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Environment

Miami’s Plan To Survive Impacts Of Climate Change: Figure Out A Way To Pay For It

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The Climate Ready plan also lays out all the city is already doing to adapt to climate change. ALEX HARRIS/MIAMI HERALD

Miami has a strategy to survive climate change, and a big part of it is finding a way to pay for it.

The city’s new comprehensive plan includes concrete ways to adapt to sea level rise — like planting mangroves along the waterfront and raising sea walls — and to cut down on emissions, including plans to swap out city cars for electric vehicles. It also considers a touchy subject, the possibility of abandoning certain parts of the city to rising seas.

But much of the Miami Forever Climate Ready strategy focuses on how to cover projects expected to be extraordinarily expensive while climate change is expected to shift the financial ground cities rely on to pay the bills. Lower property values and higher insurance costs could mean less revenue and potentially make issuing bonds more costly.

“Now is the time, while Miami’s economy is still growing, to turn this climate challenge into an opportunity,” the report reads.

The strategy has the city considering taxing waterfront areas to pay for protection from hurricane storm surge and sea level rise, hiking impact fees on new development and starting a city fund for future resilience efforts, like the Surfside recently did. It also asks the city to help residents figure out how to pay to adapt their property, either by pointing them toward federal or private market options or creating a city-owned revolving loan fund.

“We know the costs are going to be multiples of the roughly $200 million we already have,” said the city’s Chief Resilience Officer Jane Gilbert. “We’re going to need to look at other financing options.”

The Climate Ready plan, which was introduced Thursday morning, also lays out all the city is already doing to adapt to climate change.

Much of Miami’s strategy to keep itself dry relies on the stormwater masterplan, which will tell the city where to put pumps and pipes, raise seawalls and elevate roads. It should be done in early 2021. It will also come with a potentially hefty price tag. Fort Lauderdale, a smaller waterfront city, needs a billion dollars worth of stormwater improvements.

The Miami Forever Bond also includes nearly $200 million for climate change adaptation. So far, it’s funded valves that keep seawater out of pipes when tides rise, as well as drainage fixes to low-lying streets.

The city also is getting a hand from the federal government. The Army Corps of Engineers will release its final plan to address hurricane-driven flood in Miami-Dade County in March, and it could include dramatic projects like a flood gate across the mouth of the Miami River and home buyouts.

To help the city figure out the best way to spend its limited budget, the new strategy calls for a cost-benefit analysis of several ways to address climate change, like raising seawalls, elevating buildings and even retreat.

That analysis, as well as a redesign of the city’s code, will help Miami decide how and where to allow future development, which Gilbert called “absolutely critical” to protecting the city from sea level rise.

The strategy also includes some ways the city plans to cut emissions, which will help Miami achieve its newly set goal of carbon neutrality by 2050. That includes totaling up the city’s emissions so it figures out how to lower them, as well as planting more trees.

The success of the city’s plan to address climate change relies on many outside factors, including potential federal funding, the real estate market staying afloat and even the rate of sea level rise. One internal factor could prove to be an even bigger challenge, the current political climate within the city.

Dysfunction at city hall has led to a commission meeting cut short in anger and the new head of a powerful agency quitting before she began. Some worry that getting these climate policies through a divided commission could be difficult, if not impossible.

“This plan is a great plan. It’s an outstanding plan, but it only will be successful with the continued resources and policy advancing from this body,” Gilbert warned when she announced the plan Thursday morning.

Commissioner Manolo Reyes, at the same announcement, pledged his “wholehearted support” of the policies within the strategy. So did Commissioner Ken Russell, whose district covers most of the waterfront.

“We’re on the precipice of doing really great things. We need to see past these issues between us for the good of the city,” Russell said. “We will see if Miami is resilient beyond our political adversity.”

This story was produced in partnership with the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a multi-newsroom initiative founded by the Miami Herald, the South Florida Sun Sentinel, The Palm Beach Post, the Orlando Sentinel, WLRN Public Media and the Tampa Bay Times.