Washington, DC — New laws enacted in Florida to mitigate the devastating effects of hurricanes contain loopholes that allow high-risk construction to continue, according to documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). At least one local government is already amending its maps to open tracts within formerly off-limit “coastal high-hazard” areas to development, thereby circumventing the newly enacted protection measures almost before the ink dries.
Following back-to-back calamitous hurricane seasons in 2004 and 2005, Florida created a blue ribbon panel (called Coastal High Hazard Study Committee) and, in early 2006, Governor Jeb Bush unveiled legislative proposals to adopt its major recommendations. The final legislation enacted this spring suffers from three key weaknesses, according to an analysis by PEER:
- Building restrictions to prevent development in “coastal high-hazard areas…shall be at the discretion of local government.” (emphasis added) Developer influence of county commissions is already resulting in re-designations of land in storm surge areas and floodways to be cleared for potentially lucrative construction projects;
- Creation of “pilot projects” to actually encourage building within “coastal building zones.” This loophole will result in more population living in areas that are difficult, if not impossible, to evacuate in the event of a major storm; and
- Property redevelopments in coastal zones are now allowed to dump excavated material on adjacent properties, thus paving the way for even more construction and higher densities in the previously damaged areas.
“This is the classic case of Governor Bush and other state policymakers speaking out of both sides of their mouths – giving public pronouncements about the need for stricter and more comprehensive strategies, on one hand, while quietly embedding loopholes that facilitate continued heavy growth in these vulnerable areas with the other hand,” stated Florida PEER Director Jerry Phillips, a former state environmental enforcement attorney. “By decentralizing land development policies and allowing local governments to have discretion on how they adopt and apply the policies, more development in high hazard zones is virtually assured.”
As an example of how the loopholes are already having effects, PEER released the proposed revisions to the Lee County map of Special Flood Hazard Areas (SFHAs). Areas just north of the Southwest Florida city of Ft. Myers that have historically been in the SFHA are now being removed. This mapping reclassification will pave the way for yet more development in hurricane vulnerable areas, especially along the flood prone Caloosahatchee River.
“If Florida cannot take meaningful hurricane mitigation measures now, following the storms of the past two years, I fear that it will be able to muster the political will to take the needed tough steps only when it is too late,” Phillips added.