Key Biscayne knows what sea level rise would do to a low-lying barrier island, and it’s not good.
It declared a climate emergency, had experts analyze its flooding vulnerabilities and suggest solutions and held community meetings to get public input on residents’ worries and wants. The village also hired its first Chief Resilience Officer, Roland Samimy, a coastal systems and water resources scientist with decades of experience in the public and private sector.
Now, it wants to put money behind the conversations and reports. And the path ahead requires navigating both the complicated world of climate change adaptation and politics.
“It’s relatively easy to say that you’re for resilience, but it’s very different to do resilience,” said Samimy, who holds a Ph.D. in Coastal Systems Science from University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth.
On November 3, Village of Key Biscayne voters will decide whether to approve a bond proposal for up to $100 million that would create a steady funding stream to back large-scale resilience projects.
If all goes well, the village could start addressing problems with a pot of money like Miami’s $400 million Forever Bond, which provided $192 million for sea rise projects. Coral Gables has $7 million set aside for adaptation and plans to add more every year.
But not every resilience fund can weather a political storm. In Surfside, the plan to start setting aside money for resilience projects was approved — and then dashed when a new slate of council members took office.
Politics appear to be a dividing line in Key Biscayne as well.
In a crowded race of 10 candidates vying for three open seats on the Key’s village council, the bond issue is the centerpiece of the nonpartisan campaign and has become a political wedge between the many candidates who feel adamantly one way or another.
Those who are against the bond cite fiscal conservatism, arguing that resilience projects should be approved and funded once “shovel ready,” not decided by future councils using money already set aside. They call the $100 million bond a “blank check” and argue the language is too broad. Those for the bond say the fear around it is a misunderstanding, and that securing the bond would instead give future village councils another option to pay for projects Key Biscayne will ultimately need.
It’s a Rorschach test of sorts, said Matt Bramson, a village council candidate and consultant who supports the bond.
And just like Rorschach’s inkblot tests, “the bond is more about the beholder than the issue itself,” he said.
What is the general obligation bond?
The village council approved the resolution in July calling for residents to vote for the bond. At the time, Village Manager Andrea Agha explained that the resilience initiative outline had an estimated total cost and that while general obligation bonds usually cover a lesser amount, the village will make up the difference.
She said the sea level rise and flooding category will involve projects like roadway elevation with a total cost of $40 million. The second category, focused on beaches and shorelines, will involve the creation of an offshore breakwater, sand and seagrass mitigation with a total cost of about $64.5 million About $23.3 million will be covered by the bond, she said.
The last category is hardening infrastructure, which includes undergrounding utilities, possibly with the financial assistance of Florida Power & Light. Total cost in this category would be $49.2 million with $35.2 million in bond money, Agha explained.
The village council is tasked with approving each project that would be financed by the bond and would do so by passing an ordinance and supplemental resolution to set the parameters. The idea of an oversight committee has been floated but not yet created. The public would be invited to give input at council meetings where the projects are being discussed, and the vote would have to be passed at least 5-2 .
The annual impact to each property owner would vary in the first 10 years from $0 to $56 per $100,000 of taxable value, according to the village. The average cost would be $29 per $100,000 of taxable value.
After those first 10 years, the impact would remain at a stable $65 per $100,000 of taxable value through the rest of the bond period. The village’s charter has a 1% debt cap, meaning that the value of the general obligation bond might not hit exactly $100 million. Currently, the village has $67 million in available debt capacity, Samimy said, but as existing debt matures or property values rise, the debt cap capacity would increase accordingly.
The figures and major projects for the bond were conceived in May, when the village council held a retreat to discuss the need for a general obligation bond and the projects that would be undertaken, Samimy said. The figures resulted from feasibility studies the village conducted over the past five years.
As a barrier island with an average elevation of 3.4 feet above sea level, Key Biscayne is already vulnerable to storm surge, which climate change is expected to multiply. Add on several feet of sea level rise — South Florida is planning for about two feet by 2060 — and the case for adaptation is clear.
A vulnerability study done in 2017 showed that “by 2045, if no adaptation steps are taken, most roads within the village will experience tidal flooding during king tides, as will many low-lying residential and commercial properties.”
But for Key Biscayne, the immediate danger is a drop in property values. Over the last three years, property values have fallen more than 5% in the ritzy village. No one has directly linked it to sea level rise, but several studies have indicated that buyers (even in Miami-Dade County) are starting to prefer higher elevation properties, which could send values in flood-prone coastal communities like Key Biscayne plummeting.
“People do understand the importance of resiliency to Key Biscayne,” Samimy said. “They see the threat. They understand that it’s going to get worse, and they fear that it’s going to affect their property values.”
Those who support the bond cite their relative safety and say that because the credit of the village stands behind it, the bond would typically have a high bond rating, higher than most revenue bonds. General obligation bonds allow for longer financing at a lower cost, which is important when there is a coordinated group of projects to be implemented over the course of many years or in this case, decades.
Frank Caplan, a two-time village mayor running for a council seat, firmly stands behind the bond, though he agrees the village communication about the vote has been less than ideal.
He said he wishes voters understood that their vote is not about immediately financing projects but rather about providing the necessary authorization for later in time. It’s a general election, he pointed out, so turnout will be higher than in another year where perhaps more “shovel-ready” projects are in the pipeline.
“If you don’t do these things, what are you going to face in 2060? Migration,” he said. “Someone will be the last mayor of Atlantis and we are going to relocate.
Key Biscayne’s first steps
The list of what must be done is the same for all coastal cities: Install one-way valves that hold back the ocean from flowing into drainage pipes, make sea walls taller, raise roads and buildings and change the city’s code to encourage higher and more inland building.
To start, the village hired engineering firm AECOM to help dry out one of the most flood-prone parts of the island, the area near the Key Biscayne K-8 Center. It’s also nearly done switching the villages’ septic tanks to county sewer, which helps reduce pollution into Biscayne Bay.
More action could come from the Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps is studying the never-ending issue of sand on South Florida beaches. Replacing it every time it erodes is expensive, and the feds pick up most of the bill. A major study by the Corps looks to come up with more permanent solutions, like installing artificial reefs or breakwaters to slow erosion.
Key Biscayne filled out a waiver to be included in the study, and Samimy said the village has its fingers crossed that the Corps will say yes.
Beyond the potential $100 million bond, the village is also pursuing about $30 million in state and federal grants to accomplish some of the same goals, like shoreline planning and undergrounding powerlines.
Adapting won’t be cheap, and if Miami Beach is any indication, it won’t all be popular.
“The challenge before us is to engage the community, make sure that our residents and our guests and our businesses understand what it takes to adapt,” said Agha.
For road raising, the most controversial element of Miami Beach’s resilience planning and a growing issue for the Keys, Agha said the village plans to take a “very tailored, very white-glove service approach.” She said about half of the single-family homes on the island are elevated in some fashion, and to avoid pushing water from the newly elevated roads onto low-elevation properties, Key Biscayne would start raising roads on streets where the majority of homes and lots are already elevated.
Key Biscayne is tackling zoning changes now, with a phase one approach that focuses on low-hanging fruit like incentivizing solar energy and green roofs. Next up is a “deeper dive” into things like building elevation, she said.
Getting the community onboard with all the future changes is part of the puzzle, Samimy said, but so is educating people that even the best pumps and pipes in the world won’t keep their feet dry all the time.
“If you had all the money in the world and you could throw hundreds of millions to upgrade and elevate every single thing, then you’ve bought yourself an extra few decades,” he said. “But at some point, you’re going to have to live with the fact you’re living on an island, and sea level rise will be what it will be and it is a reality .”
For some candidates, like former state regulator and village council candidate Jennifer Allegra, the bond is perceived as a “blank check” to future councils, which will eventually vote to spend the money on projects. She argues that village residents have no way of knowing what future councils will do with the money, so projects should instead be approved on a case-by-case basis when projects are so-called “shovel ready.”
“They could build a statue of a manatee in the middle of a village and call it resiliency,” she said.
Allegra, who has contributed to a Change.org petition circulating against the bond, said the issue is the reason she decided to run in the first place. She calls the bond “heartless” because of the timing, and says asking property owners to pay more in taxes during a pandemic where many have lost work is insensitive.
Others, like consultant and village council candidate Armando Chapeli, said if he wins he hopes to bring a more private-sector mentality to public office. He says municipalities don’t see a budget as an instrument of restraint, but instead an invitation to spend. If he wins his election, he said, he would focus on building “financial resiliency” before spending money on projects that address “physical resiliency.”
“We should spend what we need to spend, not what we have permission to spend,” he said.