Miami Beach

As Miami Beach battles sea-rise flooding, some neighbors feud over the fixes

Flooding on an August day is so bad on Miami Beach's 59th Street that residents can barely see the street below. The neighborhood is in line for a stormwater system upgrade, including raised roads and pumps.
Flooding on an August day is so bad on Miami Beach's 59th Street that residents can barely see the street below. The neighborhood is in line for a stormwater system upgrade, including raised roads and pumps. Contributed to the Miami Herald

The flooding in front of Bruce Bender's Miami Beach home is so bad some days that he has to roll his jeans up to his knees and hold his shoes to get to the garage.

“And I still get wet,” he said. “It’s a horrible way to live."

He asked engineers what to do. They suggested elevating his garage — an expense of $50,000 to $75,000. He also had multiple meetings with the city, which told him that a pending project to raise roads, install pumps and fix drains in his Upper North Bay Road neighborhood would help.

Then, three weeks ago, some of his neighbors shut it down. They argued that their part of the neighborhood doesn't flood, that raising roads would push water onto their property and that the higher roads would harm their property values. The $24 million project, part of $90 million worth of improvements designed to keep the neighborhood dry in the face of rising seas, was sent back to the drawing board.

The dispute between neighbors on one of Miami Beach's ritziest streets showcases one of the city's most pressing problems. How does the city push forward on its innovative program to combat sea rise — one that has put the city on a world stage — if its residents don't agree on what to do?

"The Philip Levine resiliency program is over," Glenna Norton, head of the upper North Bay Road home owner's association that led the charge to halt the project, told the commission this week. "Now it's yours."

The former mayor (and current gubernatorial candidate) championed an ambitious plan to overhaul the city's drainage system to account for climate change. The $500 million plan earned wide praise from national media and climate activists and is a key part of Levine's stump speech.

But on the Beach, a new administration is finding a signature part of Levine's plan — raising roads — is causing neighborhood division that make moving forward more difficult. While those are tied up in arguments, the city has pushed other projects forward and hired a group of experts to design each neighborhood's stormwater improvement plan.

Some see it as a step back from the city's aggressive and expensive resilience efforts. Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber describes it as a "reorientation" of the program.

"My view is mature government challenges itself and constantly figures out the best way to do things," he said.

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Miami Beach's plan has been to eventually raise all roads above the 12 inches of sea level rise the city predicts in the next 30 years — but its increasingly clear that that ambitious goal isn't universally embraced, even among commissioners.

"Dramatic street raising causes the city problems. It elongates the projects, it causes there to be a lot more cost and complexity and it is losing the trust of the residents," said Commissioner Mark Samuelian.

Fighting over whether to elevate road or how high to raise them slow down other work that could help residents now, like installing more pumps and clearing drains. One of improvements delayed over the dispute about North Bay Road was repairing area fire hydrants, where the water pressure suffers because of leaky, aging pipes.

Samuelian sees street raising as an answer to tomorrow's problems, not today's, and unnecessary in some neighborhoods.

In some cases, he said, elevation could even hurt the neighborhood. Neighbors opposing street elevation consistently cite a loss in their property value as a big concerns. They also worry higher streets will make their front doors will look funny and potentially funnel damaging water into their homes.

“We’re counting on our property base to fund the projects. We had to be very careful about anything we could do that would impact that,” Samuelian said. "I think we need to stop."

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Samuelian and some residents point to the findings of recent expert groups, which advised adopting more natural solutions, like plants, to soak up excess water.

But those groups also support raising roads. An expert panel from the Urban Land Institute, in an initial series of recommendations, applauded the city for elevating streets. A separate study from Harvard University also endorsed raising roads.

One of the city's stalled projects, on West Ave, is now scheduled to be finished as part of a program with Columbia University and 100 Resilient Cities that incorporates the experts' suggestions. The "resiliency accelerator" is funded by 100 Resilient Cities and involves a redesign of four project — in Miami, Beach, in Miami, in Miami-Dade County and Palm Beach County.

Wednesday, the city agreed to hire their own expert team to help work more of those natural solutions into the city's plans. The team, which could start working in as little as three months, will help develop unique plans for each individual neighborhood.

Officials hope this process, with more community involvement, will reduce some of the opposition to these projects.

"The letters I got of discomfort were riddled with bad information,” said Commissioner John Elizabeth Alemán. “There’s so much bad information out there. It travels so much faster than good information."

Some neighbors fighting the projects are confused about the city's drainage overhaul or have little confidence it will work.

“If we’re pumping it into the bay and we’re being flooded from the bay then what’s the point? It doesn’t make sense to me," said Daniel Grimes, a resident of the Lakeview neighborhood, which was scheduled for a stormwater upgrade as part of the project shut down last month.

He also doesn't want the city to move too fast and make mistakes. “Act in haste and repent at your leisure," he said.

With the first project on hold, some of Grimes' neighbors started a petition to ask the city to fix their neighborhood anyway. On Wednesday, the city agreed to do the Lakeview project first, after the newly hired expert team gets a chance to add their input on the design in a few months.

That doesn't sit well with other residents who don't see the point in elevating streets in a neighborhood they insist doesn't flood.

“The last thing we need is three years of disruption to accomplish nothing," said 75-year-old Lakeview resident Bob Kunst. “How do you stop the Atlantic ocean?”

Miami Beach has put into action an aggressive and expensive plan to combat the effects of sea level rise. The city is rolling out its plan of attack and will spend between $400-$500 million over the next five years doing so.

Alemán wants to see the city fund a "more creative and aggressive" outreach effort to get residents on board before their neighborhoods turn into construction sites.

She believes that if residents know more about the reasoning behind the projects and how they impact homeowners, they'll be more likely to support them. Some residents are under the misconception that streets will be raised by two to three feet everywhere, Alemán said, which is not the case. Miami Beach roads are currently at varying elevations. In Sunset Island III and IV, for instance, roads could go up about 6 inches. On Palm and Hibiscus Islands, they might need to be raised a couple of feet.

"I think every single-family homeowner citywide kind of wonders about these projects and is at least a little nervous about it, but I also think we can't wait for the residents to want it," she said. "The residents are not going to want it until there's water in their house and then they're going to want it right now."

The problem is that the projects can't be done overnight and have to be spread out over eight to ten years to avoid closing too many roads at the same time, Alemán said.

"That's why we have to start now even through residents are uncomfortable," she said. "That's why I think it's important to start spending money on informing and educating them because it's really not as scary as they're being told."

For Bender, who 15 years ago tried to fix the flooding by pouring a foot of cement on the floor of his garage and installing new drainage equipment, the city's project can't come soon enough.

He hopes the project will succeed in spite of his neighbors, who he said ignore his flooding problems. When he spoke up at last month's commission meeting, he found himself arguing with anti-elevation neighbors in the audience. He showed them the pictures of the flooding on his street, 59th, that borders with North Bay Road.

“No flooding? Come on, how can you say that?” he asked. “Don’t tell me we don’t have a problem.”

“All those multi-billionaires don’t want to be inconvenienced."