The City of St. Petersburg will start a master planning process for 2050 next year, and it’s very likely to have building codes that take into account climate change and sea level rise.
“I have no doubt in my mind that there will be changes to our building code, changes to our zoning. We don’t have a choice,” said Mayor Rick Kriseman.
Kriseman was one of four Florida mayors who talked about lessons learned from several intense hurricanes that have battered the state in recent years during a panel discussion at a workshop hosted by the Initiative on Coastal Adaptation and Resilience, or iCAR. The mayors head cities that have each had a major hit or a close call from a major hurricane.
Building code changes can be a flashpoint for communities, with developers concerned about the added cost of tougher standards, and city officials focused on public safety and economic development.
“If you have seen the maps, you know what the future looks like for our community,” Kriseman said. “If we don’t take action, then it’s just going to be a recurring theme. The storms are going to come and destroy everything. It gets rebuilt and then a year or two later another storm destroys it, and at what cost — economically, emotionally and psychologically.”
Each of the mayors at the Oct. 30 workshop at University of South Florida St. Petersburg said the need for more effective communication before, during and after the storms was a top takeaway, along with the need to shore up infrastructure.
“Infrastructure is not sexy,” Kriseman said. “But there is no business, there is no economic development if we don’t have infrastructure in place that is prepared for what’s coming and can handle what’s coming.”
A series of storms and heavy rain that resulted in sewage discharges led to a 2016 consent order with the state and a more than $300 million wastewater improvement plan — the first such plan in the city in 22 years.
“If you polled cities around Florida, infrastructure is the one thing you would see that none of us historically has done well, but all of us now are being forced to do what we should have been doing long ago,” Kriseman said.
Cities and counties have to take action, in part because of pressure by investors who buy municipal bonds, said another panelist, St. Augustine Mayor Nancy Shaver.
She cited a report from Moody’s Investors Service last year that said the growing effects of climate change, including climbing global temperatures and rising sea levels, will be a growing negative credit factor for U.S. states and local governments without sufficient adaptation and mitigation strategies.
“I think what we’ll see is pressure from financial markets that have to do with our ability to borrow as a city, people’s ability to insure their properties and ultimately what that does to real estate values in high-risk areas,” Shaver said.
Sarasota already has a climate adaptation plan, said Mayor Liz Alpert.
“We went through and looked at all the city assets and then created a plan for resiliency in the coming years, so that dollars are going towards infrastructure that can withstand sea level rise,” she said.
The discussion took place just days after Hurricane Michael destroyed Mexico Beach, and raised awareness of less stringent building codes in the Florida Panhandle than in other parts of the state.
“How are they going to rebuild and to what standards are they going to be rebuilt to,” asked Naples Mayor Bill Barnett. “Hopefully whatever gets rebuilt will be rebuilt to different standards than they have now.”
“I think it’s probably one of the first times that we will look at a place, and say how do you re-imagine Mexico Beach. Not how do you rebuild it but how do you re-imagine it,” Shaver said.