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Jacksonville Sea Level Rise Task Force Looks To Expand Focus Beyond Coastal Hazard Areas

Flooding in Jacksonville during Hurricane Irma.
Robert Torbert
Flooding in Jacksonville during Hurricane Irma.

After two months of fact finding meetings, Jacksonville’s Adaptation Action Area Working Group is ready to move to the next step.

The first order of business: expanding the group’s area of focus beyond the coastal areas mapped out when it was first established.

The Adaptation Action Area (AAA) Working Group is a state mandated committee originally charged with exploring policies to protect areas in the adaptation action area from an assumed two-feet rise in sea level by 2060, bringing with it more storm surges and coastal flooding.

The difference between the AAA Working Group and the Storm Resiliency and Infrastructure Development Review Committee (SRAIDRC), which is also looking at sea level rise and adaptation in Jacksonville, is the timeframe the groups are working with.

Bill Killingsworth, Director of Planning and Development for the City of Jacksonville, is a member of both committees. “They're [the SRAIDRC] looking at code changes that can happen today to improve the situation today, whereas the adaptation action area committee is looking at what needs to change over time in a 50 year horizon,” he said.

In their early stages, Killingsworth said both committees were focused on “fact finding.” Because they’re tackling the same issue, though on different timescales, they saw very similar presentations and had some of the same conversations.

“But that's to get both groups kind of a baseline of what's going on and why it's going on,” he explained. “The resiliency committee, they've already been working on actionable items to change because they're planning on closing out... I think, by the end of June. The adaptation action area, I think they've had most of the presentations that they're going to have for the fact finding part. And this next meeting is actually a working meeting.”

Related: Jacksonville City Councilmembers File Bill From Storm Resiliency Committee

Killingsworth said the first order of business in that meeting, scheduled for 9 a.m. on Monday, May 13, will be to look at the boundaries they’re working with.

During the group’s second meeting, AAA Working Group member Erik Olsen, a coastal engineer and Principal Engineer for Olsen Associates, Inc., said he was concerned with the coastal high hazard area (CHHA) maps the committee was using.

He said the model used to develop those maps has its strengths and weaknesses. One of its big weaknesses, according to Olsen, is that it’s not applicable to riverine systems like the St. Johns River.

“The St. Johns River is a very unique river,” Olsen said during that March 11 meeting. “It's three, four or five miles wide in various areas, and so it's a body of water unto itself. None of these models realistically model the actual effects of hurricanes that can affect the St. Johns River.”

Case in point: Hurricane Irma.

“Hurricane Irma caused record flooding downtown and in the historic neighborhoods. Hurricane Irma was not even a hurricane when it got to Jacksonville; it was less than a Category 1 storm,” he said. “What didn't make a lot of sense to me when I began to look at the mapping for downtown and the historic neighborhoods, was that the limit of the CHHA stops at the boundary between the landmass and the river, irrespective of how much flooding we had well beyond the perimeter of the existing seawalls and the downtown flooding that occurred.”

“I think we would be remiss in abiding by these maps for those particular areas and not discussing the actual implications of the rise of sea level, particularly in areas that are developed and areas that the City proposes to develop,” Olsen went on to say. “The implications to those areas is huge with respect to the rise in sea level. Right now we can't talk about it, because these maps don't even include those areas.”

Killingsworth said the committee is determined to rectify that discrepancy.

“On Monday they're going to have a bunch of maps and they're going to sit down and look at them,” Killingsworth said. “It has coastal high hazard on it, storm surge, hundred year, 500 year... various data sets that they're going to look at and make a determination as to what the boundary should be for the adaptation action area.”

But he doesn’t necessarily expect a decision to be made on Monday, though he hopes that will be the case. Committee members may need an additional meeting to make a recommendation, he said.

The group has discussed some other potential recommendations, such as establishing an office of resiliency or incentivising growth in specific areas, but Killingsworth thinks it’s too early at this point to say what the committee may or may not end up recommending. Monday will be the first meeting where members formally discuss an actionable item.

When it comes to actionable items, unlike the SRAIDRC, the AAA Working Group won’t be drafting legislation for the City Council to vote on or submitting proposed changes to the city’s Land Development Procedures Manual via the Subdivision Standards and Policy Advisory Committee. Instead, Killingsworth said they’ll compile all of their recommendations into a single document and present them to the City Council as a package.

If a majority of council members decide they don’t want to or can’t adopt certain recommendations, Killingsworth said the AAA Working Group will reevaluate and see if there are any alternatives that would be acceptable.

He was originally hoping the committee would be done with its work by July, but now he doesn’t think they’ll be able to wrap things up until October.

Over the next several months he expects the committee to look at vulnerable areas in the boundaries they decide to focus on, as well as vulnerable populations, environmental systems, cultural items and historic resources, and discuss how adaptable all of those things are. The ultimate goal is to come up with high level adaptation strategies for the City to pursue and formulate timelines for implementation.

“That gives the city a jumping off point to recognize that there are budgetary implications and there are larger and smaller policy implications that have to be weaved together,” Killingsworth said. He hopes 50 or so years down the road, the policy changes that come out of this task force will put Jacksonville in a much better position than the city would have been in if no action had been taken.

However, he doesn’t expect the group to tackle mitigation strategies, such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

“That discussion really has to take place at a higher geography level than the city,” Killingsworth said. “In terms of mitigating potential outcomes, I do expect that they'll do that. In terms of mitigating causes, I don't have the expectation that they'll get into that.”

Brendan Rivers can be reached at, 904-358-6396 or on Twitter at @BrendanRivers.

Special Projects Producer Brendan Rivers joined WJCT News in August of 2018 after several years as a reporter and then News Director at Southern Stone Communications, which owns and operates several radio stations in the Daytona Beach area.