On an island a few miles south of Charleston, South Carolina, you’ll find the funky little seaside town of Folly Beach. Its resident population of about 2,200 is seasonally augmented by hordes of tourists seeking a place to swim, surf and drink.
Florida has several similar beach communities, but it does not have a Folly Beach. On the other hand, Florida’s lengthy coastline features miles of what could aptly be called “beach folly.” “Beach folly” can be defined as building — or repeatedly rebuilding — structures atop the shifting sands of a beach that’s susceptible to erosion and storm surges now and to sea-level rise in the future.
This year’s hurricane season delivered reminders of beach folly in the state. In late September, Hurricane Ian’s storm surge swept over barrier islands off Florida’s lower Gulf Coast. Ian was blamed for 137 deaths in the state, and the combined property damage on the islands and mainland exceeded $50 billion.
Then, on Nov. 10, Hurricane Nicole came ashore along Florida’s Atlantic Coast. Severe erosion destroyed several dozen single-family homes and left some beaches needing yet another renourishment at the taxpayers’ expense.
Moreover, as the Associated Press reported, “In Daytona Beach Shores and New Smyrna Beach, two dozen multistory condo buildings have been evacuated and deemed unsafe by building inspectors.”
Unsafe multistory condos? Sounds all too familiar. The June 21, 2021, collapse of the 12-story Champlain Towers South in Surfside tragically brought overdue attention to the risks of neglecting maintenance on buildings next to a briny ocean that can cause serious corrosion as well as dangerous erosion of structures’ underpinnings.
Granted, there’s no need for panic. Most of Florida’s oceanfront buildings have been inspected and deemed safe, while the unsafe ones were evacuated. That’s perhaps the only blessing from the tragedy in Surfside.
Meanwhile, in the Florida Panhandle, the Panama City News-Herald reports that in Mexico Beach, only about 40% of the town has been rebuilt after Hurricane Michael destroyed 85% of its structures four years ago. Four years ago!
This raises a question: Should all damaged or destroyed beachfront structures even be replaced? Is there an alternative that would benefit the public as well as Florida’s troubled property insurance marketplace? Perhaps.
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Many of Florida’s beaches are on barrier islands bisected by roads such as Highway A1A. Along much of the coast there are structures on both sides of the road, with relatively few places for inland residents to access the beach.
The recent storm damage presents a renewed opportunity to alleviate this problem by giving the owners of damaged beachfront properties an alternative to rebuilding in the same spot. Instead, state and local governments could partner to tender offers to buy selected properties in order to expand public access to the beaches.
Beach access was already a concern in many areas because some beach towns severely restrict parking. Beach access was dealt another blow four years ago when Gov. Rick Scott signed House Bill 631. As reported in FlaglerLive.com, “The new law allows beachfront property owners — hotels, residential dwellings, or others — to restrict access to the ‘dry sand’ area of the beach, or that area above the average high-tide waterline.
“In effect, that means beachgoers used to lounging, jogging, taking walks or playing in those dry sands could legally be barred from doing so unless they’re, say, guests at the hotel or friends of the property owner.”
Sounds harsh. Then again, if you owned a lakefront home in Kendall or Pembroke Pines, you might not want a group of strangers partying in your back yard amid the “gifts” left behind by the iguanas and the ducks.
Bottom line: If there are owners of damaged beachfront property who are willing to sell at a reasonable price, take them up on it because placing more ocean frontage under public ownership could help with the beach-access problem.
It also might marginally reduce some of the huge financial risks assumed by Florida’s property insurer of last resort, Citizens Property Insurance Corporation, and by the federal government’s National Flood Insurance Program.
However, as sensible as this approach seems, there are trade-offs. When the government acquires private property, that property moves off the tax rolls and onto the expense side of the ledger. Even so, it should be noted that buildings need not be directly on a beach to be a big provider of tax revenue.
Indeed, some of Florida’s most valuable properties lie across from a beach on the other side of a road. The buildings on Miami Beach’s Ocean Drive, from Fifth to 15th streets are prime examples.
Nonetheless, shifting beachfront property from taxpaying to tax-consuming can be problematic in some areas. In the Panhandle, for instance, tax revenue derived from the pricey beachfront condos, hotels and McMansions helps to fund government services in counties that otherwise have a high level of poverty.
Moreover, government-owned beaches typically incur operating costs for cleaning, maintenance, law enforcement, insurance and staffing the prime swimming areas with lifeguards. So while Ian and Nicole have given the Florida Legislature a rare opportunity to make selective improvements on several fronts, from storm readiness and beach access to property insurance, it is not time — yet — to yell, “Clear the isles!”
Robert F. Sanchez of Tallahassee is a former member of the Miami Herald Editorial Board. This column is part of of the Invading Sea, a collaborative of Florida editorial boards, including the Tampa Bay Times, focused on the threats posed by the warming climate.