Can the Florida Keys Afford a Building Boom when They’re Searching for Ways to Retreat from Sea Level Rise Flooding?

Just when a law that’s been on the books since the early 1970s intended to prevent over-development in the Florida Keys is about to prevent new building projects, a state legislator is proposing legislation that could result in a building boom.

According to a Miami Herald article, Representative Rob Rommel, R-Naples, filed an amendment that would increase the hurricane evacuation time for the Keys to 30 hours from the current 24. Under the existing law, the evacuation time limit actually works as a cap on the number of buildings that can be constructed in the Keys. The expectation was that the Keys would be totally built-out by 2023.

According to the article, the new legislation is meant to stave off potentially billions of dollars worth of legal costs if property owners frustrated that they won’t be able to develop their real estate holdings sue the state and county governments for fair compensation.

If the longer evacuation time is approved, officials in the Keys worry that it could result in a building boom that would in turn make it harder for people to evacuate the Keys ahead of a hurricane and make it much more difficult to deal with sea level rise flooding.

County officials in the Keys made headlines last fall when they said sea level rise flooding may force them to abandon roads that are under water for much of the fall king tide season. The problem is so bad that officials there plan to use $20 million in federal funds to buy out and destroy homes wrecked by Hurricane Irma that are vulnerable to sea level rise flooding.

If the Florida state government clears the way for a building boom in the Keys, buyers will have to perform due diligence to ensure the property they intend to purchase isn’t at risk of sea level rise flooding.

Sea Level Rise Reality: No Roads, No Real Estate

Communities from Hawaii to the Florida Keys are already confronting a harsh reality of sea level rise flooding. When flood waters inundate or undermine roads, they have a choice: spend millions or even billions of dollars to save the roads, or abandon them and the real estate that relies on them.

According to a recent report by Mahealani Richardson for HawaiiNewsNow, sea level rise-driven erosion recently caused 1,500 feet of highway to collapse in Haaula, a town on O’ahu. The state is spending $600,000 on emergency repairs, but a permanent solution to save the coastal highway from rising seas could cost up to $1.5 billion for a dozen miles.

Ed Sniffen, a highways administrator, told NewsNow, “It’s a huge but complex situation that we have to consider. Not only are we affecting who can drive through that area in the future, but access to that area in the future.”

Monroe County officials in the Florida Keys are facing the same challenge. According to an article by Theresa Java posted on KeysNews.com, county commissioners there are considering whether to elevate a road in Stillwright Point that flooded 91 days between September and December or abandon it altogether. The road’s fate — and the property owners who rely on it to get around — will depend on how much it will cost to save the road and, considering that seas continue to rise, how much time the repair will buy.

The county’s resiliency officer said a billion dollars probably isn’t enough to save all of the county’s 314 miles of roads. Mayor Heather Carruthers said, “This is the very beginning of very difficult decisions that governments around the world will be forced to make.”

If you search “sea level rise road” on Google, you’ll find dozens of cities and town are confronting the same sea level rise problem. Finding a solution isn’t just a cost-benefit question. Officials also have to consider the decision’s impact on local residents. In some cases, residents have threatened to sue if the government abandons their lifeline roads.

Buyers taking a look at real estate in coastal areas need to consider not only whether or not a property of interest is experiencing sea level rise flooding, they also have to consider how sea level rise flooding is impacting critical infrastructure, such as roads and water and sewer service. The floodwaters could not only prevent them from getting around and receiving critical services, they could also result in a huge tax hike if a community has to initiate projects to save the infrastructure. In a worst case scenario, flooding could force them to move.

Infrastructure issues are discussed in detail in “7 Sea Level Rise Real Estate Questions.”

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