Every sea wall in the city will have to be raised at least eight inches under a proposed plan to protect waterfront communities from rising seas.
There are almost 200 miles of sea walls fortifying this Venice of America, but city officials fear they aren’t high enough to hold back sea levels that some warn could be as much as two feet higher by 2060.
The proposed law would require sea walls of between 6 feet 2 inches above mean sea level and 6 feet 6 inches, and they would have to be in place by 2035. The current maximum height is 5 feet 6 inches above mean sea level.
“We have to look at sea walls as one of our first lines of defense against rising seas,” said Nancy Gassman, an assistant public works director with a doctorate in coastal ecosystems.
The fix might cost $10,000 for a typical 100-foot property to add a cap to an existing sea wall, or it could be as much as $125,000 if the sea wall has to be replaced because it is in poor condition or can’t handle the extra weight of a cap.
Other coastal cities are concerned about sea wall heights as well. For example, Lighthouse Point last year increased the height for its sea walls by a foot, to 5 feet 6 inches above mean sea level. And Miami Beach commissioners on Wednesday tentatively approved increasing their minimum sea wall height to 5 feet 6 inches above mean sea level for private sea walls and 7 feet 3 inches for public sea walls.
But higher sea walls are just one piece of the solution, and Fort Lauderdale officials are working on plans for raising roads, improving stormwater catch basins and installing expensive pumps and valves.
“It will create problems if we raise sea walls and we don’t adjust the rest of our infrastructure,” said Alan Dodd, an assistant public works director. “We can’t have water sitting on the street. We’ve got too much of that right now.”
Commissioners are expected to discuss the proposed law in May and vote on it in June. But residents of waterfront neighborhoods say that won’t be enough time to consider the impact of the changes — or to decide who should pay the cost.
“The magnitude of the amount of money we’re talking about, beyond just raising the sea walls, is something people are just beginning to contemplate,” said Marilyn Mammano, president of the Harbordale Civic Association.
Southeast Florida’s coastal communities already experience occasional tidal flooding, but a study by the Union of Concerned Scientists said over the next 30 years the region can expect tidal flooding to increase from fewer than 10 events a year to 240 — almost daily.
“We are continuing to experience tides that are anomalously high based on the predictions,” Gassman said, indicating that’s what happened with last fall’s King Tides that produced significant flooding in Las Olas Boulevard’s isle communities. “We are looking at tides that are exceeding predicted values by as much as half a foot.”
Mandating higher sea walls may make it tough on boaters living on canals, who would find it more difficult without a lift to get into their boats at low tide.
Tyler Chappell, whose company designs and obtains permits for sea walls, has been pushing the city to raise the allowable maximum height of the sea walls because many property owners want the ability to build higher for added protection.
But he doesn’t agree with a mandated minimum height.
“I think the private individual is prepared to make that investment when necessary,” Chappell said. “The elevation of the sea wall is going to be driven by the owner and their ability to access their docks.”
Other property owners say uniform standards are needed because changes they make won’t do any good if their neighbors don’t raise their sea walls as well.
They worry about property damage caused by the salt water flooding their property, the increased insurance costs, the ability to get 30-year mortgages and the potential for plummeting property values if their waterfront views turn from a premium amenity into a daily threat.
The city estimates it has four miles of public sea walls that would cost $26 million to replace or $2 million to raise the height. The city currently doesn’t regulate sea walls, but would be able to require private property owners to keep theirs in good shape under the proposed law.
John Holmes, president of the Bermuda Riviera Association north of Oakland Park Boulevard, said his canal community doesn’t see the need for drastic action now.
“Unlike the other neighborhoods, we don’t have a flooding problem,” Holmes said. “It’s going to hurt property values if everybody has to raise their sea walls.”