By Kathyrn Balitsos and Garin Bulger

Managed or planned retreat is a climate change adaptation strategy that allows the shoreline to advance inward unimpeded, necessitating the removal of buildings and other built infrastructure. To facilitate managed retreat efforts, federal, state, and local government programs acquire lands and properties, including those that have been damaged by climate events and natural disasters or that may be prone to future damage due to conditions such as sea-level rise, storms, and storm-related flooding. In New Jersey, the state Blue Acres program seeks to make communities more resilient through the state-led acquisition of flood-prone properties.

With support from the New Jersey State Policy Lab, the New Jersey Climate Change Resource Center Climate Corps conducted a three-month research effort to better understand programs, policies, and practices associated with managed retreat acquisition programs nationwide. The research team started with a thorough review of the literature, ranging from academic journals, news articles, conference presentations, books, and podcasts. Second, the team reviewed case studies of municipal, county, state, and special district programs. Finally, the researchers conducted a series of interviews with program practitioners, community group leaders, and academics. The focus of this research effort was to better understand certain key aspects of managed retreat acquisition programs, including the following topics.

Table breaking down the key aspects of managed retreat acquisition purposes.

Table breaking down the key aspects of managed retreat acquisition purposes.

While research findings varied from state to state and across research topics, a series of insights highlight the importance of continued research to advance practices that have social, economic, cultural, and physical implications for those communities directly (and even those not immediately) affected by repetitive flooding.

Insight 1 — An equity framework to guide the process

Operationalizing the concept of equity within managed retreat policies is an emerging programmatic priority without a universal understanding of mechanisms to do so.  A potential framework for factoring equity principles into managed retreat policies and programs could involve distributive, procedural, participatory, recognitive and restorative, and ecological. [1] [2] Distributive equity ensures that benefits, harms, and opportunities are distributed fairly among varied socio-economic and racial populations. Procedural equity outlines ways to ensure program administrators do not discriminate due to inconsistent administrative processes. Participatory equity focuses on including community members in the decision-making process. Recognitive and restorative equity emphasizes understanding the historical patterns that led to current inequities while recognizing that different people have different ideas of what is just and fair. Lastly, ecological justice raises questions about what is fair for future generations.[3]

Insight 2 — The benefits of local funding

It appears that several of those ongoing buyout programs found to have proactive elements benefit from being managed and supported at the local levels. The Harris County Flood Control District (HCFCD) and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Storm Water Services utilize a local and independent funding source to elevate their programs. The HCFCD receives a dedicated percentage of all property taxes within the district. The Harris County Commissioners Court controls the tax rate and distribution of funds.[4] The Charlotte-Mecklenburg program is primarily funded through stormwater utility fees collected from all properties. Having a separate dedicated funding source allows these programs to operate more quickly than those without one and be adaptable to various circumstances.[5]

Insight 3 — A focus on mapping and development

Across the nation, flood maps are a critical tool that municipalities use to help make development decisions. However, many flood maps are outdated, leading to improperly mapped flood zones and allowing new structures to be built in floodplains. Both Charlotte-Mecklenburg Storm Water Services in North Carolina, and Tulsa, Oklahoma, have undertaken significant work in updating their municipal flood maps beyond FEMA standards.[6] Storm Water Services created an additional floodplain buffer ordinance, limiting future developments around the floodplain to reduce the number of properties that must be acquired or undergo repairs. Due to historic flooding, Tulsa developed significantly higher development standards that require any new development located within the floodplain to install stormwater retention and storm sewer systems able to handle 100-year flood events.

Insight 4 — Utilizing mandatory buyouts

While a significant proportion of flood buyback programs nationwide are voluntary in nature, the research team did study one example of a program with a mandatory component.  Harris County, Texas, operates a mandatory buyback program for a selection of properties that are declared ‘severe repetitive loss’ (SRL), meaning they have at least four flood claims made against them with the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). Harris County has more than 850 of these SRL properties, combined for 5,364 paid claims totaling over $400 million in total losses. For neighborhoods of interest, of which there are currently seven, property owners receive a General Information Notice informing them of their inclusion in the program and instructing them to contact their assigned case manager. The appraisal process is the same for voluntary buyback programs, with an appeals process included. The primary difference begins if the owner refuses to relinquish the property when a fair market value has been established, with legal proceedings outlined and the County Attorney’s Office initiating eminent domain as outlined by Texas state law.[7]

Conclusion

Leaving one’s home because it is no longer safe to live there is tragic, and the complexities involved in buyouts present an array of challenges for all involved. Managed retreat is a multi-stakeholder, systems-level approach toward addressing health and safety in the built environment. Changing current land use patterns can provide greater protection to life and property, avoiding the loss and damage that lead to the need for buyouts in the future. The necessity to identify innovative solutions that can improve upon existing managed retreat efforts is only increasing as places that have been inhabited for generations are being lost to encroaching seas, rising rivers, and increasingly hostile storms. Without it, we are just buying time. What happens in 50 or 100 years if nothing is done? Difficult decisions can provide homeowners and their communities with a more sustainable future, allowing choices to be made that will benefit residents, their families, and their communities for generations to come.

Kathyrn Balitsos is a graduate student pursuing a Master of City and Regional Planning degree at Rutgers University, and Garin Bulger is a Research Associate with the Environmental Analysis and Communications Group at the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy.

References

[1] Interview with Dr. AR Siders.

[2] Interview with Dr. Linda Shi.

[3] Interview with Dr. AR Siders.

[4] Interview with James Wade.

[5] Interview with Tim Trautman.

[6] Interview with Tim Trautman.

[7] Harris County Post Disaster Relocation and Buyout Program