City of Coral Gables: Legal Considerations Surrounding Adaptation to the Threat of Sea Level Rise
This comprehensive report discusses the policy options available to the City of Coral Gables, Florida, as it prepares for sea level rise and other effects of climate change. It also explores potential legal issues likely to arise as climate change adaptation measures are implemented. It explores these challenges in light of Coral Gables’s (and all of South Florida’s) unique vulnerability to climate change, as a result of its low elevation above current sea level and its porous limestone base, which makes protecting areas of South Florida like Coral Gables with sea walls, dikes, or canals impractical.
The report is divided into ten sections:
- Section I- Introduction: The Introduction reviews the action that Coral Gables has already taken on climate adaptation planning, including noting its participation in the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Compact and Climate Resilience Dialogues, a White House pilot project.
- Section II- Gathering Actionable Data: This section reviews the sea level rise data that Coral Gables has had access to through the time of the report, and shares short term, medium term, and long term sea level rise projections. It also makes recommendations to the City for next steps in gathering data.
- Section III- Informing and Engaging the Public: This section reviews what Coral Gables has done to engage the public on sea level rise already, and recommends that they lobby the County, State and Federal government for action that would protect the City from sea level rise. It recommends resources from several organizations which can help the City effectively communicate about climate change while avoiding potential polarization. It recommends how the City could incorporate methods of notice about climate change risk in property transactions and/or the city code, both to avoid potential future liability and to better prepare itself for regulatory takings claims.
- Section IV- City Infrastructure Adaptations: This section presents a framework the City can use to prioritize investments, explores litigation risks from climate change adaptation efforts, and examines various paths towards financing sea level rise adaptation costs. It also gives examples of other local government’s funding efforts.
- Section V- Comprehensive Planning for Sea Level Rise: This section explores amending the City’s current comprehensive plan to add in sea level rise considerations, outlines which elements of its comprehensive plan are most likely to be impacted by sea level rise, and explores potential use of Adaptation Action Areas (AAAs). It also gives examples of other local governments’ use of adaptation as incorporated into comprehensive plans.
- Section VI- Regulatory Tools for Adaptation: This section lists the primary legal principles likely to be raised by regulatory adaptation efforts as constitutional takings issues, Florida’s Bert Harris Act, and constitutional substantive due process considerations, and explores each in turn. It also examines zoning laws and notes that they are likely the most important tools that local governments have to manage sea level rise. It goes on to explore the use of building codes, resilient design, setbacks and buffers, conditional development and exactions, rebuilding restrictions, and hard and soft armoring.
- Section VII- Land Acquisitions and Conservation Easements: This section explores how the city could acquire property at risk from sea level rise to create flood buffers, to preserve coastal habitats and migration coordinators, to remove at-risk structures or to make space for inundation. It discusses the available avenues for such acquisitions by the State and Federal government, and goes on to discuss using eminent domain, conservation easements and rolling conservation easements to acquire land.
- Section VIII- Market Based Tools: This section examines how transferable development rights (TDR) programs could be used in designated AAA’s, and how TDR programs have been used in other parts of South Florida. It also explores the use of tax and other incentives, mandating risk disclosures in real estate transactions, and how to monitor and work with private sector forces in service of adaptation.
- Section IX- Long-term Retreat: After examining the precedent for retreat established by the disappearance of islands in the Chesapeake Bay, the report explores how the City could reduce services, should sea level rise render that necessary, and the taxation issues that would follow. It also discusses relocating its population and the cleanup of abandoned land, as well as the funding issues related to both points.
- Section X- Next Steps: Finally, the report summarizes its recommended key next steps for the City.
Publication Date: September 28, 2016
- The City of Coral Gables, Florida
- Legal Analysis