Governments must realize that all growth is not good

Building rise in Edgewater, on the edge of Biscayne Bay in 2015.
Building rise in Edgewater, on the edge of Biscayne Bay in 2015. Miami Herald

Local governments don’t have the luxury of pretending sea-level rise and climate change aren’t real. Cities and counties must deal with the daily realities of the effects on homes, businesses, roads, water supplies, sewer lines, insurance costs, safety hazards, property-tax revenue, bond ratings and more that we are experiencing now — with even worse to come.

Southeast Florida has a Regional Climate Compact to coordinate climate-change efforts in four counties and many cities, an Everglades restoration project with the potential to restore freshwater flow to fight saltwater encroachment, strong legal and policy tools and lots of superior professional talent.

But, the massive scale of the challenge we face requires more willingness to change business as usual than we’ve seen to date. If we can’t show residents, businesses and investors (current and future) that South Florida is prepared to confront climate change and sea-level rise and prepare for the future, we are in big trouble — economically, socially and ecologically.

It starts with building and infrastructure practices. We can and must stop approving more development in coastal and inland low-lying areas, enact stricter limits on what can be built, and impose standards on how things are built.

But with years of experience about the implications of certain development, we still make many of the same mistakes we’ve made for decades.

We still capitulate to inaccurate claims that private property rights are violated if we don’t say yes. We still debate the science and economics that make clear that government must reduce how much we build and how we build.

We must stop paving over undeveloped land and erecting buildings that increase our carbon footprint and cause flooding. We still approve too many new development requests even though Florida land use and environmental permitting law strongly support local and state agencies that say Ao.

We still plan roads to support new westward sprawl instead of promoting real redevelopment. We need to enact stronger building standards that ensure structures are stronger and safer, even where that increases up-front costs.

Most local governments rarely opposed the constant pressure for more westward sprawl because, “That’s what we’ve always done.” Whether it’s campaign contributions, disbelief that the world really has changed that much or simple inertia, we aren’t moving fast enough to protect and restore our natural defenses to climate change and rising sea levels.

Even when new development makes sense, the law allows government to enforce building limits and standards that protect neighbors from the flooding, erosion, pollution and other damage caused by storms.

Coastal development policy is a particular problem. We have to see beaches and dunes as living and dynamic geologic forms that protect us from storm surge and winds. They are not postcard images best used as the setting for expensive development.

We basically subsidize high-end coastal development by failing to protect our beaches and dunes. Protecting them through land-use planning and zoning is crucial to flooding and climate resilience.

We must stop risking public funds by putting infrastructure in vulnerable places, where it only encourages more ill-advised private building. Science and economics show that preventing natural areas from development — either through regulation or land acquisition — is the smartest long-term approach.

Natural lands help prevent the worse effects of climate change and sea-level rise. Paving them eventually means that taxpayers will have to pay the hefty costs of cleaning up after hurricanes, flooding and erosion wreak havoc. Using public money to protect natural areas instead of encouraging their development is smart economics.

The pace of government spending on Everglades restoration projects must increase. The ability of restoration projects to prevent the worst impacts of sea-level rise is being compromised by the slow pace of providing the money to do the work.

Economics and science require that our historic “all growth is good” practices give way to smarter decisions that protect our investments, not threaten them by increasing our vulnerability to the seas that surround us.

Richard Grosso is an attorney and law professor at the Shepard Broad College of Law at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, where he teaches constitutional law and land use, environmental and energy law. He is the former executive director and general counsel of the Everglades Law Center, Inc., and a former legal director for 1000 Friends of Florida.

“The Invading Sea” is a collaboration of four South Florida media organizations — the Miami Herald, the South Florida Sun Sentinel, the Palm Beach Post and WLRN Public Media.