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Surging growth and rising seas could cost Florida more land

Miami Herald archives

As Florida’s population swells to more than 26 million people and more land is lost to rising seas, about 1 million more undeveloped acres could be paved over in less than two decades, according to a new study released Wednesday by the University of Florida and 1000 Friends of Florida.

Potentially hardest hit: large, intact rural lands that offer the best hope for saving wild Florida.

“We're about to hit a threshold where we're going to start seeing more rural impacts if the current pattern continues,” said Tom Hoctor, director of the University of Florida’s Center for Landscape Conservation Planning.

Up until now, Florida has been somewhat lucky, he said. Most sprawl has occurred in areas already filled with neighborhoods and shopping malls.

“And in many cases, our priorities for landscape scale conservation in Florida tends to be, not in all cases, but tends to be further away from developed landscapes,” he said. “But that's going to change as those developed landscapes continue to spread and sprawl.”

That growth is also now occurring in a state unfettered by growth management laws forged in the 1970s and 1980s that once held it in check. In 2010, the rules were mostly wiped out by then Gov. Rick Scott and state lawmakers who disbanded the state agency overseeing development.

 A projected map of development through 2040, shows sprawl spreading across Florida, with Central Florida hit hardest.
University of Florida and 1000 Friends of Florida
A projected map of development through 2040, shows sprawl spreading across Florida, with Central Florida hit hardest.

This latest study by UF and 1000 Friends, a land use advocacy nonprofit, builds on a 2016 report by the group that looked out to 2070 and the impact of poor planning. For that report, the authors only considered population increases and found the state was at risk of losing 5 million acres as development gobbled up farms and unprotected land.

For this report, they added sea rise projections, using a moderate estimate of about .8 feet by 2040. They then took a look at what would happen under existing development patterns, and contrasted that with what could happen if Florida pivoted back to protecting more land and managing growth.

“Florida could have accommodated development over the decades much better if the development patterns had been more compact,” said 1000 Friends Communications Director Vivian Young. “Florida is taking very baby steps in the right direction of getting slightly more compact development. But just like with the land acquisition, it needs to be at a higher pace more rapidly.”

About 15 percent of the state, or 5.4 million acres, are already developed. If existing development patterns persist over next 17 years,, that amount could jump to 18 percent and gobble up another million acres. Another million acres - mostly wetlands and other areas already protected - is expected to be lost to sea level rise, the report said.

Of that, the report estimates about 206,000 acres targeted for the Florida Wildlife Corridor would be paved over.

The Florida Wildlife Corridor, approved by the state in 2021, builds on former conservation programs, including Preservation 2000 created in 1990. A follow-up conservation program, Florida Forever, was created in 2000, but languished, along with the growth laws, going largely unfunded until two years ago. The corridor covers about 18 million acres, with 10 million acres under protection, mostly by buying easement rights from owners that prevent future development.

 If Florida were to concentrate development and avoid sprawl, the report found more land could be set aside for conservation.
University of Florida and 1000 Friends of Florida
If Florida were to concentrate development and avoid sprawl, the report found more land could be set aside for conservation.

If the state were to more aggressively pursue easements and other conservation efforts, along with concentrating development, the study found the amount of protected land could increase by 12 percent, even factoring in land lost to sea rise. The total could reach 14 million acres.

In addition to increasing conservation, Young said the state also needs to become more strategic in its conservation efforts.

“Which lands are most vulnerable to development? These probably need to be higher priority so that they can be protected before they are developed,” she said, to prevent breaking up large landscapes needed for Florida’s wildlife, including bears, panthers and its scores of wading birds.

Lands that help protect water supplies or play a bigger part in wildlife habitat should also be given more priority, she said.

Even as it controls sprawl, Young said the state can still accommodate its growing population if it pivots to more dense development. More importantly, she said, local communities need to be more diligent in controlling growth.

“Each and every day our state, our cities, our counties are making decisions, some of them seemingly very small and insignificant, some of them large, on where development should occur, how it should occur and what type,” she said. “At every level of government, citizens need to recognize that even small decisions today can have tremendous cumulative impacts.”

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Jenny Staletovich has been a journalist working in Florida for nearly 20 years.