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Florida celebrates sea level rise planning tool after years ‘behind the curve’

A recent law requires builders to think about climate change for some publicly funded projects.
The new St. Pete Pier is shown under construction in late 2019.
The new St. Pete Pier is shown under construction in late 2019. [ SCOTT KEELER | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Feb. 18

One year after the Florida Legislature passed a bill considered its first direct confrontation of climate change in years, the state is moving closer to making the policy’s promises a reality.

The Department of Environmental Protection is crafting a rule that will lay out a standard for considering sea level rise before starting construction on some publicly funded projects along the coast. It is supposed to take effect July 1, and agency officials said this week they aim to hone a draft version by April 1.

“The whole idea is to raise the floor, and the floor on planning was absolutely nothing,” said José Javier Rodríguez, a former state senator from Miami who pushed the original legislation.

Related: What’s next for climate change in Florida Legislature?

Department of Environmental Protection secretary Noah Valenstein said in a meeting last month that the measure will mark the first time Florida sends “a uniform signal across the state of what sea level rise projections should be used over what time periods.”

The rule will require Sea Level Impact Projection (or SLIP) studies to be finished before builders break ground on projects that receive state funding and fall in specific areas especially vulnerable to flooding near the shore. It will cover structures like houses, parking garages, piers, water treatment plants and bridges, but not smaller items like gazebos and beach walkovers, or seawalls and breakwaters meant to combat erosion.

The impact studies are supposed to look forward to possible flooding over the lifespan of a project, often several decades, using a sea level rise estimate developed by federal scientists. During a meeting Tuesday, state officials indicated they would require an “intermediate-high” projection for how much local sea levels could rise, slightly lower than some environmentalists wanted but also not among the most conservative scenarios.

An engineering firm is creating an online tool that will allow developers to plug in their project information and produce the studies. It could provide a ranking of future flood risk, data on potential flooding, along with suggestions of ways to make a project more resilient. The rule will not force agencies, cities or counties to pursue whatever is deemed the safest route.

“There’s no requirement to implement a particular alternative that may be suggested,” said Whitney Gray, administrator of the Florida Resilient Coastlines program, during the meeting this week. “This is not a regulatory tool.”

Rodríguez, a Democrat who lost a bid for re-election last year, said he designed the bill to gain support in a Legislature historically averse to discussing climate change. “We are so far behind the curve from where we’re starting,” he said.

He modeled it after the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires project managers to study environmental impacts and identify alternative designs, but not necessarily to take the least harmful route.

The rule will require studies to be posted on the Department of Environmental Protection’s website for at least 10 years, and for 30 days before groundbreaking can commence. The state will not solicit public comments or hold public hearings on each individual study, said Weesam Khoury, a spokeswoman for the Department of Environmental Protection.

Rodríguez said he hopes that requiring the research and posting it online affords accountability, and that residents will pressure elected officials who back risky investments of their tax dollars.

Environmental groups like the measure but have offered some critiques. State officials have revised the draft language in response to feedback and will continue to do so over the next several weeks.

The Environmental Defense Fund in Florida submitted suggestions in a letter last month, including a request that the rule make clear how studies should look at environmental risks outside damage to buildings, like changes to water quality and erosion.

“The rule feels more like an anti-flooding rule rather than a sea level rise impacts tool,” said Elizabeth Fata Carpenter, a staff attorney at the Everglades Law Center, which shares the concern.

The Law Center also wants officials to demand a longer wait period before construction than 30 days to give developers time to consider alternative designs.

“Because the state is beginning to take steps, we want to make sure that the step they do take is of high quality,” Fata Carpenter said. “It’s a step in the right direction, but it’s not a very big step.”

To learn more about the proposed rule, visit the Department of Environmental Protection’s website here: https://floridadep.gov/rcp/beaches-funding-program/content/resilience-and-coastal-protection-rules-development