"Yeah, well, you know, that's just like, uh, your opinion, man."

We Can't Stay Here

09:34 Thursday, 21 November 2019

Being retired, having a lot of free time and feeling a sense of responsibility (albeit belated), I go to a lot of meetings in this part of Florida. I go to Citizens Flood Advisory Committee meetings, flood mitigation meetings, the Public Private Regional Resilience meetings. I went to a clean fuels initiative meeting last week, I went to a cultural heritage at risk due to sea level rise meeting a few weeks ago. I go to the Ponte Vedra Coalition meetings, I meet with my County Commissioner, I went to the most recent Citizens Climate Lobby meeting last weekend.

I think you get the idea.

Last night, I went to an event sponsored by 1000 Friends of Florida, kind of a conservation/sustainable development advocacy group. The topic was what St Johns County might look like in 2070. It took place at the Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve (GTMNERR), which is a fabulous facility. I happen to live on the western side of the Tolomato River in an area formerly known as Cabbage Swamp. (Explains the mosquitos.) Turnout was pretty good, it wasn't sold out, but there were probably fifty or so people in attendance. The meeting started at 6:00PM, so it was accessible to younger, working people and parents with children, but I think the audience was mostly folks my age or more.

It started out with a little sticker exercise, where you had twelve stickers, four of each of three colors, and there were large sheets of paper with issues named at the top. Things like "Public Safety," "Schools," "Social Services," "Growth Management," "Traffic," "Water/Sewer," and so on. You were to place green stickers on the four topics you felt were good in the county, blue stickers on the four topics you felt were important, and red stickers on the topics you felt were problems or challenges in the county. (Here's a pro-tip: Write down or take a picture with your phone of the topics you put stickers on. Some of them were close calls, and when it came time to discuss them, I wasn't sure if I'd placed a sticker on a particular topic or not!)

Then followed an intro from the Matanzas Riverkeeper about how the program would run, and an introduction of the people we would be hearing from.

The opening pitch was from a representative from 1000 Friends of Florida with a presentation on a study of Florida growth they conducted, and what it suggested about the future of St Johns County. It was a slide show of mostly bad news, as one might expect. Water shortages, probably two thirds of the county developed into residential property, population approaching 600K (591K, was the actual number I think). And then he went into some ideas about how the county could begin to anticipate this now, and actions it could take to promote the most sustainable outcome.

I thought it was a good pitch, but the most significant weakness was that it only considered existing demographic trends and ignored sea level rise, which will have a profound impact on Florida in the next 50 years. They are working on an updated study that includes the effects of sea level rise. But, with that caveat, it didn't significantly affect the goals of the program, which was to look at how we do development now, versus how we might think about it differently.

The next part of the program was a group discussion. Brian Nelson, former CNN anchor(!), lives in the area and often facilitates these types of events. He led an examination of the topics and how many stickers were present, and what colors predominated. Unsurprisingly, the Schools, Public Safety and Social Services (libraries, boat ramps, parks, etc) received the greatest numbers of green dots. The implication being that those desirable features were the drivers of the red dot challenges, Growth Management, Water/Sewer (and flooding) and, I think, conservation. So then we went on to the discussion.

There was a mic set up in the middle of the room and at first people seemed reluctant to stand up to talk about why they put a red dot on a topic. When the Water/Sewer (and flooding) topic came up, I did recall that I'd placed a red sticker on it, and so I got up to speak about the county's Citizens Flood Advisory Committee.

Well, wouldn't you know it, as I'm approaching mic Nelson asks me, "What about all these houses on the beach? Should we be incentivizing them to leave?" or words to that effect. Well, that wasn't what I was planning to talk about, but I sure could talk about houses built too close to the ocean.

I can't recall exactly what I said, but I think I opened with, "We can't stay here." And I went on to say that the built environment at the beach was going to have to be deconstructed in order to create a natural environment to help protect upland properties as sea level continued to rise. I said it was an enormous challenge and required planning now, because whatever plan is developed will be litigated for decades before it can be implemented, and the sea is not going to wait. And there was an enormous disincentive to face this unwelcome reality because these are the most valuable properties in the county, and provide the greatest amount of property tax revenue. Nelson asked who should pay, and I said it would take a federal and state effort to help get people to leave their homes, and that homeowners would likely have to take a haircut.

At some point, shortly after I started, I suddenly realized that there were probably at least a few of those homeowners in the audience, and that this would be a decidedly unwelcome line of discussion. When we moved on and I sat down, a gentleman in front of me began speaking about how little sea level has risen in the last 100 years and so on. Nelson pushed back that it's accelerating and expected to keep accelerating. It looked as though we were about to get derailed, but then we moved on to another topic before we got bogged down in a debate about the reality of sea level rise.

The program went on successfully I think. I learned some interesting things, and there were some topics that could have been better explained or developed.

At the end of the program, Jane West, a local attorney and a new staff member of 1000 Friends of Florida summarized some specific actions the county and citizens of the county could take to address development. I wish I'd recorded it, because she seemed to go out of her way to respond to my contention that beach homeowners would have to take a haircut (i.e. would not receive what is notionally "fair market value") when they ultimately leave their homes. And I got the impression she was making the point that because they provide so much in property tax revenue, they're deserving of full value if they're ever asked to leave.

Well, I would dispute that, since these folks' risk in building on the beach is being subsidized by taxpayers in the form of the National Flood Insurance Program, and we are about to undertake tens of millions of dollars of "beach renourishment" so they can remain in their homes for some number of years, until it becomes patently obvious that we are simply shoveling taxpayer dollars into the sea, in an ultimately futile effort to forestall the inevitable.

I think beach homeowners should be prepared to expect a significant haircut, because the lifestyle they're enjoying today is paid for to a significant extent by taxpayers. And while these are notionally "public" beaches, there is little in the way of public access to those beaches and less in the way of public parking.

But, there will be more meetings. I will rise, however uncomfortably, to speak the truth and hope that it will make some kind of difference. This isn't exactly how I planned to spend my retirement, but here we are. We can't stay here, and we can't stay silent.