Rising Sea Levels Bring a Wave of Risk — Even in Unexpected Locales

Savvy community association managers have realized for some time that rising sea levels —whether in oceans, lakes, or rivers — pose a threat to their clients. “The problem is that it’s such a slow creep that it’s not visible to the naked eye,” says Brad van Rooyen, president of HomeRiver Group-Florida, the management company for about 160 associations in the state.

As the risks increasingly manifest on the coasts and elsewhere, though, managers and their boards need to start taking action, before it’s too late.

On the Radar

In 2020, residents in one of the most expensive coastal community associations in Orange County, Calif., noticed minor cracks in the clubhouse. By September 2021, the cracking had become more extensive.

Then a “mega swell” hit the beach, which had already been dramatically narrowed due to beach erosion, leaving less of a buffer between the water and the infrastructure.

“Depending on the level of erosion and how close a pool or deck or maybe a storage shed is located, it can absolutely affect the structural integrity,” van Rooyen says.

Look no further than the Orange County association for evidence of this. After the swell, four homes in the community also had damages, and a parking lot had a crack large enough to fit a human foot.

In Florida, van Rooyen reports that rising sea levels are creating problems for his clients located along canals. “As the water level rises, so does the flow of the sediment. The associations have to dredge more often so the boats aren’t sitting on sediment.” In one such association, each owner had to ante up an extra $4,000 for dredging.

“Any community that has a retaining wall along the canal or back bays, that will become a future consideration the association will have to look at,” van Rooyen says. “What’s the wall’s structural integrity? Will it have to be raised?”

Sea walls are no panacea. “When Hurricane Irma hit Marco Island,” says David Muller, a shareholder and board-certified specialist in condominium and planned development law with the Naples, Fla., office of Becker & Poliakoff, “there were communities where the sea walls gave way, and buildings were suspended over water.”

On the eastern side of Florida, “we’re seeing more and more flooding,” says Ellyn Bogdanoff, a shareholder in the Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., office of Becker & Poliakoff and chair of the firm’s Rising Sea Level Team. “We saw that in the last hurricane, where Broward Boulevard was literally under water.”

Shrinking beaches and increased flooding aren’t limited to the east and west coasts, though. Communities along the 10,000 miles of shoreline on the Great Lakes have also suffered. A condo association in New Buffalo, Mich., a popular beach destination, lost 200 feet of sand in 2019 due to storm waves, for example.

Across Lake Michigan, disappearing sands in Chicago have led to flooding in buildings along Lake Shore Drive. According to the New York Times, one 13-floor co-op building in the National Register of Historic Places has added sandbags, large concrete blocks and Jersey barriers in an attempt to block the breakers.

These fortifications, and a study looking into more permanent options to reduce the force of the lake water, have cost the owners about $450,000. And, even without the type of extreme storms that have triggered flooding in recent years, residents worry about structural damage from relentless waves.

The Insurance Impact

“Unless there’s a rapid change, like two feet in the next five years, most associations are just going to kick the can down the road because it’s not affecting their day-to-day lives yet,” van Rooyen says. It may be soaring flood insurance premiums — and their dramatic effect on assessments — that first capture their attention.

“From the agents I’ve spoken to, the pool of insurance carriers willing to write policies is shrinking, and the premiums are skyrocketing,” Muller says. “Some owners may be forced to sell and move inland.” But they might not get the prices they hope to command in light of FEMA’s “Risk Rating 2.0” project.

“They’re looking at individual properties instead of areas,” Bogdanoff says. “Insurance is going to become more expensive than the mortgage for some properties. Sellers may have to reduce their prices to account for higher insurance premiums.” She notes, too, that real estate websites like Realtor.com and Zillow already provide potential buyers with information on flood risk.

Steps to Stay Afloat

So where should managers start to get their clients swimming in the right direction?

“Management companies can be very effective at guiding owners to organizations that have a level of expertise, give the facts in non-politicized ways, and have practical ways of dealing with things,” Bogdanoff says.

She also suggests managers encourage boards to obtain vulnerability assessments: “If you don’t do a vulnerability assessment, you don’t know where you are. Even those associations that don’t feel the effects today could do this and start putting a small amount away every month so they’re in good shape when they need to do something.”

Muller endorses that approach, as well, but fears it could be a tough sell. “In general, a big challenge in Florida is the number of communities that waive the funding of the reserves.”

If a community is undergoing renovations or new construction, the board should retain a qualified consultant to specifically explore how the risks of sea-level and other climate-related changes. Traditional inspectors might not take these into account or may rely on FEMA’s current flood maps, which are based on historical data and don’t reflect changes in sea levels.

It’s also wise to reach out to governmental officials. “Associations need to be talking with the EPA and state and local governments and staying in tune with any reports that address rising sea levels,” van Rooyen says. “Have someone in the association take a lead on it to work with the authorities that are monitoring the situation and have the data.”

Associations should consider inviting officials to meetings so owners can share their concerns, too. After all, it’s generally governmental bodies that are responsible for projects like beach renourishment.

“You also want to see what state and federal grants are available,” van Rooyen says. “A lot of the time, associations think they’re on their own, but there may be funding.”

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