According to a 2017 federal climate report, sea levels have risen 8 inches since 1900. That might not sound too apocalyptic until you realize that the last three inches have occurred since 1993. Models are predicting that number could go up by another 3 to 7 inches in the next year, and possibly as high as 4 1/2 feet by the year 2100.
Coastal Virginia is feeling it even more than most. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reports that sea levels here have risen 14 inches since 1950. The World Resources Institute states that Coastal Virginia is second in the nation only to New Orleans as the largest population center at risk from rising waters.
Ascending sea levels not only present additional problems from storm damage to residential homes as more and more neighborhoods in the area suffer from flooding—not to mention the impact flooding can have on sewage systems and the threat of raw waste being washed into local watersheds—it’s also harming property values.
“As sea levels rise, people are going to see the footprint of their property shrink,” says Jim Lang, chief operating officer and head of the Waterfront Property Law Practice Group at Pender & Coward in Virginia Beach. “For waterfront properties, even though the landlocked portions of your property line are fixed, the shoreline portion is going to move inland. Under Virginia state law—and this is consistent with other states—if you own property on the water, the shoreline portion of your property is defined by the line of mean low water, which is a 20-year average. That average is going to gradually march inland, so people who live on the water are going to see the size of their property physically shrink.”
Another problem with sea levels rising is the gradual effect swelling waters will have on areas that are currently considered wetlands. Take Ashland Park in the Pungo section of Virginia Beach, for example. “Ashland Park has experienced tremendous flooding, not just during Hurricane Matthew where water was coming into people’s houses, but they get flooding all the time now,” says Lang. “The city has spent tens of millions of dollars on studies to fix it and the fix has been designed. The builder would like to install the infrastructure that would stop the flooding, and we’re taking the position that the Army Corps of Engineers’ permit is perfectly valid and should be upheld.”
Lang also refers to what is called “sunny day flooding,” which is also known as tidal flooding or nuisance flooding. This occurs when exceptionally high tides cause flooding in low-lying areas during a full moon, new moon or king tide event. “Formerly, the idea was that if we had a big rain storm and maybe there was a high tide combined with it, there might be some isolated flooding in certain areas. Many homes in this area were built decades ago, and they were built at a time when flooding wasn’t a problem, except under really unusual weather events. But now, because of sea level rise, we’re experiencing flooding when there’s not rain event associated with it.”
According to Lang, this is not only having a major impact on property values and owners’ ability to sell, it’s redefining the definition of flood zones. “The constant remapping of flood zones is driving up flood insurance rates,” he says. “If you go to buy a house and it’s in a flood zone, you’ll be required to buy flood insurance. I think people through the years have not been accustomed to buying flood insurance, but now it’s becoming more and more of a requirement to a greater number of residential purchases. Of course, you have flood insurance being funded by the federal government—it’s federally subsidized. But that fund is constantly running out of money because of the number of claims. And all of these claims are being driven by sea level rise and the increased number of heavy-weather events that are the result of climate change.”
As a result, building codes are also evolving to keep up with the rising tides. “In certain areas, building codes are requiring new homes to be a certain level above ground because they know flooding is either happening or about to happen,” says Lang. “The trend line is showing this is not going to get better anytime soon. It’s going to get worse.”
For additional information on rising sea levels and how the law may be able to help, visit WaterfrontPropertyLaw.com.