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Sea levels are rising, so developers and governments need to band together: panel

Climate change means more rain and higher temps, and as it gets hotter, mosquitoes bite more
By Erik Bojnansky | March 09, 2017 04:30PM

Flooding in Fort Lauderdale (Credit: Getty Images) Inset: Caroline Lewis, David Martin, Jimmy Morales and Tiffany Troxler

As the oceans continue to rise, Miami-Dade County communities will need to collaborate more with developers in order to form sustainable communities.

This was the message from David Martin, president of Terra Group, a Miami-based real estate development firm, during a panel discussion on climate change held at the Philanthropy Miami 2017 conference at Jungle Island Thursday morning. Other panelists at the climate change conference, moderated by CLEO executive director Caroline Lewis, were Miami Beach City Manager Jimmy Morales and Tiffany Troxler, director of Florida International University’s Sea Level Solutions Center.

According to NOAA, the oceans may be up to seven feet higher than current levels within 80 years. That would not only inundate sections of the county, but also compromise underwater fresh water supplies.

But we don’t have to wait 80 years to see the effects. Morales and Troxler showed photographs of “sunny day flooding” events that hit low areas like Miami Beach’s Sunset Harbour area, Morningside Park in Miami, western Miami-Dade County, and western Broward.

Those news reports are now often coupled with projections of sea-level rise, a trend that threatens the sustainability of South Florida itself, Martin argued.

“The moment that people stop believing in our community and stop wanting to move here, to retire here, to move their families here. The moment that corporations and companies decide that Miami-Dade County is not the place for them long term, is the moment we will have a traumatic impact on the economy,” he said.

To fight it, Martin said the fact that local governments and business organizations are already looking at ways to combat sea-level rise must be publicized more.

Martin also pushed for a stronger bond between developers and local governments to plan Florida’s future with “smart” development.

Among Martin’s ideas was creating incentives for developers to make their future projects energy self-reliant. “The idea is that developers through solar panels or waste recycling, can create electricity,” he said. Those kilowatts can then be sold to local governments or neighboring establishments to power utilities or even water pumps. That would end the exclusive role that Florida Power and Light currently holds in providing electricity for communities. Instead, Martin’s vision calls for the creation of “green” miniature power plants housed in state-of-the-art projects providing power to various neighborhoods and cities. “There is a lot of regulations to look at,” Martin admitted to The Real Deal after the speech.

Another concept Martin proposed was maximizing future development rights at areas that are at higher ground while allowing lower-lying areas to become lakes or marshes. Those future high-density areas, Martin added, should be economically mixed zones where low-income housing is combined with luxury addresses. In order to retain lower income households, Martin suggested, tax abatements can be given to residents who have lived in the area for more than 10 years.

“We have a huge responsibility in Miami-Dade County to set an example for the world,” Martin argued. The best way to do that is to figure out “how to incentivize smart development in the right areas… but that is my two cents,” he said.

The best way to do that, Martin said, is to end antagonistic relationships between local residents and developers and work with them to create new zoning codes that look at future flooding events even 500 years from now. “We can create a smart plan for development now and where [future] development should be and how to incentivize developer to build there,” he said.

Morales said the city of Miami Beach has updated its development codes, requiring future buildings to have higher flood elevations and increasing the height of sea walls.

He said Miami Beach has also invested $500 million raising sidewalks and roads and replacing its old storm water gravity system for infrastructure that includes more than 60 pumps that are capable of pumping 35,000 gallons of water a minute. “We are fortunate in that we have a strong tax base…,” Morales said. “But a lot of cities can’t afford that kind of infrastructure.”

Troxler said the Sea Level Solutions Center has been working with organizations and cities to create long-term plans to mitigate future sea-level rise events. This includes developing a plan that would allow Virginia Key to exist in some form for the next 100 years. Troxler is also examining the effects of sea-level rise on the Everglades, a place where sea water intrusion is already killing off vegetation. “As plants start to die,” she cautioned, “it opens larger pools of water.”

It isn’t just sea-level rise that South Florida must worry about. Climate change is also predicted to increase rain intensity by 5 percent or 10 percent, Troxler said. Oh, and it will get hotter, making life less bearable for people without air-conditioners.

The mosquitoes, though, will love it and that may mean that disease outbreaks like Zika will persist.

“During a meeting with the head of the CDC [Center for Disease Control] we talked about the impact it will have on mosquitoes,” Morales remembered. “As the climate gets warmer, more areas become subject to tropical-type conditions.” Warmer conditions also means that the gestation period for eggs to hatch, become larvae and becomes mosquitoes shortens, Morales learned, and “as it gets hotter… mosquitoes bite more.”