The Florida Influencer Series

Should Florida limit coastal development, toughen building codes? Influencers say yes.

As state and local officials grapple with the challenges caused by extreme weather and sea level rise on the coast, an existential question surfaces: How should they address climate change in a way that preserves Florida as it exists for generations to come?

So far, Tallahassee hasn’t invested much in protecting the most vulnerable state in the nation from rising seas, and although Gov. Ron DeSantis more than tripled the state’s investment in planning for sea rise through its Florida Resilient Coastlines Program, it only raised the Scott administration’s budget of $1.6 million to about $5.5 million.

One estimate says the state needs to shell out $75 billion by 2040 just for seawalls.

In a new survey of the Florida Influencers, a group of 50 prominent political and policy figures from across the state, there’s a strong consensus that some sort of change should be at least considered, if not made, soon.

More than half (59%) of the Influencers say that because hurricanes are likely to become more intense and the sea continues to rise, the state should limit the development on the coast and toughen building standards.

“It’s time to take a hard look at what we gain and what we lose with coastal development,” said Martha Saunders, president of the University of West Florida. “If we keep building, then re-building in the same spot, again and again, we probably aren’t serving the state very well … At the very least, limit development in places we know will be a problem.’’ Saunders’ campus is just 100 miles west of Panama City, which is still recovering from the devastation Category 5 Hurricane Michael caused a year ago.

Even some developers agree that long-term resiliency in coastal communities requires bringing more people to higher ground and protecting vulnerable, low-lying areas like the coastline. And that means protecting people from all socioeconomic situations.

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“This is a departure from the decades-old development model in South Florida, which was based on extracting as much value as possible from environmentally sensitive areas, such as the waterfront and land adjacent to the Everglades,” said David Martin, president of Terra, a South Florida real estate developer. “At the same time, the public and private sectors must collaborate to ensure workforce and market-rate housing opportunities are available in high-lying zones.’’

Others are less certain that development needs to be curtailed to address climate change, and say the state should instead focus on curbing what causes sea level rise and making buildings more resilient.

“Development does not need to be curtailed,” said Bob Ward, president of the Council of 100, a nonpartisan business leaders’ group. “Florida should treat the issue of water intrusion on the coastline with a serious and thoughtful scientific approach that could include hardening and mitigation.’

Tracy Wilson Mourning, the CEO of Miami-based mentoring program Honey Shine, says if Floridians vote more environmental advocates into office, the state will be able to make changes in the way it contributes to a warming climate and a rising sea. She also says curbing development isn’t the answer.

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“The way sea levels are rising, the whole state will be impacted,” Mourning said. “I believe we need to focus on the causes and our contributions to the rise of sea levels first and foremost. Some of our elected officials have a hard time even uttering the words ‘global warming.’ Let’s start by getting rid of those that refuse to acknowledge the fact that we have major climate issues.”

When it comes to building codes, the Influencers are split (59%) on agreeing that Florida should adapt as weather becomes more extreme.

Wifredo Ferrer, an attorney at the Holland & Knight Miami office, used Miami-Dade and Broward counties as examples of how stricter building codes save lives.

The counties go beyond what the state requires for building codes, he pointed out, and recent hurricanes Irma and Wilma show that “the standard is working.”

“I’d like to see the state strengthen its code so that other cities in Florida are similarly prepared,” he said. “In the end, it will mean less damage and less economic losses for the state.”

Julie Wraithmell, the president of environmental group Audubon Florida, said better building codes also protect more than just the people who live and work inside.

“Our reefs, mangroves, dunes and wetlands are the natural infrastructure that protects our communities from storm impacts like surge and flooding. As a result, the owners of vulnerable properties aren’t the only ones bearing the risk when they choose to develop on dunes or low-lying areas,” she said. “Construction that compromises this green infrastructure diminishes its ability to protect all of our community.”

Those who oppose strengthening building standards, however, say stronger codes would price too many homes out of the market.

“Our existing building code may be sufficient to withstand the biggest storms. However, most of Miami-Dade’s residents live in homes, whether houses or apartments, that are old and in need of significant renovation to get them up to current code,” said Annie Lord, the executive director of Miami Homes for All. “These homes are also the most affordable in our county … We must invest public dollars as well as private in rehabilitating these homes so that they can withstand big storms, and so that they can remain affordable to our workforce.’’

David Swanson, a senior pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Orlando and leader in homeless issues, agreed, saying “current codes are sufficient.”

We asked the Influencers how well Florida officials are doing in focusing on policy solutions that address the needs of all state residents.

Excellent: 11%

Good: 42%

Fair: 42%

Poor: 5%

Samantha J. Gross is a politics and policy reporter for the Miami Herald. Before she moved to the Sunshine State, she covered breaking news at the Boston Globe and the Dallas Morning News.
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