cut through the marshes for petroleum company pipelines. Louisiana is trying to reverse some of the damage by diverting some of the river’s sediment-rich flow out of the manmade channel and onto adjacent lands.

Professor Tornqvist sees this as a way to buy time that ultimately won’t save the city from inundation. “I think a couple of decades is incredibly valuable,” he said, “because it could be the difference between a somewhat managed retreat verses complete chaos.”

The researchers believe their study could prove valuable to all coastal communities that rely on marshlands as a buffer against sea level rise flooding and storm surges. “Our findings highlight the need for consideration of longer time windows in determining the vulnerability of coastal marshes worldwide,” they wrote in their study abstract.

The takeaway for buyers and owners of real estate in coastal areas protected by marshlands is to recognize that they’re not wastelands but a critical part of the ecosystem that protect their property from flooding. With that in mind, it’s important for them to learn about the health of the local marshes as well as their predicted life-expectancy under pressure from sea level rise.

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.

California Town Embraces Retreat to Address Sea Level Rise Threat

“Resiliency” and “retreat” are two popular buzzwords regarding sea level rise and real estate. Resiliency is making the changes necessary to prevent sea level rise flooding as long as possible so people can continue to live near the coast. Retreat is recognizing that either the cost is too high or it’s impossible to engineer your way out of the flooding, so everyone has to move back away from the coastline.

Currently, resiliency is the solution most coastal cities and towns are using to address sea level rise. Governments and property owners are spending billions of dollars to elevate property and critical infrastructure, such as pipes and roads. They’re also building and/or raising sea walls and installing pumps.

Retreat is far less popular. From the Florida Keys to the Pacific Coast, property owners are fighting plans that would force them to move away from coastal areas that are subject to sea level rise-driven flooding or at great risk of flooding in the near future.

According to an article in the Los Angeles Times, Marina, California, a small town with 23,000 residents north of Monterey, is actively embracing retreat as a solution to its sea level rise woes. The town is considering plans that have proven unpopular in most coastal locations, including requiring sellers to disclose sea level rise information to buyers, moving infrastructure away from at-risk areas, and discussing relocation with the operators of a private beach resort.

To ensure that the town doesn’t have to make the same difficult decisions over-developed towns are being forced to make regarding resiliency or retreat, Marina officials are actively steering real estate developers toward inland locations away from the eroding shoreline.

David Revell, a coastal scientist and sea level rise consultant, told the Times, “Marina is such a good test case. Here we have the precedent of a community that understands that … there has to be enough lead time to get things out of the way — before it’s in the way.” Revell added that Marina’s pro-active approach “is a really powerful message to the rest of California.”

Residents seem to generally approve of the town’s approach to dealing with sea level rise. The town’s draft plan is almost finished.

Real estate buyers in coastal areas need to consider whether a city or town intends to rely on resiliency or retreat to address sea level rise flooding. Resiliency can lead to higher taxes and the possibility that a property of interest will be impacted by the construction of sea walls, pump stations and other infrastructure. Retreat could limit the amount of time a property can be owned and enjoyed. Both approaches could also impact property value.

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