We’ve all heard the saying “A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.” The same is true for seawalls. A coastal community can strive to build a solid line of seawalls high enough to prevent ever-worsening sea level rise flooding, but if one public or private seawall in the series isn’t high enough to deal with the the next extreme tide event, floodwaters can inundate nearby real estate.
This reality is forcing communities to consider seawall height requirement ordinances similar to a law passed a few years ago in Broward County, Florida. According to the county’s “Build It High, Keep It Dry” brochure: “All property owners must maintain a tidal flood barrier in good repair. A tidal flood barrier is presumed in disrepair if it allows tidal waters to flow unimpeded through or over the barrier and on to adjacent property or rights-of-way. If a property is reported and documented to cause flooding of adjacent roads for neighboring properties it will be cited and required to prevent flood trespass within one year.”
The county says the seawall ordinance, the first in Florida, benefits property owners because it encourages them to budget for seawall adaptations before flooding occurs, which also protects their property value. A list of action steps recommended by the county includes determining the property elevation, gathering construction quotes, considering financing options, hiring an experienced contractor (who will get the required permits from the city, county, state and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers), and actually constructing the new seawall or flood barrier.
The impact of the new seawall ordinance on real estate owners is substantial. For example, a property owner can be fined for failing to maintain seawalls that prevent flooding. They are also required to disclose to buyers that seawalls are covered by the new law. A contract for sale in an affected area must state the following: “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 of seawalls, banks, berms, and similar infrastructure when required to abate nuisance flooding.”
Buyers, sellers, owners and real estate agents need to pay attention to the passage and implementation of seawall height requirement laws in their communities. The cost to repair or replace a seawall can run into tens of thousands of dollars — or even more — depending on factors such as the length of the seawall, its design, and the construction materials used. Real estate agents should encourage buyers to have seawalls inspected before submitting an offer. They should also make sure that sellers include any required language regarding local seawall ordinances in sales contracts.
Owners, too, should consider getting their seawalls inspected to make sure they meet the local codes. Inspection results will also help them to budget for any current or future repairs that may be needed. Seawalls typically last 30-50 years before they need to be replaced, but sea level rise, which is accelerating as the climate warms, may shorten their lifespan.
As with all laws that attempt to address global warming and sea level rise flooding, the new seawall height ordinances are bound to result in property owner lawsuits. The truth is, however, that lawsuits are not going to stop sea level rise — reducing the release of greenhouse gases will — and, ultimately, someone is going to have to pay the freight to upgrade seawalls to prevent flooding to extend the time that coastal communities will be inhabitable. Buyers and owners need to assess the cost to make informed real estate decisions.