Slowing down on raising roads

Susan Askew
Susan Askew
Miami Beach commissioners agreed yesterday to slow down the pace of road projects and give homeowners the opportunity to vote on whether or not they want their roads raised now to deal with flooding caused by sea level rise. At a Commission meeting to discuss the sheer volume of projects, concerns raised by residents of neighborhoods next in line for stormwater system improvements and road elevation dominated the conversation.
Commissioners echoed questions asked by residents of neighborhoods that don’t have flooding now but are scheduled to get the elevated roads ahead of communities where flooding is a problem. Eric Carpenter, Director of Public Works, said there were a number of factors considered when putting together a construction schedule. One was ensuring that projects were spread out so that no area of the City was overburdened at any one time. The second was to avoid going back into neighborhoods that had gone through a construction project within 2-3 years because of the construction fatigue factor. In those cases, the neighborhoods were put at the end of the queue, probably not being done until 2021 but he said, “we can certainly revisit that” in the case of neighborhoods that have flooding concerns.
Commissioner Kristen Rosen-Gonzalez said, “I’d like to hear from the neighbors. I want them to come and say ‘please do this work in our neighborhood.’” She said, “What we’re doing doesn’t make sense” raising roads, "spending a lot of money," and "negatively impacting homeowners" whose homes might be below the road elevation. She wants to continue with the projects underway while “slowing down the others until we get more input.”
Mayor Philip Levine who championed the resiliency projects expressed his support for slowing the process down. “If there are certain HOAs that do not want their streets raised,” he said, “I think that we should listen to them and I think we shouldn’t raise their streets and I think that’s totally fine.” But, he said, each homeowner should have a vote. And, for those that vote against raising roads, he said, “There are a lot of streets that need to be raised in this City so if we have an HOA that really doesn’t want it, why would we want to force it upon them?” The City could simply move to do work in another area where residents are in favor of higher roads now, he said.
Commissioner John Alemán agreed with the direction, “If there’s a particular neighborhood that would rather go later on the list, I think that that should be listened to and considered.”  Referring to the Central Bayshore neighborhood, which is “not the lowest lying,” she said, “If it wants to wait and move to the back of the pack, I don’t really see any harm in that.” Ultimately, she cautioned, “It has to get done because without it you won’t be able to get flood insurance and when that falls apart, a lot of things fall apart.” Alemán along with Levine and Commissioner Joy Malakoff said they were mindful not only of potential issues with insuring, but also financing homes as mortgage companies begin to factor in the timetable for sea level rise.
Following up on Levine’s suggestion that homeowners be able to vote, she said she supported the idea but suggested that the City administer and manage votes to ensure that no one felt pressured by their neighbors to vote a certain way. She also urged to have votes occur after the City undertakes its education efforts which include simulations and one-on-one meetings with homeowners to help them understand the elevation of their individual homes and the proposed height of their street in relation to their homes. City Manager Jimmy Morales said the tools will be ready for an April 4th meeting with the residents of Central Bayshore. “We want to go neighborhood to neighborhood,” he said, “literally house to house to show people what the impact is and then folks can come together and see what they want to do.” Levine agreed it is important to go through the educational steps first so that “people are not voting blindly.”
Carpenter lamented at one point, “Everyone wants to quote the Sunset Harbour example” where roads were raised nearly 3 feet adjacent to commercial properties. “Sunset Harbour is an anomaly,” he said. “That is not what we’re going to do in single-family residential districts and when I hear that it makes me cringe because it’s not an accurate depiction.”
The original intent of yesterday’s discussion as proposed by Commissioner Micky Steinberg was to take a comprehensive look at the large number of road projects underway and proposed, the overlap in construction schedules, and their impact on the community. Saying the schedule might need some “tweaking,” she expressed her goal to ensure that “it’s done in a manner in which we can still function as a city in emergencies because there is no room for error on this. We have such an aggressive timeline that it takes one water main break to happen and the City is at a standstill … That’s my concern first and foremost to make sure that we’re being very conscious of what we’re doing in a manner that is prudent and a manner that is responsible.”
The Commission agreed to hold a workshop to dig deeper into the timeline of projects and answer residents questions.
Levine said “Let’s look at this, workshop it, spread it out, and slow it down in certain areas so that we can maintain as much flow in traffic over the next 3-4-5 years with the least nuisance to everybody.”
Carpenter said he understood the importance of having buy-in from the community and giving them a chance to weigh-in on what happens in their neighborhood but he cautioned installing new stormwater drains and coming back later to elevate roads will add significantly to the cost.
Rosen-Gonzalez said she supported holding a workshop and giving homeowners the ability to vote on raising their roads but she wanted to take it a step further and have homeowners decide the height of their roads. Both Levine and Carpenter pushed back, saying those decisions should be made by the engineers. Levine, however, proposed a compromise that the City would take input from the community as to the height “however, the final determination, I think we should say, should be made by the Director of Public Works and the Chief Engineer and the City Manager, the three of them make a final determination with input from that community.” Rosen-Gonzalez said she was happy with that outcome.
Levine added, “None of us here wants to do this. This is like the medicine you have to take.”
In response to public comments expressing concern about water pooling around homes and other buildings once roads are raised, Carpenter said the City is designing the stormwater system to be able to accept the water that comes off of the private properties. He anticipates being ready to announce a program to do that next month which will likely involve a fee charged to residents. A president of a condo association from a small building on Lincoln Court said her building does not flood now but expects it will once roads are raised and she asked why her residents, some of them senior citizens on fixed incomes, should have to bear the cost of a problem created by the City.  Carpenter responded, “We’re in the process of trying to figure out how to make this fair and reasonable for everybody. There is a lot of discussing left to do to try and find a middle ground on how to incorporate private property connections to the city stormwater system at a reasonable price. We’re working on it.”
City Manager Jimmy Morales told Commissioners, “Keep in mind, we’re not designing a system for today’s conditions. This is a system that, at least, is trying to keep things dry for at least thirty years or more.”
Levine wrapped it up by acknowledging the frustrations, which he shared. “I wish there was some kind of playbook we could go to and say ‘this is how you make your city resilient if you’re a coastal city with sea level rise.’ There is no such book. We’re learning as we go along. We’re doing the best job we can. But the one thing we’re not going to do is nothing.” He said the focus is on moving forward, “making sure that people can buy and sell their homes, that they can get property insurance, that they can finance their homes … We have to work all together with the residents and City elected officials to make this a resilient city”

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