A lone mangrove cluster clings to survival on the Indian River Lagoon in Edgewater, Florida, on Maryann Thorhallsson’s property. After years of struggling to preserve a stretch of the idyllic waterway in East Central Florida, Maryann has lost her bid to save the integrity of her riverside home of 43 years. Despite weeks of heightened protest by hundreds of community members and Floridians from afar – Edgewater’s City Council narrowly voted on 1 July 2019 (three in favour of, and two against) to back an environmentally questionable and dubious development project. This was despite the fact that over 175 citizens squeezed into in the Edgewater City Council Chambers, including representatives from the Sierra Club, to express their opposition. Many others could not join as there was not enough parking.
Ground breaking on the project can begin as early as February 2020, creating a restaurant, with 56 parking places for 152 clients. In addition, a bait and tackle shop, and possibly a 44-slip boat marina, will all be crammed onto less than one acre (0.40 ha) of land, plus a half-acre (0.20 ha) designated right of way collectively-owned by residents who live adjacent to the project site. The Orlando-based Aski Development company intends to concrete the east end of the natural hard-packed shell right of way used for centuries by residents and lagoon visitors, beginning with Native Americans. It will be paved over as part of the developer’s parking lot.
Maryann, whose husband suffers from Parkinson’s disease, and her granddaughter, both need wheelchair access. After the project is underway, she’ll face a seven to 10-foot (two to three metres) wall close to her property’s edge. She’ll need to park in the restaurant lot. The wind-buffering mangroves will be uprooted as will native trees on her land, including three types of pine, a Magnolia and several palms. They will be felled to make way for water retention ponds to serve the development.
Climate crisis: more than just a growing concern
Maryann and her community are not alone in their attempt to protect the Indian River Lagoon and keep their peaceful existence. From Palm Coast some 90 kms (56 miles) north to Edgewater, Florida, residents are rallying against unsustainable development and calling for common-sense environmentally sound projects.
Many are particularly worried about climate crisis and the resulting rises in the sea level, erosion of river banks, beaches and dunes, flooding, pollution of waterways, and the ravaging effects of tidal waves and torrents on coastal highways. In March of 2019, crews began repairs on a 1.3-mile (two kilometres) stretch of State Road A1A that collapsed in 2016 in the centre of Flagler Beach during Hurricane Matthew. Locals are also concerned about algae blooms and red tides, and the loss of fish now rotting on their shores, depriving them of food and income.
Citizens across the country are bracing themselves also and preparing for hurricanes. Texas and its neighbours are still reeling from Hurricane Harvey which caused about $125 billion in damage in 2017. Harvey affected 13 million people, destroyed or damaged some 135,000 homes, and demolished up to a million vehicles. People ask why did Houston flood so badly? Because developers failed “to follow a federal policy (established in 1989) requiring that new developments cause ‘no net loss’ in wetlands. Instead, wetlands have been turned into neighbourhoods, office buildings, and strip malls in Houston”, the worst affected city, according to a report in the Houston Chronicle.
It is distressing that the large majority of proposed or approved development in Volusia and Flagler counties is in or adjacent to coastlines, wetlands, or forests, often old growth, with an array of endangered species including the Florida panther, manatee, right whale and the country’s national emblem and mascot, the bald eagle. Apollo 11’s lunar module was named for the bird and Neil Armstrong, the first man to step on the moon on 20 July 50 years ago, declared to the world when the spaceship touched down: “The Eagle has landed”.
Floridians are particularly on high alert this season after three straight years of being impacted by major hurricanes including Matthew, Irma and Michael. The Florida Panhandle continues its recovery from Hurricane Michael, the largest hurricane on record to hit the area, devastating the region as a Category 5 in October of 2018. According to the Florida Office of Insurance Regulation, total estimated insured losses from Hurricane Michael had reached $6.6 billion as of June 28, 2019.
After Matthew struck in 2016, a Category 1 hurricane with much less of an impact, it took three full years to repair my house. Some neighbours abandoned their’s usually because of lack of insurance. And the situation is likely to get worse given the intensity and frequency of extreme weather events.
New data published in the Journal of Wildlife Management, reveals that 75 per cent of the Atlantic Coast from North Carolina to Central Florida will be highly vulnerable to erosion and inundation from rising tides by 2030, and that sea level rise will occur in the next 10 years. It is already happening in communities across the globe, and in the US, Florida is predicted to be affected more than any other state. “Adapting to climate change in the US will cost trillions of collars”, according to a recent report by the Center for Climate Integrity. The bare minimum for the costs of coastal defences that communities need to build to hold back rising seas and prevent chronic flooding and inundation over the next 20 years will cost more than $400 billion, say the authors of the report. The minimum down payment for short term defence is estimated to be $75.9 billion.
Edgewater’s developers have already invested in their down payment, having constructed a seawall where a marina and restaurant are to be built. If predictions by scientists are accurate, the rising levels of the river, driven by sea level rise, could overcome the existing walls. Local newspapers and television stations have reported the estimated costs of protecting Florida property: $1 billion in Volusia and Flagler counties alone during the next 20 years. If feasible, Florida would need 9,000 miles (14.5K km) of seawalls by 2100 if trends continue, according to the the Center for Climate Integrity.
Conversely, South Africa proposes reducing “sea storm risk” through the following methods:
- Managing foredunes (e.g. improving vegetation cover and increase sand volume)
- Avoiding hardening the coastline (through the use of engineering solutions such as sea walls, embankments etc.) but rather use environmentally-friendly coastline management options such as sand replenishment
- Limiting housing and development along the coast
- Managing estuary mouths using science-based methods
On the U.S. West Coast, the estimated expenses for building seawalls could cost taxpayers and homeowners more than $22 billion, according to the Center for Climate Integrity. Several states forbid the building of new seawalls, including North Carolina, Maine and Oregon, while others restrict their construction as they disrupt natural replenishment of sand. In Edgewater a hard-packed sand-like shell road is going to be paved over, eliminating natural drainage.
Like Florida, and up the eastern seaboard into Canada, California has built to the water’s edge, with houses falling off cliffs, or poised to collapse into the Pacific from Malibu to the Big Sur. On Florida’s southeast coast, faeces-filled sewage floods streets near Miami, which combats flooding year-round. Countries like the Netherlands prepared for sea-level rise decades ago, and are sharing lessons with some US cities such as New Orleans.
“Florida is by far the most heavily impacted state…with 23 counties facing at least $1 billion in seawall expenses (each),” predicts the Center for Climate Integrity. Through The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) Office housed in Geneva at the United Nations Environment Programme, a global coalition of countries have estimated the value of ecosystem services such as those provided by wetlands, estuaries, lakes, coral reefs, mangroves, tropical wet and dry forests. TEEB’s conclusion: it’s often better to leave well enough and let nature do the work.
Meanwhile, Maryann Thornhallsson and her neighbours, as with so many others, find themselves on the losing end of an argument that values short-term economic benefits at the expense of an increasingly unstable environment.
“Floridians have been through a lot over the past year: a coastal water crisis that plagued our state for months, a Category 5 hurricane that devastated the Panhandle, and a closely-watched election that changed the tone at the Capitol, just to name a few”, says Aliki Moncrief, Executive Director of NGO Florida Conservation Voters (FCV).
Florida’s newly-elected Republican Governor, Ron DeSantis, who was a Congressman representing Flagler and Volusia counties, has given environmentalists some hope. Recently, he announced a record $360 million for Everglades restoration projects, $50 million to restore Florida’s world-renowned springs, and $25 million to improve water quality as well as to combat harmful algal blooms and red tide, which plagued both coasts in 2018.
Everglades National Park in the southern tip of Florida is the largest designated sub-tropical wilderness reserve on the North American continent. It also contains the largest mangrove ecosystem in the Western Hemisphere, according to the Gland-based International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). In 2010, Everglades National Park was put back on UNESCO’s World Heritage Danger List at the request of US federal authorities themselves, partly because of concerns of adjacent urban growth. In April, DeSantis appointed Florida’s first chief science officer, Thomas Frazer. He is director of the University of Florida’s School of Natural Resources and Environment, and a specialist in freshwater and ocean ecosystems. That’s the good news.
The bad news is that the legislature severely underfunded the state’s most important suite of land conservation programmes, Florida Forever. Lindsay Cross, Government Relations Director for FCV said, “Politicians and developers are finding ways to override the will of voters. Moreover, Florida’s Legislature has weakened environmental laws, failed to adequately protect wetlands, increase clean energy production and conserve critical waters and natural resources.”
“The state’s massive highway toll road highway plan – the biggest and most expensive highway construction project in decades – could impact thousands of acres of our best remaining natural and agricultural areas. The security of our water and food supply and the long-term viability and character of our rural communities will be irrevocably damaged if these invasive roads are built,” she added.
Edgewater City’s developmental code requires that a builder own about 2 acres of dry land for a project of such a grand scale. The developer only owns a little more than three quarters of an acre. (Photo: Jon McGauley)
Edgewater: a pivotal case
Meanwhile, other communities in Central Florida’s Deltona/Daytona Beach/Ormond Beach metropolitan region have been monitoring the showdown in Edgewater. On the same day as its City Council ignored citizens and science in the decision for development, nearly 8,000 residents of nearby Flagler Beach and similar communities, including members of Neighborhood United (a local NGO), petitioned to stop or alter development plans by North Carolina-based Sunbelt Land Management.
But across this magnificent stretch of Florida, notable for retaining its natural heritage, in contrast to much of the state, commercial development is claiming more and more environmentally valuable land – in the familiar paradox that natural beauty attracts the urbanization that destroys it.
Just south of Flagler Beach’s city limits, a proposed development, “The Gardens Project”, would create a 9,000+ residential and commercial site.
As in Edgewater, a marina would be built on the Matanzas River with 250 boats slips, restaurants, shops and office space. In short, it would be a town nearly twice the size of Flagler Beach itself. It would need to be connected to a sewer system, while children would require schooling. Old Florida roads would have to be widened to make room for thousands of vehicles. The forested and marshland site is nearly half the size of Tomoka State Park’s 2,000 acres (800 ha).
Project Manager for The Gardens, Ken Belshe predicts that picturesque tree-lined John Anderson Road in the development site would not need to be widened for several years, and that Sunbelt’s plan includes a four-lane thoroughfare through the site, giving its resident population and commercial employees access to John Anderson Road and State Road 100 for delivery trucks, lawn and pool services as well as dumpsters.
Neighborhood United’s organizer, Sallee Arnhoff, acknowledges the need for high density housing, but not in the middle of the Bulow Creek watershed area. Traffic and storm water runoff from The Gardens’ thousands of residents and extensive commercial enterprises would severely impact the integrity of Bulow Creek State Park, North Peninsula State Park, the marshes and estuaries along the Old Dixie Highway and my own backyard, The Tomoka State Park. At this time of writing, it is not sure what a second proposed meeting to further debate the pros and cons of the controversial project will bring.
Meanwhile, in Edgewater, Maryann Thorhallsson’s family, neighbors, and other concerned citizens, have started a GoFundMe drive to raise legal fees to overturn the City Council’s decision to ignore developmental code requirements. As I write, Fox 35, a TV station that covers news in Central Florida was filming Maryann’s family and her neighbours.
Elizabeth Kemf is a journalist, anthropologist, writer, and a member of IUCN’s World Commission on Protected Areas and of Tomoka Poets. She lives adjacent to the Tomoka State Park and the Tomoka Marsh Aquatic Reserve in Florida after several decades of campaigning with international environmental organizations based in Switzerland.
Further information: “The Tomoka Marsh Aquatic Preserve protects a lasting legacy, a magical part of old Florida, where waters from palm-lined subtropical rivers mix with vast salt marshes just back from the sea. This rich estuary serves as a nursery for so many species identified with Florida, like manatees, snook, blue crabs and wading birds. Perhaps just as important, it captures its place name from the Timucua, the last of the native tribes who lived in close relationship with these unique lands and waters. Protection of these lands did not just come about on its own but through partnerships between the state, county, conservation organizations and concerned citizens who continue to appreciate the magical sense of place which is the Tomoka.” – Clay Henderson, former chair, Volusia County Council, and president emeritus, Florida Audubon Society.
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