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  1. Opinion

Don’t loosen restrictions on development in St. Petersburg’s Coastal High Hazard Area | Column

St. Petersburg’s move would put short-term economic interests over our long-term social, economic and environmental interests, write the chair of Suncoast Sierra Club and a former St. Petersburg City Council member.

This Thursday, the St. Petersburg City Council will vote on a comprehensive plan amendment designed to allow for increased residential density in the Coastal High Hazard Area (CHHA). The longstanding provision within the comprehensive plan directing development away from the high-hazard area is a logical one — placing more life, property and public infrastructure in places destined to be submerged by sea water is a bad idea.

The Coastal High Hazard Area is defined as the area below the elevation of a Category 1 storm surge line — a sizable portion of our city for which St. Petersburg’s comprehensive plan has a long-standing prohibition on additional residential density.

James Scott is chair of the Suncoast Sierra Club. [ Courtesy of James Scott ]

In 2016, Florida’s Sea, Lake and Overland Surges from Hurricanes aka “SLOSH” computerized storm surge model was updated to account for water depth — a long overdue update reflecting the amplified peril Tampa Bay faces. The Coastal High Hazard Area footprint on St. Petersburg’s map nearly doubled to 41 percent — encroaching into corridors targeted for economic development like the Innovation District, Skyway Marina District and Gateway areas. This was a shocking new reality with serious implications for St. Petersburg’s future that requires action. But St. Petersburg’s move is a knee-jerk reaction placing short-term economic interests over our long-term social, economic and environmental interests.

In 2016 and 2017 St. Petersburg considered loosening residential density restrictions on development in the Coastal High Hazard Area — an action that would place more buildings and residents per acre in this zone. Both times the measure was pulled from the agenda when significant hurricanes landed in Florida (Michael and Irma, respectively).

Karl Nurse [ Karl Nurse ]

This third attempt at amendment, introduced in October 2019, has been given a “resilience” face-lift, including new Land Development Regulations intended to offset the apparent risks. While substantive in some regards, these measures are largely cosmetic and fail to address the enormous public and private costs that will only become apparent when the water has receded. These Land Development Regulations amendments are a great starting point for enhancing St. Petersburg’s resiliency to rising seas and a changing climate, but pairing them with measures that do the exact opposite does not pass the smell test.

Shifting our gaze from economic development in the Coastal High Hazard Area to areas on higher ground is not only more prudent, it will serve to uplift our neighborhoods that need it most.

Increasing risk and geographic inequity are the exact opposite of what this moment in history beckons of us. In the face of COVID-19, gross inequality and a volatile climate, let’s be proactive, not reactive.

We urge the St. Petersburg City Council to vote no on the Comprehensive Plan amendment and work with Mayor Rick Kriseman’s administration to rewrite the Land Development Regulations amendment that shines on its own.

James Scott is chair of the Suncoast Sierra Club. Karl Nurse served on the St. Petersburg City Council for 10 years.

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