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  1. Opinion

Tackling a warming climate here at home

More and more Floridians are acknowledging the reality that climate change poses a dire threat to the Sunshine State — and that the impacts are happening now. That's why an effort by St. Petersburg to rethink the rules on construction in flood-prone zones is so critical to the city's future. Communities across Florida need to plan carefully as rising seas and other impacts shape growth and development. That's especially true in coastal metropolitan areas such as Tampa Bay.

St. Petersburg is exploring how to accommodate the pressures of growth with the sensible need to protect lives and property in low-lying areas. Current rules prohibit the City Council from changing zoning maps to increase housing density — rezoning a single-family lot to multi-family, for instance — in locations the state has designated as Coastal High Hazard Areas. But with the hazard areas taking up an increasing share of the city, officials are looking at new rules that would allow for increased housing density. As the Tampa Bay Times' Aaron Holmes reports, the City Council will grapple in the coming months to find what the city's development chief calls a "balanced approach" to planning for a future with heightened climate impacts.

The conversation in St. Petersburg mirrors the same dilemma that communities are facing nationwide. With the Florida Department of Emergency Management deeming more areas of the city in a high hazard zone, city officials are exploring whether to allow higher densities in exchange for developments that are more resilient and environmentally friendly. One proposal that emerged from staff consultations with the Urban Land Institute would require that new multi-family units in high hazard areas be elevated structures, built at least two feet above the base flood elevation. City Council members are not expected to vote on any measure before October.

This is a responsible exercise that reflects the vital role local governments will play in confronting a global problem. Through the planning and zoning process, the council can address the real-life impacts of warming at the neighborhood level, and help shape larger decisions about how St. Petersburg will grow in the coming decades. Rising seas, increased flooding, saltwater intrusion in the drinking water supply — these impacts will shape everything from property values, growth patterns and public health and safety to the cost and life expectancy of new public works projects. In South Florida alone, local governments have already spent hundreds of millions on raising roads, flood pumps and elevating buildings. While the total cost statewide has not been determined, experts say that hardening Florida's infrastructure will require tens of billions of dollars, with at least $8 billion in the three-county Tampa Bay region alone. Planning for the long-term cannot start soon enough.

St. Petersburg's discussion presents a gut check and a visioning process for all of Tampa Bay. With a local science advisory board predicting seas in the region to rise up to 8.5 feet by 2100, the time is now to craft a strategy for responding to this environmental and economic threat.