Hard armoring puts others at risk

Gennaro Scibelli


St. Augustine

Shortly after I moved from Gainesville to Davis Shores last year, Matthew flooded my bedroom. During the damp, dank aftermath I sat in the dark, listening to the fiddler crabs scuttle across my bedroom floor and fixated on a quote from my boss only weeks earlier:

“We never get hit by major hurricanes.”

While Irma’s fickle sense of direction spared St. Johns County from annihilation, many residents experienced devastating damage. Some had only just recovered from Matthew.

In echoing our Governor’s proclamation of a state of emergency before landfall, Florida Department of Environmental Protection issued an Emergency Final Order this week in response to Irma’s impacts to St. Johns County.

Specifically, Florida Department of Environmental Protection has waived Florida Administrative Code Rules 62B-33.002(17)(b)1, 62B-33.002(43), and 62B-33.0051(1)(a)1 (“eligibility” of structures for coastal armoring permits), and Rule 62B-33.0085 (fees for processing of new permits, renewals, and extensions). The waiver of these rules are effective through Oct. 4, 2017.

In short, it is open season on seawall permitting. While this opportunity may be attractive to many who experienced minor flooding or a near miss during these decreasingly rare (and increasingly-powerful) storms, FDEP’s “solution” is short-sighted and irresponsible.

“Hard” armoring, such as seawalls, allows property to withstand wave action while preventing overflow during intense storms. However, seawalls and similar structures constantly deflect wave energy to either side of the armored property and accelerate erosion on neighboring land. As we have seen in Summer Haven, it only takes one or two hurricanes to drastically alter the landscape of a coastal neighborhood. While one resident’s armoring may delay the imminent effects of storm surge and sea level rise for one property, erosion of the surrounding land will occur faster as a result.

It is particularly frustrating that FDEP does not incentivize soft armoring, such as dune restoration, beach renourishment and construction of “living shorelines” — measures that mimic naturally-occurring armor for coastal areas.

As erosion increases due to “hard” armoring, it may decrease property values in the surrounding community, as well as the aesthetic and historic character of the communities that depend on those characteristics for their economic wellbeing.

Additionally, as hard armoring becomes more prevalent around Florida, intertidal habitat will decrease as slowly rising seas and more immediate storm surges fill the gaps — which will alter and eliminate habitat for marine species that reside in the intertidal zones, such as sea turtles.

FDEP’s push for expedited seawall permitting sounds great for individual landowners, but ignores communities as a whole.

Vulnerable areas should focus on adaptation to imminent, albeit gradual inundation that will result from sea level rise, which goes hand-in-hand with record storm surges down the road. The classic example of adaptation is requiring higher elevation for vulnerable structures in coastal communities.

Hard armoring isn’t the responsible solution for landowners who are looking for ways to avoid the stress — both economic and existential —resulting from impending hurricanes. While comprehensive adaptation (and even retreat) strategies require more time and expense, armoring is a “heads in the sand” approach at best.

Scibelli is an associate at Jane West Law, P.L. in St. Augustine, and focuses on public interest-environmental and land use law.