The time has come when the business interests and the environmental community in Palm Beach County must recognize that both sides have legitimate concerns that are critical to the long-term health of our county and state. These co-dependent interests often find themselves at odds as we attempt to find some balance between economic growth and conservation interests.
The business community believes that environmentalists all push for extreme regulations that create excessive costs and simply oppose almost any development as destructive. Unfortunately, environmental purists reinforce that view. Similarly, on the business side, comments are often made on the disconcerting realities of climate change, such as “the Atlantic Ocean is not rising”, “Saltwater intrusion in our aquifer is a myth” and “Climate change is a natural cycle, so we shouldn’t be concerned.” So, the issue in the 21st century, particularly in Palm Beach County, is how to create a rational dialogue and discuss what reasonable accommodations both sides can agree to.
Curtailing real estate investment on our barrier islands and other high-risk flood areas is an opportunity for a proactive compromise. As we inch closer to the next potential housing crisis, this time fueled by abandoned mortgages on homes increasingly inundated by flooding, let’s rethink our approach to waterfront real estate development. Long-term, we would do better to throttle certain development interests to sidestep or at least mitigate a potential economic meltdown.
Besides just building outside of flood zones, a mutually beneficial approach to development is “smart growth,” which is not a new concept in Palm Beach County. In an ongoing effort to preserve green space and limit urban sprawl, there has been an expanding population movement toward high-density development in more urban areas. Companies have slowly begun following the millennial talent pool into these sustainable cities all over the country. County businesses could benefit from migrating to these urban centers to engage this burgeoning workforce and at the same time preserve more farmland. Additionally, we could see a range of free ecological substitutes to engineered infrastructure solutions from maintaining more of this green space, like drinking water filtration and storage, erosion prevention along our canals, and flood protection.
Ultimately, the effect of the rising tides on the limestone and sand we call Florida will not distinguish between whose grandchildren are displaced by a massive migration of Miami-Dade County climate change refugees in the next 30 years. We need cooperation now. Fueled by rhetoric, the gap between business and environmental protection has widened and the danger continues to grow. Instead of having philosophical debates about owls and coal mines that serve neither side’s objectives, let’s refocus our dialogue on aligning our business and environment interests on risk mitigation and proactive infrastructure planning.
ROB LONG, LAKE WORTH
Editor’s note: Rob Long is supervisor of the Palm Beach Soil and Water Conservation District.