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Hillsborough governments building sea-level rise into development plans

By Christopher O'Donnell

TAMPA – More Florida cities and communities are taking the first steps to prepare for climate change and, especially, sea-level rise.

That includes Hillsborough County, where the City-County Planning Commission is pushing for the county and its three cities — Tampa, Temple Terrance and Plant City — to add climate change this year to their comprehensive plans, which the communities use as a blueprint for future growth.

The proposed language sidesteps the term “climate change” and instead states that the four communities will develop policies and identify issues related to “climate adaptation.”

Still, the move would provide a legal foundation for the communities to begin drafting more specific land regulations to mitigate the effect of sea-level rise.

“Previously there has not yet even been a mention of climate issues in the comprehensive plan,” said Shawn College, leader of the planning commission’s environmental planning and research team. “This enables the cities and county to follow through with whatever they deem right now.”

Those measures could include relocating crucial infrastructure like pumping stations out of flood prone areas and regulations governing the elevation of future coastal construction.

Florida’s vulnerability to hurricanes and storm surge has already served as a rehearsal for sea-level rise. Some low-lying shoreline is designated as coastal high-hazard areas where developers are usually required to use fill to raise the ground floor of any new construction.

“The problem we have now is these flood level maps are the flood levels today not 50, 100 years from now,” College said. Modern sea level rise began in the 20th Century and has accelerated since then, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The most pessimistic estimates from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, set up by the United Nations and the World Metrological Organization, predict sea level will rise two feet by 2100.

But the effects are likely to be felt much sooner than that.