Reinforce and Build

The vicious cycle driving development on Florida’s most fragile beaches.

Published December 20, 2016

In the beginning, there was the beach, and the people saw that it was good. Then the people said, “Let there be houses, too.” And the people saw that the houses were good.

Then the beach started to erode, and the people said, “Wait, this isn’t good.”

So the people called in the dump trucks, which brought tonne after tonne of sand to rebuild the beach. And the people said, “Wow, this is good again.

“We should build more houses. And let them be even bigger than the last.”

And then the sea started to rise.

This is the origin story of modern-day Florida, where the landscapes most susceptible to drowning and destruction are also the targets of both rampant development and beach nourishment—the process of shoring up eroding coastal landscapes with sand.

As new research shows, efforts to restore and protect the state’s eroding beaches have coincided with an increase in the number and sizes of nearby houses on those same beaches—all of which are now increasingly vulnerable to the forces that made the beaches need protection in the first place.

“It’s a positive feedback loop,” says Scott B. Armstrong, an environmental dynamics doctoral candidate at the University of Southampton. “The more you invest in nourishment of beaches, the more you invest in houses, and vice versa.”

Eli Lazarus, also with the University of Southampton, puts it a little bit differently: “It’s a chicken-and-egg question,” he says. “Which part is driving the other?”

It’s no secret that houses in America are getting bigger. Recent research by the Pew Charitable Trusts reveals that the average home has grown nearly 30 percent since 1970. Armstrong, Lazarus, and their colleagues took that a little bit further, combining Florida state tax records to see how house sizes correlate with beach nourishment.

Though they expected to see larger properties near nourished beaches, the scale of their results surprised them, Lazarus says. In nourished zones on the Gulf coast, there are two times as many single-family houses on beachfront property than in non-nourished zones. On the Atlantic coast, that rises to three times as many houses.

The houses in these nourished zones are also significantly larger. The largest homes are nearly double the size.

“The size of the beach, the width of the beach, and how attractive it looks make all the difference to those front-row houses,” Armstrong says.

Coastal development in Florida is not new, of course, and most of the heavy development in South Florida began in the 1920s, long before replenishment was happening, says Orrin Pilkey, founder and director emeritus of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines, who was not affiliated with the new study.

Yet tax records used for this paper found an increase in fairly recent and expensive development, which has happened in places that are already prone to storms—hence the need for beach nourishment. This, in turn, suggests that the effects of climate change and sea level rise could pose an even greater threat to these beachfront properties.

Is there a solution? Lazarus says that in most cases, construction eventually reaches a peak. That hasn’t been the case in Florida yet, but he hopes his paper raises some policy questions that could help address the situation.

Pilkey says he doesn’t fully agree with the new paper, as some areas along Florida’s Gulf coast lack development because the shoreline is less desirable, not because it hasn’t been nourished. He adds, though, that “there is no doubt that beach replenishment is a band-aid solution” that will become much more expensive as sea levels rise.

“It is holding back the inevitable retreat from our shoreline,” Pilkey says. “But then how do you retreat from a shoreline lined for hundreds of miles with high-rises?”