Florida Keys News
Wednesday, November 20, 2013
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No sea change in market

MONROE COUNTY -- In the Florida Keys, a mere foot of sea-level rise will put $2.7 billion in property at risk, according to an estimate by the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact.

But so far, the issue hasn't impacted the real estate market, local agents, lenders and experts say.

"My sense is that people sort of look at it as pretty far out," said Coldwell Banker Schmitt Real Estate Owner Brian Schmitt. "They're much more concerned about what is going to happen to them today or next week, like flood insurance or wind insurance."

Sea levels in South Florida have risen 9 inches over the past century, according to National Weather Service data, with the rate of increase accelerating over time. That's already made a difference in low-lying coastal areas, including portions of Key West, where roads that were once safely elevated now routinely flood during extreme high tides.

Climate experts expect the acceleration of sea-level rise to continue. The four-county compact, which includes Monroe, Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach, is projecting 3 to 7 inches of additional sea level rise by 2030 and 9 to 24 inches by 2060. Others, including University of Miami geologist Hal Wanless, expect the rise to be much faster than that -- perhaps 6 feet or more by the end of the century. It all depends on how fast melting ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica drain into the ocean.

But even a foot of water would make 68 percent of the Keys vulnerable to flooding, according to the compact, while 2 feet of sea-level rise would put $8.4 billion in property value at risk.

Figures like that have begun to resonate with governments and land planners, if not with the real estate market.

This week, for example, the Monroe County Commission will consider approval of a 72-point Climate Action Plan, which would set guidelines for dealing with everything from renewable energy to infrastructure to ecological systems. As a follow up, the county plans to prepare models that would identify specific areas, facilities and properties that would be vulnerable to higher seas.

Real estate values will likely be part of the equation, said Monroe County Sustainability Manager Rhonda Haag, since they tie directly to property tax revenue.

"It's one thing we might be looking at," she said. "We need to ensure that we do the best we can to prepare."

Sandy Walters, owner of the Key West-based planning and environmental consulting firm SWC, said she has already begun encouraging clients of all sorts to consider sea-level rise predictions as they design their projects.

"I would advise any client that this is something they need to take into account," Walters said.

She added that people are starting to listen more these days, especially with the recent headline-making rate hikes on National Flood Insurance Program premiums. Properties that are built to withstand rising seas could ultimately be viewed by the market as a value-added commodity.

Still, when it comes to coastal real estate values, sea-level rise just isn't a factor yet, said Bill Hardin III, director of the Hollo School of Real Estate at Florida International University.

"The real $64,000 question out there is what is the sea rise going to be, No. 1, and No. 2, when will it occur," he said. "Both of those are sort of uncertain, so people tend not to act until there is more certainty."

Lenders aren't looking at sea-level projections yet either, according to Mike Kiraly, who handles residential mortgages at Centennial Bank in Marathon.

"No talk, no rumors of it. Nothing I've seen in publications yet," he said. "... I don't see anything in the near future in that regard."

Ultimately, banks are likely to offer loans as long as buyers are able to purchase flood insurance, Hardin said. Under the NFIP, homes in all flood zones are eligible for insurance.

Sea-level rise projections aren't included in NFIP risk models, FEMA officials said last week, but as the agency produces new flood maps, what rise has occurred does factor into insurance rates.

A recent spate of media attention on sea-level rise has prompted Natalia Boblitt, the owner of Shoreline Properties in Tavernier, to begin thinking about how to disclose projections to potential clients in a way that is fair, but that doesn't scare them too much.

"I want them to be aware of the information," she said. "But not to where they think that it is something that is going to happen right now. The average homebuyer only stays in a house for five years."

Boblitt added that, to date, buyers just haven't talked about rising seas. "Obviously, it's coming," she said.

rsilk@keysnews.com

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