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New study projects sea level rise to drain Florida’s financial future

Coastal areas are Florida’s most at-risk, and by the year 2100, many of them could be underwater.
Mikhail Nilov
Coastal areas are Florida’s most at-risk, and by the year 2100, many of them could be underwater.

One million Florida properties are projected to become chronically flooded: properties that today fund nearly 30% of local revenues for more than half of the state’s municipalities, according to a new study conducted by researchers at Cornell and Florida State Universities.

As sea level rise drowns those properties, the state can expect to lose a combined assessed value of $619 billion this century, the study’s authors write, and that figure’s likely a significant underestimation.

The study’s statewide survey also revealed that for the most part, Florida’s local government planners and managers don’t realize how drastically climate change will impact them financially.

But the study’s authors write they hope their work can serve as a “wake-up call” for state and local governments.

“We’re not forecasting a future; what we’re doing is letting people get ahead of that future, we hope, so that local governments can start to say: ‘hey, wait a minute, we need to be preparing ourselves,’” said co-author William Butler, an associate professor of urban and regional planning at Florida State University.

Property taxes: a coastal catch-22

Under Florida’s current tax structure, local governments depend heavily on revenues from property taxes, which naturally increase as more land is developed.

And here in Florida, now the country’s fastest-growing state according to the Census Bureau, the huge volume of people who move, work and vacation here remains one of the strongest forces driving land development — especially in coastal areas.

“Our taxes are based on that sort of growth and development paradigm continuing,” Butler said.

It’s a catch-22, because even as more development puts coastal communities at greater risk, it also translates into more dollars: dollars local governments desperately need, including to tackle climate change.

Right now, local revenues like property taxes are by far the largest share of funding Florida municipalities rely on for climate change adaptation efforts — especially coastal municipalities, according to the study.

Coastal areas are Florida’s most at-risk, and by the year 2100, many of them could be underwater. Sea levels along U.S. coastlines are projected to rise 10 to 12 inches, on average, during the next 30 years, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The 2015 Peril of Flood Act requires Florida’s coastal communities to include sea level rise planning in their comprehensive plans.
Mikhail Nilov
The 2015 Peril of Flood Act requires Florida’s coastal communities to include sea level rise planning in their comprehensive plans.

Yet despite serious risks associated with living close to rising seas, Florida’s coastline remains highly attractive to homebuyers: keeping property values in those areas relatively high, and encouraging even more real estate development there.

As more property tax revenues roll in, they boost local governments’ bottom line. Right now, Florida’s coastal areas generate $2.36 billion a year in property taxes for local governments; again, a low estimate, per the study.

But sea level rise is only predicted to get progressively worse, jeopardizing the future of not only those coastal communities, but the critical funding they supply for Florida’s local governments.

“What’s going to happen is: we’re going to keep growing,” Butler said. “There’s going to be more people living in those at-risk coastal zones. There’s going to be more stress and strain on those existing budgets, unless we change the growth paradigm that we currently operate under. And there’s no hint that that’s currently on anybody’s mind.”

High stakes, creative solutions

The stakes are high, but the study’s researchers say Florida’s future is not inevitable.

“If we can shift how we’re developing, or how we gain revenues, and not be so dependent on property taxes, then we actually have time to solve this problem,” Butler said.

The study points out several ways local governments might be able to expand revenue sources beyond the property tax, if state law will allow for it: by implementing more sales/consumption taxes, vacancy taxes, stormwater impact fees, and/or resilience bonds.

Smaller, less affluent communities might also consider regional sharing of land and taxes; as an example, the study points to New Hampshire, which passed a law in 2019 allowing coastal municipalities to merge in response to sea level rise.

Additionally, “state governments could pass legislation to help low-income neighborhoods gain more control over land and housing,” according to the study, which notes limited equity cooperatives, community land trusts and resident-owned mobile home parks are strategies that help stabilize housing and keep it affordable for the people living there.

For Butler, who’s planning to soon teach a new FSU class he’s creating called “Hope and Resilience in Times of Climate Change,” it’s important people know there’s action they can take to help mitigate Florida’s “widespread” risk posed by sea level rise.

“If we lose hope, we lose one of the motivations that we might actually use to do something about things,” Butler said.

One big way community members can help is by working with local governments, especially when it comes to the budgeting process, Butler said.

“Bringing the issue up to their local governments, helping the local governments recognize that we’re facing this type of conundrum in the future,” Butler said.

Users can also use the study’s interactive StoryMap to explore Florida at a more granular level, and see how heavily the state’s municipalities depend on revenues tied to land projected to eventually be underwater.

In Central Florida, Cape Canaveral is projected to lose 38% of its local revenues to sea level rise; Flagler Beach, 30%; and Daytona Beach, 27%, according to the StoryMap.

Molly is an award-winning reporter with a background in video production and investigative journalism, focused on covering environmental issues for Central Florida Public Media.
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