Special Report: Sea Level Rise and Florida
Hot Spot: St. Johns County
In this county just south of Jacksonville, a group of more than 30 property owners in an oceanfront subdivision called Summer Haven sued the county in 2005 for allegedly not properly maintaining a 1.6-mile stretch of “Old A1A,” their only access to their homes.
Since 1979, a series of storms, encroaching high tides and beach erosion has washed away parts of the road or encased it in hard-packed sand. About a third remains paved. The closest tide gauge, north of Summer Haven at Fernandina Beach, indicates the average sea level rose by nearly eight inches over the past 100 years.
The county spent $2.3 million primarily in FEMA funds on road repairs between 2000 and 2005 — about $230,000 per mile more than a typical county road. But after the county placed a moratorium on construction in Summer Haven, citing the road, the property owners sued, arguing the county has a duty to maintain access on the road, no matter how damaged it is.
The case was settled with most property owners earlier this year. The county agreed that it wouldn’t use the road as a reason to deny development and will repair and maintain the existing paved road. The county spent $970,000 fighting the lawsuit, says County Attorney Patrick McCormack. The Summer Haven property owners likely spent even more money fighting the county.
“To me, litigation is one of the adaptation costs of sea level rise,” says Thomas Ruppert, a coastal planning specialist with Florida Sea Grant. “Local governments feel like they are between a rock and a hard spot. If you don’t let them build, they sue you.”