Dear Fellow Miami Beach Resident,
Sea levels are expected to rise an incremental 1.4 feet by 2050 and 3.3 feet by 2100. Sea level rise will continue to inundate coastal areas (click link for slideshow of Tatum & Normandy waterways from 2016), increase tidal flooding frequency, and compound storm impact.
The City of Miami Beach is fortifying and adapting by raising roads, sidewalks, seawalls, and installing stormwater pumps. While certainly a crucial component, this public infrastructure is not a complete community solution. Private property owners must raise seawalls, elevate first floors and make other structural adaptations. It’s going to be an uncomfortable few decades, as the adaptations of each owner have the potential to negatively impact their neighbors. Imagine owning a narrow waterfront lot and having both adjacent neighbors raise their seawalls 3 feet or so.
While the City invests in public infrastructure, the private sector must plan and finance to protect residential and commercial properties. There is currently no federal aid available to communities or property owners wishing to proactively elevate buildings according to sea level rise projections. Federal funding is only available after properties are damaged by storms and disaster areas are declared.
Miami Beach rejects FEMA’s retreat recommendation, but we are realistic. As sea level rise affects more communities, local governments will compete for adaptation funding. How the federal and state government will prioritize which cities get funding support is an unknown. Those decisions could take the retreat vs adapt decision out of the hands of some municipalities.
After Hurricane Katrina, Congress increased FEMA's borrowing authority from $2 billion to $20 billion, then later to $30 billion. FEMA now owes the U.S. Treasury $23 billion. Disaster relief appears unsustainable. FEMA’s precarious situation will be exacerbated in the future as storm frequency and impact increases. It is highly unlikely that federal and state funding will be adequate to bail out coastal historic districts. There will have to be prioritization. The City of Miami Beach cannot afford to foot the resiliency tab for an entire city’s worth of privately-owned contributing historic buildings. Local government is obligated to set policy that helps private property owners help themselves.
There are solid economic reasons to protect historic districts including heritage tourism and environmental benefits. The cultural and psychological benefits are also obvious as the quality of life, sense of place and neighborhood identity is contained in these districts.
All around the Florida coastline, we face an emotionally and economically troubling conundrum: historic structures are irreplaceable, and adaptations will not save them forever. As elected leaders we work to answer “What is best for the continued life and vitality of the City?”
National Register historic properties provide physical reminders of our past. They tell the story of our society, culture and values at a particular point in time, especially in the context of a National Register Historic District. Without protecting these assets from sea level rise impacts, our community identity will be altered and our connections to the past made tenuous.
For particularly low streets along waterways, Neighborhood Conservation may be better than Local Historic Designation to protect neighborhood character. Design Guidelines control height, scale, massing and architectural design while allowing property owners to add resiliency and lower flood insurance.
Ultimately the best path forward can only be achieved if the preservation community chooses to join the adaptation planning process in a constructive way and compromise based on economic and geologic realities. Preservation should work alongside of, instead of in opposition to, planners and property owners wishing to safeguard their nest eggs. As Ann Horowitz asserts in The Effects Of Sea Level Rise On Historic Districts And The Need For Adaptation, "historic preservation professionals and property owners will need to realize that adaptations may affect integrity, but without the adaptation, the historic resources may be lost."
The Preservation vs. Development paradigm is obsolete. We are in this together.