Constitutional Amendment would ease financial burden of armoring property against flooding

But it does nothing about underlying problem: Global warming

By: - November 1, 2022 11:59 am

Sunny-day flooding caused by higher sea level along Brickell Avenue in downtown Miami. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Floridians have a chance to vote themselves property tax breaks on real estate improvements designed to protect their homes and businesses against flooding — something we’re already seeing and that will only get worse due to global warming.

Global warming is a topic Gov. Ron DeSantis doesn’t like talking about.

“What I’ve found is, people when they start talking about things like global warming, they typically use that as a pretext to do a bunch of left-wing things that they would want to do anyways,” he snapped in December 2021. “We are not doing any left-wing stuff.”

But he has been willing to invest millions of dollars in “resilience” — that is, sea walls and such intended to defend property against rising oceans. Amendment 1 on the Nov. 8 ballot is an example of that policy preference.

Sea-level rise is evident in this photo of a flooded palm tree taken on the Panhandle’s St. Vincent Island. Credit: Susan Cerulean

The Legislature voted unanimously in 2021 to place the measure on this year’s ballot via a joint resolution and a bill that originated in the Senate. Both passed unanimously. (A supermajority in both chambers is necessary to place such a measure on the ballot and it must win 60 percent of the electorate to amend the Florida Constitution.)

House Joint Resolution 1377, reads:

“Proposing an amendment to the State Constitution, effective January 1, 2023, to authorize the Legislature, by general law, to prohibit the consideration of any change or improvement made to real property used for residential purposes to improve the property’s resistance to flood damage in determining the assessed value of such property for ad valorem taxation purposes.”

A legislative analysis notes:

“An area’s resistance to flood damage can be increased through mitigation strategies such as large structural public works projects, including dams, seawalls, and levees, as well as improvements made to individual properties, such as elevating structures, filling basements, and waterproofing. Mitigation can also include non-structural improvements, such as the maintenance of land to allow for stormwater runoff, waterproofing basements, installing check valves capable of preventing water backup, and elevating furnaces, heaters, and electrical panels.”

A revenue estimating conference, which included top state-government economists, did not hazard a guess at what the amendment would cost local governments “as the amendment it proposes is subject to voter approval and is not self-executing.”

Supplement existing tax breaks

The measure would supplement existing tax breaks for “any change or improvement to real property used for residential purposes made to improve the property’s resistance to wind damage” or installation of “a solar or renewable energy source device” to also cover changes to mitigate flood damage.

Rep. Linda Chaney. Credit: FL House

The resolution’s sponsor was Linda Chaney, a Pinellas County Republican and vice chair of the House Environment, Agriculture & Flooding Subcommittee.

“Homeowners who are taking proactive measures to protect their property from flooding should not only be rewarded, but they should be incentivized,” she said in justifying the proposal, according to a report by the New Service of Florida.

Florida lost $5.42 billion between 2005 and 2017, according to an analysis by the First Street Foundation, which conducts research into flooding. Florida accounted for 15 of the top 10 cities experiencing lost value, including Miami Beach, Hollywood, St. Petersburg, Fort Lauderdale, Key Largo, Jacksonville, Key West, Miami, Doral, Tampa, Holmes Beach, Homosassa, Palm Beach, and Sanibel.

Need one remind the reader what Sanibel just went through at the hand of Hurricane Ian?

“We need to act now,” First Street consultant Jeremy Porter, a professor at Columbia University, wrote in the report.

“The ability to pay for solutions to sea level rise is directly related to our ability to finance them. We do not want to see the beginning of a domino effect, where lost property value lowers the tax base and cripples our ability to finance solutions,” he said.

At the same time, the Legislature approved a $100 million package addressing flooding, including a mandate for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to update a resiliency program every year, create a research “hub” to study the problem, and allow local governments to cooperate to mitigate flood damage. House Speaker Chris Sprowls laid out the policy in a tweet last year.

Naming the problem

That package was included in Senate Bill 1954. A legislative analysis pins the blame for the increased flood risk squarely at climate change, explaining that warming global temperatures are melting polar ice sheets and glaciers and causing thermal expansion of the oceans.

“The effects of climate change include sea level rise, increasing storm intensity, and increasing frequency and severity of extreme rainfall events,” the analysis reads.

“These trends result in increased flooding in inland and coastal areas. With 1,350 miles of coastline, relatively low elevations, and a porous geology, Florida is particularly vulnerable to coastal flooding. Coastal areas are facing the combined effects of sea level rise, storm surges, and extreme precipitation.”

There’s more.

“A warmer atmosphere holds more water vapor, leading to more frequent and intense extreme rainfall events that are contributing to increased inland and coastal flooding,” the analysis continues.

Rising seas will increasingly flood coastal areas due to greenhouse gases already emitted and more to come, according to NOAA and its partner agencies. Credit: NOAA

“Extreme rainfall events can stress or overwhelm stormwater infrastructure, while sea level rise impairs gravity-driven systems and reduces the discharge capacity of coastal water control structures. By raising groundwater levels, sea level rise reduces the ability of rainfall to infiltrate the soil, and the reduced soil storage capacity causes flooding.”

The analysis noted a study setting the number of properties at risk of flooding at 20.5 percent in 2020 and projecting the risk by 2050 at 24.3 percent. “Another study found tidal flooding could result in a total property devaluation of $10-$30 billion by 2030 and $30-$80 billion by 2050, and that real estate losses during 100-year storm surge events could reach $50-$75 billion by 2050.”

Some newspapers oppose

Two major Florida newspapers have editorialized against passage, including the Palm Beach Post.

“Given what’s occurred with the recent devastation of Hurricane Ian and Florida’s continual need to address climate change, this amendment takes on a greater relevance that almost demands approval,” that newspaper argued on Oct. 7.

“Still, we don’t believe this amendment belongs in the Florida Constitution, particularly when lawmakers can simply craft bills and budgets to do the same thing. Lawmakers should take this idea and make it a priority in the next legislative session, not embed it in the Constitution.”

The Tampa Bay Times recommended a “no” vote that same day, calling the measure “an invitation to abuse.”

“Building a seawall on waterfront property — fine. Same with reinforcing doors or electrical systems. But what about renovating property, or adding floors to existing structures, or building decks or other accessories that have less to do with flood protection than enjoying life?,” the editorial reads.

“Owners already have financial and personal incentives to improve their properties, and while the state has an interest in hardening against floods, putting a vague, tax-shifting mechanism in the state Constitution is not the way to promote it.”

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Michael Moline
Michael Moline

Michael Moline has covered politics and the legal system for more than 30 years. He is a former managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal and former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal.