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Report Makes Case for Managed Retreat from Flood Zones

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

For immediate release
Contacts: Anthony Flint 617-503-2116 anthony.flint@lincolninst.edu
Will Jason 617-503-2254 wjason@lincolninst.edu

CAMBRDGE, Mass. (Sept. 21, 2016) – In the face of rising sea levels, more frequent and severe storms, and other climate change risks, flood-prone communities need to give greater consideration to strategic retreat through buyouts, a policy tool for removing residential development from the most vulnerable areas, according to new research 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. They provide a roadmap for making programs more effective and more likely to garner the support of local governments and community members.

Managed retreat “allows residents to forge new beginnings on safer ground and helps create public amenities by acquiring homes in the flood-prone areas and restoring the land to natural floodplain functions,” the authors write.

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. The details of programs vary greatly, but in most cases a public agency acquires properties from homeowners and converts them to a less risky use, usually open space or parkland, although in some cases structures may be rebuilt to meet strict building code and elevation requirements.

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.

Buyout programs played out very differently in each community. For example, the Oakwood Beach neighborhood benefited from being part of New York City, which made the loss of property tax revenue negligible and helped achieve 99 percent participation. In Mastic Beach, by contrast, buyout efforts were hamstrung by opposition from some municipal officials, and “conflicting programs and messages from different agencies and levels of government led to confusion among residents over their options.”

In reviewing the cases studies and analyzing buyout programs across all levels of government, the authors make the following recommendations for designing and improving programs:

  • 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 incentives for property owners – including the opportunity for entire blocks to relocate together

Asking residents or entire neighborhoods to uproot is “is laden with social and political difficulties,” the authors write, which is why many communities have dismissed managed retreat as a strategy. However, the unavoidable impacts of climate change will require adding retreat to the adaptation toolbox, and this report will help communities craft the most effective and equitable programs before the next storm hits.

About the Authors

Robert Freudenberg is director of the Regional Plan Association’s energy and environmental programs, leading the organization’s initiatives in areas including climate mitigation and adaptation, open space conservation and park development, and water resource management. He oversees a comprehensive program of projects and policies to improve public health, quality of life, sustainable development and climate resilience in the New York-New Jersey-Connecticut metropolitan area. Rob works closely with other RPA staff to integrate these objectives with RPA's economic, transportation, land use, design and community development initiatives. Prior to joining RPA, Rob served as a coastal management fellow at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, where he focused on policies for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. Rob holds a master’s of public administration in environmental science and policy from the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs and a bachelor’s in environmental biology from SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry.

Ellis Calvin is an associate planner dedicated to making the region a more equitable and resilient place. His work includes researching best practices in climate change adaptation strategies for the diverse types of communities across the metropolitan region and conducting data and spatial analyses to understand the impact of environmental planning and policies on our quality of life. Ellis's graduate thesis focused on the relationship between urban design, public projects and the politics of global economic competitiveness in Medellin, Colombia. He has a master’s in urban planning from Columbia University and a bachelor’s in geographical studies from the University of Chicago.

Laura Tolkoff coordinates the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association’s planning and policy work in San Jose. Prior to joining SPUR, Laura was a senior planner for energy and the environment at Regional Plan Association (RPA), a nonprofit research, planning and advocacy organization in the New York metropolitan area. There, she managed and led the organization’s energy program and coastal climate resilience portfolio. She co-authored a number of reports and policy studies on the transformation of the power sector, climate resilience and hazard mitigation. Prior to RPA, Laura coordinated a HUD-funded study of mixed-income housing at New York City’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development. Laura earned a master’s degree in urban and environmental policy and planning from Tufts University and a bachelor’s degree in media studies from the University of California, Berkeley.

Dare Brawley is the program administrator at Columbia University’s Center for Spatial Research. Prior to joining the center, Dare was a research analyst for the Regional Plan Association’s energy and environmental programs where she contributed research, analysis and design to RPA’s coastal resilience and energy portfolios. Her work brings together data analytics, design and social science research to advance equitable policy and decision-making. She is a 2014 graduate of Barnard College with a bachelor’s in architecture and a double concentration in physics and the ethics of data visualization. As a Centennial Scholar at Barnard, she investigated flaws in the collection and analysis of data on housing foreclosures and vacancies following the 2008 financial crisis. Prior to joining RPA, she was an intern at Interboro Partners, and architecture and design firm in Brooklyn, and a research assistant at Columbia University’s Spatial Information Design Lab.

The Lincoln Institute of Land Policy is an independent, nonpartisan organization whose mission is to help solve global economic, social, and environmental challenges to improve the quality of life through creative approaches to the use, taxation, and stewardship of land.

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