Seizure of Real Estate by Eminent Domain Required in Corps of Engineers’ Draft Proposal for Dealing with Sea Level Rise in the Florida Keys

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.

Sea Level Rise Picks Up Pace in South Florida and the Keys

The Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact is warning member governments from Palm Beach County to the Keys to start planning for 17 inches to 31 inches of sea level rise in the next four decades. The group released data at its annual meeting in Key West last month that increased sea level rise projections an additional 3 to 5 inches over previous forecasts.

Chronic sea level rise flooding already has Keys officials considering instituting a managed retreat, where the government buys out real estate and abandons roads. Many coastal governments are considering retreat as an option, especially in areas where maintaining infrastructure is considered too expensive for the number of residents served. The challenge if finding the money to purchase the distressed real estate and convincing owners who don’t want to sell. Read more in this Bloomberg Environment article.

Influential South Florida Newspaper Calls for Federal and State Leadership on Sea Level Rise

As South Florida and the Keys recover from a difficult season of king tide sea/ level rise flooding, the Sun Sentinel published an editorial earlier this month that listed the many challenges the region is already facing from flooding and the many ways federal and state leaders are failing to adequately address the problem.

Among the concerns are neighborhoods that were flooded for months during the fall because higher seas gave the floodwaters nowhere to drain, commercial flood insurance premiums jumping 18 percent a year in parts of the Keys that may put them completely out of business in five years, and threats to corals, birds and fish due to warmer ocean temperatures and acidification in a region that depends on the natural world for tourism.

The newspaper’s editors commended the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact, which is comprised of South Florida and Keys county governments and governing bodies overseeing over 100 cities and two Native American tribes in the region, for demanding action now to take on the challenges posed by sea level rise flooding. They also commended Gov. Ron DeSantis for sending his chief resilience officer, Julia Nesheiwat, to the 11th annual climate summit held this fall in Key West, even if he had to cancel his appearance at the last minute due to “extenuating circumstances.” But they’re critical of Florida Senators Rick Scott and Marco Rubio for making zero effort to attend or send representatives to help them address the problems. (Maybe they’ll overcome their climate change denialism when more of South Florida real estate is inundated.)

What’s clear from the editorial and out every-day experience in the region is that South Florida and the Keys need strong federal and state leadership and financial assistance to address sea level rise flooding NOW. Ignoring the threat rising flood waters pose to our way of life won’t make them go away. We’re at the front line of the battle against sea level rise, but other coastal communities in the U.S. are starting to wake up to the same siren.

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