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Miami street could be blueprint for handling sea level rise

Published Aug. 11, 2018

MIAMI — On a map, the only natural body of water near Alan and Alicia Sirkin's Coconut Grove home is Biscayne Bay. But after living there more than 25 years, they've become familiar with some other ones: the river created when rain pours down from the highest elevation point on their street and the pond that forms in front of their home almost daily in the rainy season.

"We call it Lake Sirkin," Alicia said.

A small group of neighbors who own some of Miami's most valuable waterfront real estate, eager for new solutions to this old problem, have drawn up an ambitious set of recommendations with a landscape architect and urban designer for how to keep their vulnerable slice of dry land drier and, if that eventually fails, to even abandon it altogether if sea rise inundates the shoreline.

For Bay Homes Drive, some of the plan's concepts are radical or even illegal under current regulations: installing a mini sewage treatment plant on an empty lot, for instance, or building an artificial island in the bay to clean pumped water.

"Not that it's impossible — just on the books technically you can't do that right now," said Walter Meyer, co-lead of Local Office Landscape and Urban Design, the firm that held community meetings and put together the plan.

Finally, there's the staggeringly expensive prospect of buying out the low-lying homes to turn the area into a conservation park — the doomsday option no one particularly likes to contemplate.

The city of Miami paid $25,000 for the plan, which could prove to be the blueprint for how the city addresses the looming crisis of sea level rise: neighborhood by neighborhood.

But it could also end up more of an exercise in wishful thinking, depending on buy-in from homeowners and the politics of who-gets-what across Miami's neighborhoods. That's a debate to be had in the near future following the approval of $192 million of bonds meant to tackle sea rise projects.

Meyer argues that for a city already facing flooding regularly and with predictions for 1 to 2 feet of sea rise by 2060, the concepts on the table aren't radical, they're necessary.

"If you don't know how to identify the policy barriers and challenge them, these ideas will sit on the shelf and gather dust. We can't have that," he said. "We need solutions."

The residents of Bay Homes Drive agree. The more than three dozen homes on the one-lane, crooked horseshoe of a street haven't seen city-funded improvements in more than two decades, Sirkin said.

Now, when it comes to their street, residents would like the city to follow their recommendations and do things differently. Tier one of the plan is ideas that could be done in the next three years. The major proposal is to swap regular asphalt for porous pavement, which is designed to allow water to filter through the road and into the ground.

"Tier two" in the plan gets even more ambitious — and contentious. It calls for a tiny, silent and odorless "waste-to-energy" sewage treatment plant in a neighborhood lot to replace a good portion of the area's leaky septic tanks, which release pollution into the bay. Some neighbors are wary of the impact on property values.

"It goes against the grain of decades of county waste management," Meyer said.

City leaders said it's too early to tell if any of the plan's suggestions are feasible.

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