A proposal to protect coastal Miami-Dade from hurricanes by running a tall concrete wall though Biscayne Bay and waterfront neighborhoods is — unsurprisingly — dead.
The county on Monday formally rejected the plan, part of an instantly controversial $4.6 billion proposal from the Army Corps of Engineers that also included elevating thousands of private homes, flood-proofing thousands of businesses, planting mangroves and installing flood gates at the mouths of rivers and canals. Instead, the county will work with the Corps to come up with a new plan over the next year or so.
While the public and political leaders liked many of the Corps’ original ideas to address the rising risks of storm surge, there was little support for the walls.
In a March meeting with the village of Miami Shores, where the latest proposal called for an eight-foot wall along the east side of Biscayne Boulevard, which would have left hundreds of homes unprotected, the entire council came out against the walls.
“I haven’t heard anything but panicked cries for help about this, not even the slightest bit of support,” said then-councilman Sean Brady. “People are more interested in natural solutions or things that allow us to live with the flooding.”
Members of Miami’s Downtown Development Agency worried the up-to-20-foot walls would destroy property values and drive away investment in the wealthy downtown and Brickell neighborhoods. The agency even commissioned renderings of the wall — complete with graffiti and trash floating in the murky brown water — to drive home their point.
Other advocates for climate action in the community called the plan “a $5 billion Band-Aid” because the wall is only designed to protect against storm surge, not sea level rise. Other parts of the plan, like elevating and floodproofing properties, serve double duty.
‘A $5 billion Band-Aid’: Community groups push back on Army Corps plan for Miami-Dade
In February, politicians in Miami-Dade and Miami offered the Corps another, more politically palatable vision for coastal protection: a mangrove-covered and oyster bed-ringed island surrounding the coast, paired with shorter concrete walls on the mainland.
The concept, conceived and paid for by major Miami developer Swire Properties, did not go into the same detail as the Corps’ three-year, $3 million study. It also didn’t offer estimates on how much the alternate would cost or how high the walls would be.
For the last six months, Miami and Miami-Dade officials have worked to convince the Army Corps that this alternate vision was viable and worth paying for completely, but they were unable to reach an agreement with the wording of the original plan.
The future of Miami-Dade’s coast: tall walls, landscaped barrier islands or both?
In a statement, Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said Monday the county has “listened closely” to resident concerns throughout the process.
“Based on the feedback of residents and stakeholders, we are moving forward with our storm resilience efforts through a ‘Locally Preferred Plan’ to focus our readiness strategy on nature-based features and to continue working directly with impacted residents and cities,” she said.
As part of that, the county formally requested the Corps extend the study and add extra federal funding so Miami-Dade can work out a new plan.
Jim Murley, the county’s chief resiliency officer, said this extension will allow the county to get more input from the community and help find a solution that “strikes the right balance between protection from storm surge and that quality of life that we want in our community.”
“It’s a tough one to strike when there’s not much to look at for examples,” he said.
Niklas Hallberg, project manager for the Back Bay study and Army Corps engineer, said his team will work with the county to figure out how much money and time they need to study a different solution. Once they submit it, he said, it usually takes about six to eight months for the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works in Washington to approve the request and then however long the engineers need to come up with a new strategy.
The extension will kick off another round of public comment, official meetings and more chances to review drafts of the plan.
This delay will likely cause the county to miss the next federal appropriation bill in 2022 that would get the ball rolling on design and development. The next available bill for this kind of project will be in 2024, which Halberg called “a reasonable goal.”
Halberg said it’s up to the county to ask for what kind of solution it wants the Corps to model. It does have to meet some critical federal standards, like passing a cost-benefit analysis that shows a project will prevent more property damage and losses than it costs to build.
“As far as what the county can do, they can tell us to remove the structures or they can request a much smaller plan,” he said. “The trade-off could be that there’s a lot more residual risk with that.”
Halberg said he believes the final version of the plan will include some type of structural element, but that it’s too soon to know for sure.
Under Corps rules, the federal government picks up 65% of the tab for any project approved by both the Corps and the local sponsor, in this case, Miami-Dade. Anything the county asks for in addition to the agreed-upon plan (like landscaping along the walls, or park benches) would be considered a “betterment” and fall on Miami-Dade to pay for.
“The Corps looks forward to continuing the relationship with the county on a locally preferred plan and getting a solution that everyone can be pleased with and get the storm protection Miami needs,” Halberg said.
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