Getting our feet wet     

There’s been a wave of gloomy news stories in the last two weeks about climate change, sea level rise and Florida. Want to feel a bit less gloomy? North of Broward and Miami-Dade counties, things aren’t quite as dire.

Dr. Frederick Bloetscher teaches civil engineering at Florida Atlantic University’s Boca Raton campus. He testified last month at the U.S. Senate subcommittee field hearing that Bill Nelson brought to Miami Beach. The discussion focused on how South Florida can respond to sea level rise that is projected to increase dramatically. Bloetscher pegs the rise at between 8 inches and 9 inches, since 1929, which is in line with other estimates.

Broward and Miami-Dade, Bloetscher said, have major problems. Roughly half the land in those counties is just 5 feet or less above sea level. Like New Orleans, some coastal portions of Broward and Miami-Dade actually are below sea level. Streets in Miami Beach and Hallandale already flood after just a big thunderstorm.

But north of Pompano Beach, the topography closer to the ocean changes. Bloetscher said between 10 percent and 15 percent of Palm Beach County is at 5 feet of elevation or lower. Unfortunately, that low land includes “lots of economic centers,” Bloetscher said, such as downtown West Palm Beach. It also includes areas of Boca Raton and Delray Beach on either side of the Intracoastal Waterway. Then there’s the town of Palm Beach, which has the second-largest property tax roll in the county, after Boca.

After two hours of testimony at that Miami Beach hearing from witnesses urging action, Nelson said, “I hope we can continue to keep these discussions going, so we can come to a reasonable conclusion as to what we need to do before it is too late.”

Meanwhile, Florida’s other U.S. senator, Marco Rubio, had this to say about climate change on NBC’s “Meet the Press”: “I do not believe that human activity is causing these dramatic changes to our climate in a way these scientists are portraying it.” He disputed the idea that efforts to mitigate damage from a warming Earth would do anything except “destroy our economy.” Rising seas? “Our climate is always changing.”

While Democrats like Nelson and Republicans like Rubio argue over the very basics of climate change, the change keeps happening, with potential profound effects on the state Nelson and Rubio represent. And for the deniers, there keeps getting more and more to deny.

Just in the last month:

*The new report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts a sea level rise by the end of the century that is 50 percent higher than in the panel’s 2007 report. Greenhouse gases that make the Earth warmer—carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide—are at levels not seen for 800,000 years. Many changes in the Earth’s climate since the 1950s are “unprecedented.”

*The U.S. government’s National Climate Assessment stated that Americans already are feeling the effects of climate change and rising seas. Two cities at particular risk are Miami and Tampa, along with New York and New Orleans.

*A report in the journal Science stated that melting of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet has become “unstoppable.” Such a melt could add between 10 feet and 13 feet to predictions of sea level rise over the next centuries.

Dire predictions, though, haven’t moved the U.S. or any other country to what most climate scientists believe is sufficiently serious action. As Nelson and Rubio show, any response runs the risk of stalling over the question of whether human activity is the major cause of global warming and sea level rise. (“Extremely likely,” according to the IPCC.)

Another factor is that the worst consequences of climate change remain so far off. But as Bloetscher notes— an observation supported by the National Climate Assessment—Florida already is feeling the effects, such as weather extremes. In just the last four years, Florida has gone through two unusually cold stretches in winter, a near-record drought and three floods.

“To say that we can’t change any of this is to ignore the Everglades,” Bloetscher said. More than a century ago, Florida began draining the Everglades to allow the development of South Florida. The wetlands lost to dredge-and-fill had helped to keep down the temperature. For the last 40 years, in fits and starts, Florida has been trying to reverse that damage, by restoring the Everglades system, from the Kissimmee River to Florida Bay.

From our relatively high ground in Boca Raton, we can choose to take a better look at climate change or look past it. Your choice.

Thursday: A look at rising seas from the South Florida Water Management District’s expert, and some reasons to hope.

••••••••

The Chapman saga

Not that long ago, the Delray Beach City Commission was scheduled to formally evaluate City Manager Louie Chapman for his first year of work at tonight's meeting.

That item is no longer on the agenda, because most commissioners already have made their unofficial evaluations—and made them strongly.

Last week, Mayor Cary Glickstein and Commissioners Jordana Jarjura and Shelly Petrolia voted to fire Chapman for cause after a report by the Palm Beach County Office of Inspector General showed that the manager had “misled” the commission and the inspector general’s investigators. They couldn’t get a necessary fourth vote, because Adam Frankel dissented and Al Jacquet was absent. So they suspended Chapman with pay for 90 days. Glickstein then excused Chapman, and Frankel made his point by leaving the meeting at the same time.

Chapman demanded two years severance if he resigned. He never will get it. I’m told that the interim city attorney is asking Chapman’s attorney whether his client would take less. Since an August referendum, if successful, would make it possible to fire Chapman with three votes, a deal would make sense.

Correction

Speaking of Commissioner Jarjura, in a previous post I referred to her as “white.” She would like readers to know that her heritage is “Filipino, Chinese, Lebanese and Spanish.”

••••••••

FAU budget results

So, how did Florida Atlantic University come out in the 2014-15 state budget? Getting an answer is harder than you might think.

In part, that’s because while FAU’s overall budget is north of $700 million, the part that depends most on the Legislature is Education and General Revenue. For the second straight year, though, FAU has come away with an increase. After consulting with the finance people, an FAU spokesman puts the Education and General Revenue figure for next year at $293.6 million. That would be an increase from roughly $240 million in just the last two years.

For perspective, though, over the previous five years FAU’s budget got cut nearly $30 million. The university has done better in Student Financial Aid. That part of the budget has almost doubled in the last six years.

More details, the spokesman said, would come at the FAU trustees’ June finance meeting. Though the Legislature has passed the budget, no one in the State University System wants to speak up too much until Gov. Rick Scott has reviewed the budget—without vetoing money on which a university had been counting.

••••••••

Remembering a land baron

Greg Talbott, who died last week, epitomized the boom and bust of Boca Raton real estate in the last decade.

At one time, Talbott was the second-largest owner of downtown commercial property in the city. The land he once envisioned for a mixed-use project on Palmetto Park Road was lost to foreclosure, and under different ownership is scheduled to become the Archstone rental complex.

Talbott tried to head off bankruptcy by waiting for the turnaround that didn’t come in time. One of the properties Talbott lost was his nearly 19,000-square-foot mansion on Northeast Fifth Avenue, along the Intracoastal Waterway. Talbott certainly was right that his old home would recover its value. When Fifth Third Bank seized it in 2010, the property was appraised at $1.5 million. The current appraised value is $9.5 million.

••••••••

You can email Randy Schultz at randy@bocamag.com

For more City Watch blogs, click here.

About the Author

Randy Schultz was born in Hartford, Conn., and graduated from the University of Tennessee in 1974. He has lived in South Florida since then, and in Boca Raton since 1985. Schultz spent nearly 40 years in daily journalism at the Miami Herald and Palm Beach Post, most recently as editorial page editor at the Post. His wife, Shelley, is director of The Learning Network at Pine Crest School. His son, an attorney, and daughter-in-law and three grandchildren also live in Boca Raton. His daughter is a veterinarian who lives in Baltimore.