By Mark Thomas
Mark Thomas earned an MBA from Northwestern University, and works professionally in public finance. He began his career as a real estate appraiser in Utah.
“If we had poets, we’d be writing about the swallowing of Miami Beach by the sea.”
Miami Beach, Florida
“In the end, we are going under.”
Key West, Florida
“O God, our Eternal Father . . . we dedicate to Thee and Thy Beloved Son the Fort Lauderdale Florida Temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We dedicate the grounds on which it stands with all its vegetation. We dedicate the building from the footings to the top of the steeple with its crowning figure of Moroni. We dedicate the walls and windows, that they may stand firm against the storms of nature and be looked upon with reverence and respect. We dedicate the interior structure, the baptistry, the endowment rooms, the celestial room, and the sealing rooms with their sacred altars. We dedicate all of the halls and spaces, the offices and other facilities in this temple. . . . Wilt Thou protect this temple from any harm or defilement.”
Dieter F. Uchtdorf
Fort Lauderdale Temple
In his novel Folk of the Fringe, Orson Scott Card presents a future where the Salt Lake Temple is flooded up to its spires by the Great Salt Lake. But in the real world, it will most likely be the Fort Lauderdale Temple that will be deluged first.
President Uchtdorf’s dedicatory prayer for this Florida temple petitions God for what might turn out to be a miracle greater than the parting of the Red Sea. The building, along with most of southern Florida, lies only a few feet above the rising ocean. And as temperatures climb, so will sea levels.
In fact, it is already starting to happen. In a December 2015 New Yorker article by Elizabeth Kolbert, Stacie Kiner, a 30-year resident of south Florida, reports that during the past five years, tides have been washing into multi-million-dollar beachfront condos, and at high tide the Mercedes and Porsches out front have been floating up to their chassis in sea water. Many cities in the area require an elevation certificate before any major construction can begin (though in the end, these certificates may just delay the inevitable).
Kolbert’s article summarizes some of the best-informed opinions on rising sea levels. For example, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that sea levels will rise more than three feet by the end of the century. The US Army Corps of Engineers predicts a rise of up to five feet. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts up to six and a half feet.
Broward, Miami-Dade, Monroe, and Palm Beach Counties formed the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact in January 2010 to address the likely impacts of climate change on their local governments. The 2015 Compact report concluded that sea levels are expected to rise between 31 and 61 inches (above 2009 base sea levels) by 2100. At these levels, huge portions of developed real estate in south Florida will be affected.
But according to Hal Wanless, chair of the University of Miami’s geological sciences department, all of these estimates are probably too conservative. He has studied the geological history of south Florida for nearly half a century and believes that all of south Florida may have less than half a century above water. “We’re looking at the possibility of a ten to thirty foot range [of sea-level rise] by the end of the century,” he says.1
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints owns real estate throughout Florida valued well above $1 billion. These holdings include a recent purchase of 383,000 acres in the Florida panhandle and nearly 300,000 acres of Deseret Ranches in central Florida. The latter is reportedly the largest calving ranch in the United States. The state is also dotted with LDS meetinghouses, two temples, family history buildings, four home storage centers, and other real estate.
This article looks at the flooding risks to LDS buildings south of the east/west-running section of Freeway 75, an area including Fort Lauderdale, Miami, and Key West, among other cities. The study also includes two chapels just northeast of I-75: the Plantation and the Fort Lauderdale Second Ward meetinghouses. This area is home to several million people. Miami-Dade County alone covers 2,431 square miles. And most of it stands at less than 10 feet above sea level. Most of the meetinghouses in the area are constructed after standard LDS building plans. Several lie within a few hundred feet of large bodies of water, such as Biscayne Bay and the Atlantic Ocean.
What does the LDS Church stand to lose to the rising seas in Florida? Let’s start with the Fort Lauderdale Temple, located in Davie, Florida, 20 miles west of the Atlantic. The 1 July 2011 issue of the Sun-Sentinel reported that the Church purchased the 16.5-acre temple lot for $4.5 million. At the ground breaking, Elder William Walker (executive director of the Church’s temple department from 2007 to 2014 and member of the First Quorum of the Seventy at the time) said that temple construction would cost “tens of millions of dollars.” This might have been an overstatement. The temple contains somewhere between 28,000 and 30,500 square feet, depending on which section of lds.org one reads. If we assume that the temple cost $400 per square foot, its value would range from $11 to $12 million. There would, of course, be other costs such as site preparation, the parking area, the reflection pool, and other landscaping and improvements. A conservative estimate of the total for land, construction, and improvements is $17 million.
At least 16 LDS meetinghouses in south Florida are at a reasonable risk of deluge if sea levels continue to rise. Information for one of the meetinghouses is unavailable, so this article focuses on 15 meetinghouses,2 which have an average lot size of 3.13 acres. The current listings for 2-acre parcels in residential subdivisions in Davie, Florida range from $350,000 to $400,000. Several existing LDS meetinghouses front busy commercial streets meaning that their land is likely more valuable than residential parcels. Using Davie’s real estate listings, the land values of the 15 lots with meetinghouses on them would add up to about $5.6 million.
Estimating the value of the 15 LDS meetinghouses themselves is more complicated. A complete professional appraisal of all of these properties would require the use of income, market and cost approaches to real estate valuation. One could use an income approach for valuation (some LDS chapels have been used as offices and reception centers), market valuation (other religions could buy them for their own worship services), cost minus depreciation, or replacement cost (like what an insurance agent would use). For various reasons, an income and market approach cannot be completed at this time. And since the buildings are unlikely to be rebuilt if flooded and since the land value will probably not be insured, we will consider the real estate value at risk prior to any insurance considerations, focusing on replacement cost minus depreciation to estimate the value of the improvements. While we cannot provide a professional appraisal, we can provide a conservative and reasonable estimate of current value using this approach.
It is true that decades will probably pass before sea levels finally reach most of these properties. But long before the properties are inundated, insurance policies will be cancelled and banks will cease to loan on any property nearby. Since dikes will be useless (the water will rise through the storm drains and sewers) the properties will likely be abandoned. So we will propose a reasonable book value considering risk management options: estimated current land values plus replacement cost minus depreciation for improvements.
The 15 meetinghouses contain an average of 13,909 square feet. Assuming a replacement cost of $250 per square foot and 25% depreciation, we’ll calculate a depreciated current book value of $39 million for the meetinghouses plus the $5.6 million value for the land they stand on. Adding that to the temple’s cost, we get a (conservative) total of $61.6 million worth of property and improvements threatened by rising sea levels. (Note that we are not including the various canneries and other improvements in the area owned by the Church.)
Thirteen states, the EPA, the Center for Disease Control, and many American cities have included climate change in their planning and risk mitigation efforts. The Church would be wise to do so as well, researching water risk assessment, risk prevention, risk hedging, and risk mitigation. The fact that the Church continues to sink millions of dollars into south Florida real estate suggests that either such a study has not been completed or it is being ignored.
For years, many world religions have been warning us of climate change and its enormous impact on the earth and humans—especially the poor. The list of those who have spoken forcefully on the topic includes the Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, Pope Francis, global Hindu leadership, and Patriarch Bartholomew, head of the Eastern Orthodox Church. The relative silence of LDS leadership on the subject serves no one well, except political demagogues and those who make money in carbon-based industries.
This study covers only south Florida; it says nothing of Samoa, Hawaii, New Jersey, or anywhere else in the world where Church properties are at risk from climate change. The consequences of climate change will very likely lead to the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars in property worldwide for the Church. This is property purchased with sacred tithes—the Lord’s money, and thus, the Lord’s property. If it does not want to be remiss in its stewardship, the Church must take a strong stance as a protector of God’s creation. If it does not do so, our descendants will someday ask: “Where were the prophets when we needed them most?”
We are one of the most centralized large religions in the country, meaning that a single Church decision would have enormous impact. What would happen if the Prophet warned us of climate change from the general conference pulpit? What would happen if the Church gave us an inspired Proclamation on the Earth? How would things change if our curriculum included lessons on earth stewardship, or if our missionaries helped with environmental concerns one day a week? Certainly none of us needs to wait for official instruction to begin our own efforts, but let us still pray fervently that our prophets will guide us in these latter days.
The question of what to do with endangered properties in southern Florida is morally and financially sticky. Trying to sell the properties to uninformed investors is morally unacceptable. But LDS congregations will doubtless continue to grow in the area, requiring more meetinghouses. Perhaps the Church ought to consider renting existing properties instead of buying and building its own.
On the day before he dedicated the Fort Lauderdale temple, President Uchtdorf spoke to LDS youth at the nearby Nova Southeastern University. His words were prophetic.
You will remember the days of this celebration of the dedication of the Fort Lauderdale Temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Letter-day Saints throughout your life.
Let’s hope that these students don’t remember it as the dedication day of the first temple to be claimed by rising seawaters.
- Elizabeth Kolbert, “The Siege of Miami,” The New Yorker, December 21 & 28, 2015.
- The meetinghouses included in this study are located in Hollywood, Fort Lauderdale, Plantation, North Miami, Hialeah, Pembroke Pines, Miami, Miami Beach, Homestead, Marathon, and Key West.