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.

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.

Video: A Failed Sea Wall, Sea Level Rise Flooding & You

Coastal cities and towns are taking different approaches to sea level rise flooding. Some communities are ignoring the problem and hoping it will just go away, which is irresponsible considering that the burning of fossil fuels continues to warm the Earth, ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica continue to melt, the ocean continues to expand, and sea levels continue to rise at an accelerating pace. Some communities are acknowledging the problem but are waiting for it to hit a critical point before they respond — which might be too late. And still others are taking the responsible approach and planning and implementing projects to fend off the floodwaters, but even this approach, as you’ll see in the video, is not risk free.

To protect their property and jobs, buyers, sellers, owners and real estate agents need to know how their community of interest is tackling the challenges posed by sea level rise flooding. And, as this video about a well-intentioned but failed sea wall project in my South Florida community attests, if local government officials are up to the job.

My city clearly illustrates the available options and consequences of which approach a coastal community takes to dealing with sea level rise flooding. Within a half-mile stretch along the Intracoastal Waterway near our downtown core, we have: 1. A section of sea wall currently being raised to protect a roadway, critical infrastructure and million dollar townhouses; 2. A section without a raised sea wall that chronically floods for the four or five month king tide period between September and January with devastating consequences for several property owners; and 3. A section of sea wall that was raised a few years ago that has structural faults that are allowing floodwaters to inundate a park.

As you can see, the city’s approach to managing sea level rise-driven flooding runs the gamut of what’s possible in all coastal communities: Try to protect the property, let it flood, or make an attempt to stop the flooding that, unfortunately, fails. All have lessons for buyers, sellers, owners and real estate agents.

If the improved section of sea wall manages to hold back the floodwaters, then the the city may have found a viable solution — at least on a short-term basis. Sea level rise isn’t ending any time soon. (It’s also important to note here that South Florida is built on porous limestone which can allow sea water to flow under sea walls rendering them ineffective.) The section that’s being allowed to flood shows what can happen if a city doesn’t take on the sea level rise challenge, but the waters, as waters do, continue to rise. And the section with the failed sea wall shows the very real and expensive consequences of a well-intended approach that failed.

The failed section of seawall is falling short for two easily visible reasons: 1. Engineers left a yard-wide gap in the seawall so the cruise boats could easily be serviced — which, even with protective measures installed after the fact, allows floodwaters to course through into the park; and 2. Floodwater bubbles up in joints on the park side of the sea wall, indicating some kind of structural failure. Bottom Line: A failed sea wall is as good as no sea wall at all. Property behind it will still be inundated.

With seas continuing to rise, and mere inches of it posing a threat to property, structures, roads and critical infrastructure, it’s clear that buyers, sellers, owners and real estate agents can’t afford to ignore the problem. They need to know: 1. How their community of interest intends to take on the sea level rise challenge; 2. How the plan, if any, will impact their property; 3. Whether or not the plan makes sense; and 4. If local officials are up to implementing the plan and taking corrective measures if it fails.

Without this level of knowledge, buyers, sellers and owners could be floored when floodwaters show up on their street or at their doors and they’re hit with higher maintenance costs, higher insurance premiums, higher taxes and, if applicable, association fees. They could also have to park a block from their home, take off their shoes and socks, and wade through the floodwaters to reach their doors.

More Powerful Storm Surges and Sea Level Rise Flooding Force Charleston, SC, to Ponder Its Future

Charleston, South Carolina, a densely developed peninsula surrounded by creeks and rivers that pour into the ocean, has reached the point where sea level rise flooding and the threat of ever more powerful storm surges threatens its very existence. The title of a recent article in The Post and Courier sums up the situation quite succinctly: “Charleston faces an existential choice: Wall off the rising ocean or retreat to higher ground.”

As the city celebrates its 350th year, the Army Corps of Engineers released a proposed plan to see it through 50 more. The Corps is calling for the construction of an 8-mile protective wall around the core peninsula along with pumps to help keep the city dry. Additional infrastructure improvements, such as raising flood-prone roads and clearing spaces to store water after heavy rains, may also be needed. The project would cost an estimated $1.75 billion with locals responsible for $600 million of the tab.

As with many other cities considering massive projects to protect valuable coastal real estate from inundation, funding for the proposed project is a major sticking point that has only been made worse by the budget-busting coronavirus pandemic.

Some residents see Charleston’s historic value and ability to draw 7 million tourists a year as reason alone to mount an aggressive effort to save it. They’re concerned that if they don’t get started soon, flooding will diminish the city’s value.

On the other hand, The Post and Courier article by Chloe Johnson hints that some residents exhausted from past floods are considering moving out. And at least one academic worries that the wall will give people a false sense of security that might result in increased investment in the peninsula. Andy Keeler, a climate expert at Eastern Carolina University, told the paper that this can result in a more painful economic collapse when sea level rise and storm surges eventually defeat the man-made defenses.

The Army Corps of Engineers estimates that without the wall and other improvements, Charleston will lose half of its historic structures to flooding by 2075. Real estate buyers and owners in Charleston and other coastal cities and towns confronting similar challenges need to consider the costs and benefits of proposals to rein in the water — and the potential that projects will never be built — when deciding how to react to the growing threat of sea level rise flooding and more powerful storm surges.

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