Sunday, July 03, 2016

How to cope with global ocean level rise

Guest column: Time for a sea of change
Posted: July 2, 2016 - 11:13pm | Updated: July 3, 2016 - 12:01am

St. Augustine Record
Florida’s topography makes this one of the most flood-prone states in the nation. Sea level rise is only making this fact of Florida life more prevalent. It is time for elected officials and those running for office to put aside the debate over climate change causes and, instead, focus on solutions for rising seas and more frequent and costly flooding.

In July, the St. Johns County Commission will hear rezoning requests for platted lots at the intersection of old A1A and A1A in Summer Haven — an area with a critically eroding shoreline. It is low-lying and has no available sewer or water service.

These lots are also located in a Coastal Barrier Resources Act (CBRA) Unit. In 1982, U.S. Congress passed, and President Reagan signed, the ACT, which helps protect critical, undeveloped coastal habitats, reduces the public’s exposure to catastrophic storm damages, promotes public safety and helps to protect and buffer the built environment.

CBRA has been an effective planning tool. It has saved, and continues to save, American taxpayers billions of dollars. It helps protect public beaches and shores, sea turtles and shore birds — in areas where people fish, swim and enjoy our coast.

With an eye toward private property rights and in keeping with the CBRA, the Florida Wildlife Federation (FWF) has reluctantly agreed to private development in CBRA units, as long as responsibility does not fall onto the backs of the local government, thus the taxpayer. However, I challenge St. Johns County to look at the public policy implications of approving construction of homes in flood-prone areas.

The taxpayer costs to maintain basic services to these areas will increase dramatically with sea level rise, as will the cost of insurance.

If the price of insurance goes up due to a rise in sea level, homeowners may decide to simply not insure or under-insure the home, which could put the burden of storm recovery right back on the taxpayer.

The National Flood Insurance Program is already more than $23 billion in debt and struggling to pay additional claims.

We should not be taking steps that serve to increase this burden on the taxpayer.

This is the tip of the iceberg. There are many ways in which taxpayers foot the bills when houses are built in vulnerable areas. Subsidized insurance is just the “gateway drug” of government subsidies.

Perhaps it is too late to enact zoning ordinances that steer new development away from areas of highest risk. Fortunately, opportunities still exist to buy out critical properties, such as amending the Northeast Florida Blueways Project for Florida Forever funding.

This acquisition project is ranked second out of 14 in the Climate Change Lands category, meaning that it has been deemed essential for acquisition because the lands are important to address the challenges of climate change.

The federal government also has pots of money to help coastal communities reduce the risks from extreme weather events, changing environmental conditions and known or potential climate change effects.

FWF is a proponent of coastal and floodplain policies that recognize both the natural and societal benefits of wetlands, barriers islands and floodplains. In addition to providing superlative fish and wildlife habitats and places for sustainable outdoor recreation, these areas provide natural buffers that reduce the intensity of storms and flooding.

It is prudent policy to reduce or eliminate taxpayer-funded subsidies that result in intensifying development in low-lying areas.

I implore St. Johns County Commissioners to dust off the University of Florida “Planning for Sea Level Rise in the Matanzas Basin” report and implement the changes recommended. The report strategically looks at impacts from sea level rise and provides a tool kit for policy change,

We just need the political will.

Gledhill is Planning Advocate for the Florida Wildlife Federation.

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