Protecting Holmes Beach from rising tides

Flooded street in Holmes Bea
Streets in Holmes Beach often flood in heavy rains. - Cindy Lane | Sun

HOLMES BEACH – Stories of climate change and sea level rise may soon be more than just cautionary tales for Island property owners, but City Engineer Lynn Burnett has a plan to keep those stories from becoming nightmares.

“Our ultimate goal is net zero loss of properties that are buildable today,” Burnett said, opening a discussion with planning commissioners concerning the steps needed to keep rising tides out of local businesses and residences.

Burnett’s plan is to begin slowly raising city streets, seawalls and private properties, along with adding more stormwater drainage to lots, to help keep the water out over the next 20-40 years as sea levels continue to rise. With Anna Maria Island elevations so close to existing sea level, if the Island cities and property owners do nothing, Burnett said in Holmes Beach 20-30 percent of currently buildable lots could be underwater by 2060 with no hope of reclaiming them. Because of the way the Island is graded, with the higher side bordering the Gulf of Mexico, the loss of land would be concentrated on the opposite side bordering Tampa Bay, Anna Maria Sound and Palma Sola Bay. The flooding that islanders see during king tides, Burnett said, would become the norm.

Holmes Beach planning flood lynn
City Engineer Lynn Burnett discusses her plan to help keep rising tide waters out of Holmes Beach through the year 2060 with planning commissioners. – Kristin Swain | Sun

“The do-nothing option does not exist,” she said.

To prevent property loss, Burnett wants to begin working with each Island city and private property owners to inspect individual properties and determine what can be done to keep the water out.

“It’s not a one size fits all solution,” she said. “We’re not going to be able to prevent 100 percent of flooding on this Island. That’s not an achievable goal. It’s better to have the water recede in hours rather than days.”

“We all know it’s coming,” Planning Commissioner Chuck Stealey said. His primary concern with the plan was how the proposed improvements will be funded. For people living on a fixed income or those who recently completed repairs to their seawalls expected to last for 20 years, he said the cost could be too much to bear. He also worried that some property owners can’t foot the bill for the improvements if it will endanger surrounding properties when the flood waters come.

Burnett said determining the cost and figuring out how to pay for it would be one of the things discussed with each individual property owner as the program progresses. If the property owner can’t afford the repairs or improvements, she said some grant funds or other monies may be available to help lessen the financial burden. She said savings to property owners also will be present in the lessening of flood insurance payments which would help cover the initial cost of improvements in savings spread out over several years of property ownership.

Planning Commissioner Scott Boyd said he feels the project will just raise the cost of homeownership on the Island and push out more permanent residents.

City Planner Bill Brisson said for new Island homeowners seeking to rebuild or remodel a home, several of the proposed improvements are already enforced during the site plan approval stage in the building department. Already property owners are required to raise new structures and those receiving more than a 50 percent remodel above the current flood level as determined by FEMA. New site plans and remodels also require stormwater drainage facilities to be placed on the property able to hold all the property’s stormwater runoff.

“The alternative is you won’t have a place to live,” Brisson said.

“Nobody’s going to buy our property if it’s underwater,” Planning Commissioner Barbara Hines said.

Burnett said the things city leaders are doing to keep the rising tides out are “nothing new,” but aren’t outlined specifically in the city’s comprehensive plan. City initiatives include the installation of WaStop valves at outflow pipes to prevent tidal water from backing up the city’s stormwater drainage system, repairing and slip-lining damaged pipes, incrementally raising roads as they’re resurfaced and putting a 12-inch cap on city-owned seawalls as they’re repaired or replaced. To keep the water from flooding Bayside properties, adequate stormwater infiltration and retention facilities must be installed upland on both public and private property.

“We don’t have a choice,” Hines said. “We are going to lose this Island if we do not take action now. I don’t know about you, but I can’t afford not to do it.”

Burnett said if the proposed ordinance outlining the plan is approved by city commissioners, private property owners could see implementation plans for their residences as soon as 2020. Before the ordinance goes to commissioners for approval, planning commissioners are holding a public hearing to determine if it’s consistent with the city’s comprehensive plan at their June 6 meeting.