While most FEMA buyouts of “repetitive loss” properties currently happen through municipalities, land trusts could play a role helping communities break out of what has been dubbed the “flood, rebuild, repeat” cycle. Particularly in regions facing sea-level rise, municipalities urgently need help planning for inevitable change.
The accredited Eastern Shore Land Conservancy came to this realization early because it has always had “an expansive view of what the land trust could or should be in the community,” explains Brian Ambrette, ESLC’s director of strategic initiatives. It first focused its annual planning conference on sea-level rise in 2013, drawing a record 250 people. ESLC works in “a very red region of a blue state,” Ambrette notes, but has had success focusing community leaders on adaptation because people see “an existential threat in sea-level rise” and have already observed increased flooding and shoreline erosion.
Recognizing the shared climate threats and capacity limitations of local communities, ESLC began organizing a regional climate collaborative in 2016, with support from Antioch University’s Center for Climate Preparedness and Community Resilience. That effort drew together local participants, such as emergency managers, agency officials, university researchers and representatives of several nonprofits, creating what Ambrette calls “a lively ecosystem of folks” now engaged in mapping and information sharing. (The collaborative also provided “safety in numbers,” he says, for those who “didn’t have political cover themselves” to take action.)
Farther south in the Chesapeake Bay, a pilot project is underway that could offer hope to “communities where the infrastructure and tax base is built on soggy land,” suggests Mary-Carson Stiff, director of policy at the nonprofit Wetlands Watch and a board member of the new Living River Restoration Trust. She is working with two Virginia cities, Chesapeake and Norfolk, to provide enhanced financial incentives for people facing repeated flooding to voluntarily relocate.
Given that local governments can’t stretch FEMA grants further, and private landowners are finding it hard to sell vulnerable properties, there’s a clear need for new revenue streams. In Norfolk, Stiff explains, “A resilience point-based zoning ordinance now offers developers credit for specific actions that reduce risk” (such as more sustainable construction or funding land conservation linked to a shoreline retreat strategy).
Stiff calls it a “Transfer of Risk” program (akin to Transfer of Development Rights programs), in which LRRT will receive checks for land conservation written by developers earning needed resilience points, and those funds will cover costs associated with a “rolling conservation easement” voluntarily placed on a high-flood-risk property. Property owners have an incentive to participate as they can benefit from favorable state tax credits, federal tax deductions and reduced property taxes.
“There are a lot of unknowns that make this pilot project exciting and important,” Stiff adds, but the goal is to emerge with a template for a rolling easement that triggers demolition of structures when needed and ecological restoration of the site. She’s coordinating with others across Virginia and the country to ensure methods developed as part of this project could be readily exported. Stiff is optimistic that this initiative could “revolutionize how communities approach adaptation, taking some of the political charge out of managed retreat,” and making it clear that “land conservation is a win-win for people.”