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Sea Level Rise and Property Rights

Throughout history, engineers have proved excellent at designing and building walls on a massive scale – so a wall to hold back rising tides should be easy. Right?

When addressing sea-level rise, holding back that rising water is just one piece of a complex puzzle. What many cities, counties, and government officials do not realize is that the more complicated, and more time-consuming, piece to physically holding back the rising sea is property right issues. Throughout history, engineers have proved excellent at designing and building walls on a massive scale – so a wall to hold back rising tides should be easy. Right?

Not so fast — when this wall holding back the forces of nature involves private property rights, public right-of-ways, and navigational channels, the puzzle becomes exponentially more complicated.

Owners of property adjacent to the ocean, inlets, and Intracoastal waterways are all connected by the common threat of rising tides. If a holistic approach to sea level rise is building a continuous seawall to protect upland property owners, then all property owners must be in agreement. Just one property owner refusing to work with others along the affected area means there may be no way to protect all from the rising tides.

For instance, let’s say you have a neighborhood along the Intracoastal Waterway, and in order to hold back the rising water, all the property owners must build a contiguous seawall. What happens if one property owner does not want to participate, either in the cost of the seawall or allowing a wall to be built on their property?

Private property rights — including riparian rights, submerged land leases, and the like — all play an important role in the planning and design of whatever type of infrastructure necessary to hold back rising water. Long before engineering plans are developed, permits are applied for and property owner meetings are held, and a comprehensive survey and title search must be performed to completely understand the challenges that lie ahead in the planning and design stages. Once property rights and land ownership where improvements will be constructed are completely understood and addressed, then the infrastructure planning and design begin. All it takes to put a project on hold — or delay it indefinitely — is a single property owner holding out or disagreeing with the proposed improvements.

The engineers at WGI thoroughly understand the challenges faced by South Florida’s rising sea levels along its coastline and its waterways, and are working with a variety of municipalities to properly address every unique situation. There’s no “one size fits all” solution to this rising issue, and we are experts in creatively managing the entire process from expectations to final results.

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