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In climate adaptation, managed retreat needs to be part of the conversation

Report shows how to get “Buy-in for Buyouts”

Coastal regions are preparing for the inevitable impacts of climate change, including sea level rise, volatile weather, and flooding. And that’s good news. At a symposium just last week, city officials, developers and design professionals shared an array of strategies for making waterfront urban development more resilient.

But there was one thing missing from the conversation: There are some places where we simply shouldn’t build, no matter how resilient the structure; and many areas that should not be rebuilt, after disaster strikes.
The idea of managed retreat — forging new beginnings on safer ground, and creating public amenities by acquiring homes in flood-prone areas and restoring the land to natural floodplain functions — has been politically and culturally challenging, to be sure. Yet one little-used tool holds great promise: the buyout. Buyout and relocation programs can be more artfully designed to garner greater support by local governments and communities of property owners, according to a new report published by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy in collaboration with the Regional Plan Association.

In Buy-In for Buyouts: The Case for Managed Retreat from Flood Zones, authors Robert Freudenberg, Ellis Calvin, Laura Tolkoff, and Dare Brawley demystify the mechanics of buyout programs and how they have been implemented in the U.S., with a focus on communities in the New York metropolitan region that suffered damage from Hurricanes Irene and Sandy.

The fiscal impact of buyout programs is one of the biggest factors weighed by local governments in embracing or resisting buyout programs, according to the report. Incorporating financial considerations into the reuse of acquired properties and the relocation of residents is critical. For example, well designed parks can make nearby property more desirable, and open space projects can deliver water supply and flood prevention benefits.

“Restricted land use coupled with new amenities can increase property values and, in turn, increase local revenue,” the authors write. “If local governments plan properly, homeowners can relocate within the municipality and thereby maintain, and even enhance, the tax rolls.”

Buyout programs in the U.S. date back to the 1970s. They are funded primarily with federal grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), but programs are typically managed and overseen locally. Buyout programs can help break a cycle in which homeowners are incentivized to live in disaster-prone areas by federally subsidized flood insurance, which effectively shifts financial risks to the public. Under the 2012 Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act, many of these subsidies will be phased out, which is expected to raise premiums sharply for some residents and increase the need for alternative solutions such as buyouts.

Buy-In for Buyouts examines the use of buyouts in five communities in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, analyzing the implementation of programs at the state, county and municipal levels. The report includes a detailed fiscal impact analysis for each community, untangling the costs and benefits of removing properties from the floodplain and from property tax rolls, as well as an analysis of local demographic factors such as income, ethnicity, and homeownership rates, which are critical for understanding how well programs serve socially vulnerable populations. The local communities include Oakwood Beach, Staten Island, New York; Mastic Beach, Long Island, New York; Wayne Township, New Jersey; Sayreville, New Jersey; and Milford, Connecticut.

Among the recommendations:

• Rethink the purpose and timeline of buyout programs as a long-term adaptation strategy, not merely for short-term recovery

• Standardize buyout program requirements at the federal level, and increase capacity at the state and local level

• Consider alternative funding models, such as land trusts or community preservation taxes

• Provide technical assistance for municipalities, and incentives for property owners — including the opportunity for entire blocks to relocate together

Given the relatively limited use of buy-outs, we have much to learn about the benefits that can accrue, particularly in innovative use of bought-out land. For example, we’ve only begun to explore the potential of multiple-use plans for flood-prone land, such as providing recreational space for 95% of the time while hosting green infrastructure to protect others from flooding during extreme weather events. New Orleans has some good examples of this approach.

Communities need to be assured that future uses of acquired properties will benefit the public. It’s all about recalibrating incentives — rather than subsidizing development that puts families in harm’s way with discounted flood insurance, we’re now acknowledging the wisdom of avoiding the tragic loss of homes, and lives, through proactive public policy. Unfortunately, prevention of bad things is something that we rarely reward politically, or otherwise. We’d rather celebrate heroic actions taken when avoidable bad things occur.

By adding managed retreat through buyouts to the climate adaptation toolbox, communities can craft the most effective and equitable programs before the next storm hits.