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.

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