Sea Level Rise
Its Impact on Florida’s Waterfront and Coastal Condominiums and HOA Communities
By Alex Martin / Published August 2019
Sea level rise is a major topic of discussion in all of Florida’s coastal communities. While there are certainly controversies about the data related to how fast and how much the sea level will rise, it is indisputable that the sea level is rising and that something needs to be done. Coastal communities from Key West to Jacksonville are hiring chief resilience officers and investing in infrastructure upgrades and solutions like raising bridges and constructing or repairing seawalls, and residents in these cities are faced with many of the same issues as it relates to their personal property.
With hurricane season underway, the idea of nature’s impact is weighing heavily with property owners. Individual homeowners in cities like Miami are beginning to ask questions. Will rising water impact my asset? When should I expect the arrival of rising waters? Is there anything I can do to prevent damage to my property and protect it? How can I insure my assets sufficiently in the event of damage or loss as it relates to sea level rise?
Condominium and HOA board members in these areas are also asking the following questions. How can we best prepare our community for sea level rise? What are the short- and long-term effects? What are our plans to deal with these effects, and how will we pay to mitigate or minimize damage? How do we best communicate the realities to our residents without causing mass hysteria or affecting our property values?
Rising ground water tables, increased flooding, accelerated coastal erosion, salt intrusion, saturated and weakened soils, and drainage problems are just a handful of physical impacts of sea level rise. Damage due to flooding, hurricanes, and beach erosion are also intensified by sea level rise.
Some researchers estimate that just three feet of sea level rise can result in upwards of $19 billion of lost land and structures per major coastal city. Increased flooding and salt water intrusion may cause damage to underground utilities. Although flood insurance is available, some risks cannot be covered through insurance. Property owners must bear the costs of damage to personal property and temporary housing as a result of flooding and may wind up paying higher maintenance fees for the costs of preventative construction and repairs to property.
While there seems to be no slow-down in the market for waterfront residences, developers are finally acknowledging that the damage and costs associated with sea level rise may make condominium projects more difficult to build and sell in the future. There are some actions that association boards can take in order to mitigate future damage arising from sea level rise. For construction or renovation projects requiring an environmental assessment or environmental impact statement, boards can make sure such statements are prepared with consideration of current sea level rise data. Construction should be planned and executed in a way that will prevent damage from sea level rise, including elevating structures and utilities, retrofitting existing structures, and flood-proofing underground utilities. Property fixes for single homes can range from obtaining self-inflating barriers available at home improvement stores to building pricey permanent blockades against rising tides. Even raising crawl space vents could buy homeowners additional time.
Any existing community about to undergo renovations, remodeling, or restoration projects should consider investing in a consultant who can generate a report detailing the necessary measures to take in order to flood-proof their new and existing structures. The right consultant will also consider sea level rise and other potential climate change-related challenges that traditional property inspectors and building codes may not consider—hurricane storm surge, flooding rains, and extreme temperature changes. Current FEMA flood maps are based on historical data and do not consider sea level rise. Online tools from federal and private groups can paint a wide swath, but do not combine multiple event models for individual properties.
Additionally, sea level rise and the damage it causes may lead to claims by disgruntled purchasers or homeowners. Courts in some municipal jurisdictions affected by flooding due to sea level rise have found that flooding and soil problems are among the types of conditions on property that are “material” and must be disclosed to purchasers.
Regardless of which sea level rise model and trajectory boards and homeowners decide to subscribe to, it’s their fiduciary responsibility to investigate the impact and possible solutions in the coming years. The first course of action is always education and ensuring that the topic is discussed at board meetings and sessions. Open communication will ensure that residents feel informed and confident that the issue is on the board’s radar.