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Satellite Beach Braces For Sea Level Rise -- Before It Begins

In Satellite Beach homes perch atop a sand dune, left exposed after a series of storms and hurricanes washed away a sea wall. Photo by Amy Green
In Satellite Beach homes perch atop a sand dune, left exposed after a series of storms and hurricanes washed away a sea wall. Photo by Amy Green

Satellite Beach is a small community established by rocket scientists near Kennedy Space Center, on the barrier island between the Atlantic Ocean and 156-mile Indian River Lagoon. Here surfers paddle beyond the break hoping to catch a wave.

For Satellite Beach the waves are a draw and threat. John Fergus has lived here for nearly 40 years. He says the beach is disappearing.

"If there was nothing built on the beach as the sea level rises it would just tear down the dune. That sand helps to bolster the beach. And it would just naturally move."

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In Satellite Beach, the waves are a draw and threat. Photo by Amy Green[/caption]

Now he is part of a community effort to plan for what some here believe is inevitable, sea level rise that will threaten homes and important infrastructure like city hall by midcentury, a little more than a mortgage's lifetime away.

The effort is unusual in a state where leaders have offered little guidance on the issue. Gov. Rick Scott said after touring Irma damage in the hard-hit Florida Keys that he didn't know whether climate change is man-made or part of an ever-changing environment. Communities like Miami Beach where regular flooding already is happening are taking steps like raising roads. But few communities are planning ahead like Satellite Beach.

"We believe that in about 40 or 50 years there will be areas of the city with standing water, and so those areas we'll either engineer our way out of it, like what you see in Miami Beach raising roads, or we will retreat," says Courtney Barker, city manager for Satellite Beach.

The community was among the first in Florida to commission a study on its vulnerability. Then leaders created an online survey asking residents things like, What are Satellite Beach's most important characteristics? Its biggest threats? What are some solutions? Barker says leaders now are considering how to implement the suggestions through building and zoning regulations.

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Courtney Barker, city manager for Satellite Beach. Photo by Amy Green[/caption]

"Do we really need to force people to put in a garage if they want to stilt their home, and if they do want to stilt their home do we make them lose a floor for that? Maybe we allow them to go up 10 feet higher than the height restriction of that area just so they can address the possibility of a storm surge."

She says it is an important economic issue.

"When we take a property off the tax rolls along the ocean, which is the highest taxable valued property in the city, that pushes that tax burden onto the rest of the community."

Back on the beach Fergus considers the community's future as he steps through the sand.

"Eventually people in vulnerable properties are going to be in trouble. And you could just say, Too bad. Bad luck. You're done."

He believes that isn't the answer considering the community has 40 years to plan. The effort is difficult because at its heart is not only Satellite Beach's future but its character. Residents like their community the way it is. Fergus feels it can stay that way with the right planning.

Amy Green covered the environment for WMFE until 2023. Her work included the 2020 podcast DRAINED.