"The sea is rising, and it can’t be stopped.”
“Climate change is a hoax.”
“It is the end of Florida as we know it.”
“Buyers don’t care about something that might happen 60 years from now.”
That, in three dozen words, sums up the divergent beliefs in what could turn out to be the biggest real estate story in Florida since Ponce de Leon discovered the peninsula in 1513.
Bigger than the 1920s boom. Bigger than the 2007 bust. Bigger than the 1862 Homestead Act.
Sea-level rise “is not a science issue. It is a real estate, finance and built-environment issue,” said John Englander, a Boca Raton-based oceanographer and author of “High Tide on Main Street.”
The planet’s ice has melted before — even the skeptics will stipulate to that — and it will do so again, scientists say. The atmosphere will get warmer, which may or may not be caused by the burning of fossil fuels by humans. So, the questions become, when will the sea rise, by how much, and what will it mean for a Florida economy that is built around the waterfront dream?
And, most importantly, what should we do about it?
No less an organization that the American Institute of Architects’ Florida-Caribbean chapter has adopted a policy that its members should plan for 3 feet of sea level rise by the end of the century. Many scientists believe the 3-foot estimate is inadequate; the rise could be 6 feet or more.
Besides raising infrastructure, installing pumps in storm sewers and elevating buildings (steps for which the architects would play critical roles), the simple answer for the state’s homeowners, should the sea rise appreciably in this or the next century, would be to evacuate the coasts. Property along the Lake Wales Ridge, in Highlands, Polk and Lake counties, could rise in value, as elevations of 150 to 250 feet above sea level are common there. Clermont soars to 305 feet.
Sarasota’s average elevation — and it is the highest coastal city in southern Florida — is 16 feet. Venice and North Port are at 9.8, Bradenton and Punta Gorda 5.9, Naples and Holmes Beach 2.95.
Sea-level rise believers, such as Englander and Ringling College futurist-in-residence Dr. David Houle, say Sarasota could become an island — and one whose fabled beaches will be underwater by 2040.
“Sea-level rise is already baked in,” Houle said. “The question is how much, and by when?
“We need to be thinking about, what does it mean to live in the post-beach economy?”
In flat, low-lying Florida, “for each foot of sea level rise, the shoreline moves inland 300 feet,” Englander told the AIA-Florida last summer.
“The beach doesn’t matter. One foot could be a mile inland on tidal rivers.”
Reducing carbon emissions, while perhaps admirable and necessary, Englander said, is not the solution. “Less carbon is good, but it will not stop sea-level rise. If the world never burned another lump of coal, we will still have SLR. The heat is in the system.”
But there is no need for panic, Englander is quick to add: Sea-level rise presents opportunities for innovation and even profit.
“With this crisis, there is an opportunity. This is not going to whack us tomorrow. We have time to plan and adapt if we stop fooling ourselves. We have to plan for it with the right criteria,” he told the AIA, even if the benefit might not be evident for decades.
“Let’s do intelligent adaptation. Let’s say, if you can see the big picture, know that it is going to be 3 feet or more higher. Let’s start planning for it, but not panic,” Englander said. “That is counter-intuitive because we tend to be prepared for the disaster tomorrow, and this one is not the kind of thing we usually plan for. It is like planning for our retirement; we need to do it incrementally and as we go along.”
There will be “huge fortunes made helping people relocate, helping people elevate, helping new designs,” Englander said. It could be a growth industry rather than just a drain, relying on no tax dollars, he said.
But in the interim, sea-level rise, and the bad publicity surrounding it, could cause waterfront property values to fall and people to move away from the coasts. That may not seem like a bad thing to some, but the fallout for local and state governments, with less property tax revenue to pay for services, could be disastrous.
“There are going to be some places we eventually need to abandon,” Englander told the Herald-Tribune in an interview. “But this is slow enough that it doesn’t need to be catastrophic.
“The longer we delay and deny, the worse it will be. Sea level is going to be higher, and Miami and Sarasota, sometime in the next two centuries, aren’t going to be the cities we know now. There may be parts that have been elevated. There may be some floating parts. We don’t know that yet. But until we tackle the problem, it is like saying, ‘Let’s go to the gym, let’s eat well, take vitamins and take care of our bodies.’ We kind of need to do that with the land; we just never thought it was at risk before.”
Not buying it
Many people in the real estate industry — including builders, architects and developers — aren’t buying the sea-level rise issue.
Architect Gary Hoyt, whose firm has designed many prominent buildings in downtown Sarasota, says it is a hoax promoted by people just looking to gain prominence and income.
“Follow the money,” Hoyt said.
Sarasota homebuilder Lee Wetherington and Sarasota waterfront luxury homebuilder Mark Miller are with Hoyt.
“I have been a resident for almost 46 years,” Miller, whose company is Westwater Construction, said in response to a Herald-Tribune question posted on Facebook. “I have been a builder for 26 years on the waterfront. Climate change has occurred for millions of years. There has not been any real evidence of rising water level locally in the last 100 years. Streets have always flooded, and the Miami example is not an accurate depiction of sea-level rise.”
On the west side of Miami Beach, for example, streets are at or only slightly above sea level because of subsidence, the gradual caving in or sinking of land. Seasonal high tides push water up through the storm sewers from Biscayne Bay and onto the streets. Some say this has always been a problem, but a study by the University of Miami says king-tide and sunny-day floods are getting more frequent and lasting longer.
“As with all of my clients and anyone who chooses to live on a tidal body of water, there always is risk,” Miller said. “Until there is a proven pattern of water level rise, the risk is worth the reward and waterfront will keep going up in value.”
“I’m a skeptic,” said Wetherington, who has been building houses in Manatee and Sarasota counties since the 1970s. “I’ve been listening to this nonsense about water rising for 40 years. It hasn’t. Most all the people who are experts are being supported by grants from the government. I remember in the 1980s, when the left pushed (that) we would run out of oil by early 2000s. We did not.
“I haven’t seen the water in the bay any higher than I did 40 years ago. Property values will continue to go up by the water. Those owners will always get insurance and financing. I’m more worried about hurricanes and lightning strikes than climate change. ... The flood maps have changed because of storm surge, not higher water. We'll just have to wait and see if it happens or is this more nonsense from the left.”
But Englander counters that there is a reason the water doesn’t look any higher in Sarasota Bay than it did in the 1970s.
“Sea level can’t go up more than a few inches a year, no more than a foot a year in the worst-case scenario we can imagine — the ice sheets melting, something on that order. If storms come to town, we would get 10 or 20 feet of storm waves, so we worry about them,” he said. “The sea level is creeping along, only an eighth of an inch a year, but the rate is doubling every 20 years. It used to be 40 years.
“In five doublings, we have gone from an eighth of an inch to 2 inches a year. It is a geometric progression. We tend to overlook it because it is small at the moment, but even accumulating an 1 inch a decade is a problem, because tides and storms often breach a levee, or get in the threshold of your house, by a 1 inch difference. That is why it is so confusing.”
Wait and see?
The cost of waiting and seeing is something that alarms Englander.
“One of the reasons politicians and some businesspeople are reluctant to deal with this is because cheap energy from coal and other sources is very seductive. We are used to it. We don’t want to give it up,” he said. “But we have trillions of dollars in the world invested in coastal property that is going to go under water in the next couple hundred years. That is a problem, a risk, and we are going to have to adapt.”
Longtime Sarasota architect Phil Skirball backs AIA Florida’s new policy.
“Low-lying areas may become wet, uninhabitable and worthless,” Skirball said. “Parts of Miami already (are) flooding during high tides. Governments and therefore taxpayers may be forced to spend money on drainage improvements and pumping equipment in a futile or horrendously expensive attempt to try to turn back the sea. (That is) already happening in South Florida. Flood maps and high-water lines will be revised, making some lots unbuildable. Insurance rates will increase. The economy will suffer.”
In the meantime, the Florida waterfront dream will continue for those who can afford the risk.
“The demand for waterfront homes in Sarasota remains strong,” said Kim Ogilvie, a Realtor who has sold a lot of them during her long career with Michael Saunders & Co. “There will always be risk associated with waterfront property, just like there is risk with mountainside homes in California due to earthquakes, riverfront homes in the Midwest due to floods, and so on.
“But for decades, thousands of homeowners have felt the rewards to be much greater. The demand has not changed, and, if anything, we have seen the current global economic and political conditions affecting decisions far more.”
This story has been updated to correctly identify Mark Miller.