The Case for Managed Retreat From Flood Zones

This guest post was written by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. 

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, thereby increasing land values.

Buyout programs in the U.S. are funded primarily through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), but they 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: Oakwood Beach, Staten Island, New York; Mastic Beach, Long Island, New York; Wayne Township, New Jersey; Sayreville, New Jersey; and Milford, Connecticut.

The programs played out very differently in each community. For example, Oakwood Beach 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.”

The authors make the following recommendations for flood-prone communities:

  • 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.