Miami-Dade Could Ask Developers to Pay for Climate Change Costs

If you live in South Florida, you've probably come around to the idea of climate change and realized that, like it or not, sea levels are rising. But solutions to the problem are pricey, and there's no clear consensus on how we'll pay for the changes we need to continue living here. 

Four Miami-Dade commissioners have suggested an idea so new it doesn't appear any other city has implemented it: Create new "impact fees" that would require developers to basically pay for their portion of the burden of sea-level-rise-related costs.

"We have to be forward-thinking and open-minded about how we’re going to share responsibility for solving the challenge," says Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava, who along with Commissioners Juan C. Zapata, Rebeca Sosa, and Sally A. Heyman sponsored the item.

The proposal, which is on today's agenda, asks the mayor to prepare a report on whether such fees would be appropriate. (It's worth noting that Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez has said much of the discussion about climate change involves "doomsday scenarios which, frankly, I do not believe.")

The commissioners' resolution says new developments place an additional strain on the county in terms of providing infrastructure or services to address sea-level rise, and that it might be reasonable to make those developers shoulder part of the cost. After holding public workshops and soliciting input from the business community, Levine Cava tells New Times it would be at least a year before any new fees would be added, if the idea moves forward.

"There are many puzzle pieces, and this could potentially be one," she says.

While looking into the idea, Levine Cava says, she was interested to see how other municipalities were addressing the problem, but with the exception of Miami Beach and parts of the San Francisco Bay Area, few have even broached the subject of sea-level rise.

"We are kind of ahead of the curve, as it turns out," she says.

Like Levine Cava, Georgetown University law professor J. Peter Byrne says he has found few jurisdictions even looking into solutions such as impact fees. Earlier this year, Byrne coauthored a paper about how local governments could impose fees on new developments to offset the costs associated with climate change. 

"It's a new idea, and there's not a clear precedent," Byrne says. But he believes impact fees to address climate change are legal and perfectly reasonable. 

"We're not suggesting it's a cure-all, but we think it's a sensible, well-adapted tool that a local government can use," he says. "If I had to guess, I'd say this would become a fairly common tool in the future."

Byrne says he doesn't believe the fees are too restrictive on developers; they are simply given a choice between moving the project to an area where there will be less of an environmental impact or deciding it's worth paying the fee to build in their desired location.

"If that discourages the developers from building, that's OK. They can try to build it in a manner or location in which there's less climate harm," Byrne says. "We don't view it as really draconian or a severe regulation."

Since he wrote the paper, Byrne says, attorneys for a handful of cities across the nation have reached out to him to discuss implementing the fees, although he doesn't feel comfortable naming the cities. 

"I think local governments, especially in South Florida, are facing an incredible challenge," he says, "and I think that they need to try some new tools."
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Jessica Lipscomb is the former news editor of Miami New Times.