Opinion: Zoning can be a Cost-Effective Tool for Confronting Climate Change

December 10, 2019
Miami Herald

As a coastal region confronting the impacts of climate change, South Florida must continue to advance urban resiliency and sustainability innovations through public investments, regulations, and private sector incentives that thoughtfully guide growth. Tackling climate impacts has been a top priority for our region, but there is more work to be done if we are going to ensure a sustainable future. While many climate-related solutions carry high price tags, smart zoning policies are a relatively cost-effective method for ushering in responsible growth.

In 2017, City of Miami voters approved the $400 million Miami Forever Bond, a general obligation bond of which $192 million is slated for flood prevention and sea level rise mitigation. This past year, in partnership with the Miami Downtown Development Authority (DDA), the City engaged the Urban Land Institute (ULI) to survey the urban core’s waterfront and provide recommendations for a more resilient Miami.

The City also recently reconfigured its Climate Resilience Committee. Through its “Rising Above” resiliency strategy, the City of Miami Beach has invested heavily in flood mitigation infrastructure, energy conservation, and eliminating single-use plastics.

While such efforts are vital, creating truly resilient cities along Florida’s coast will also require the integration of sea level rise adaptation principles into comprehensive local land use planning. Thoughtful planning and zoning policies can be used to promote more sustainable development patterns.

Already many cities throughout the country are taking concrete steps in this arena such as the coastal city of Norfolk, Virginia—a member of the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities initiative, which ended this past summer.

Norfolk’s new zoning code requires developers to integrate resilient measures into their projects that promote flood risk reduction, storm-water management, and energy efficiency. Additional development credits can be earned for projects on upland properties by extinguishing development rights in more vulnerable low-lying areas through conservation easements or density restrictions.

Zoning code changes

The City of Miami’s current zoning code, known as Miami 21, does currently include sustainability provisions such as requiring all new buildings over 50,000 square feet to meet LEED Silver standards and detailed roof specifications designed to reduce the heat island effect. This past March the City also adopted a free-board ordinance permitting higher finished floor elevations or additional height in the first story to allow properties to better respond to changes in public infrastructure.

These efforts are helpful in creating a sustainable city, but measurable improvements in urban resiliency and sea level rise adaptation may require more substantial amendments to zoning
codes that promote residential density in areas with higher elevations. Land use and zoning regulations focused on Miami’s long-term resiliency should dictate more dense development along the limestone ridge that runs parallel to the coast and is one of the highest points in Miami-Dade County.

With the Metrorail train system and forthcoming 10-mile urban trail project known as the Underline located on top of the ridge, this elevated transit corridor is already an ideal location for more intense development. Planning and zoning regulations can drive more infill projects in this area through height, density, parking, and floor area bonuses for projects within a certain distance of the Metrorail. Such incentives can also offset the additional costs associated with making buildings more sustainable throughout the County.

As the population grows and rising seas slowly reduce the amount of land suitable for development, cities will need to ensure that urban growth patterns are not only sustainable but also equitable. Many advocates have already voiced concerns about climate gentrification in Miami as developers set their sights on higher ground, often home to low-income residents in neighborhoods such as Liberty City, Overtown, Little Haiti, and Allapattah.

However, beyond traditional affordable housing protections, zoning regulations can be used to promote more diverse market rate housing options that are accessible to residents of varying income levels and still allow for urban growth.

Hurdles to small-scale development

As recommended by ULI in October, the elimination of lot size minimums, parking minimums, and density maximums in certain zoning districts will remove barriers in Miami 21 that currently prevent the development of smaller-scale, infill, and “missing middle” housing options such as townhomes and duplexes.

Allowances for non-traditional residential projects such as co-living, which consists of individually leased bedrooms and shared communal spaces, may also bring down housing costs.

Cities throughout our region are uniquely positioned to integrate more progressive climate adaptation principles into their planning and zoning regulations. Combined with policies that help stabilize the cost of housing, such amendments to zoning ordinances and comprehensive plans can pave the way to a more resilient and equitable South Florida.

 *This article was republished with permission from Miami Herald*

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Javier F. Aviñó
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