Managed Retreat Toolkit
Given the amount of privately owned land throughout most of the United States,See footnote 1 particularly on the coast, state and local governments that adopt managed retreat strategies should evaluate opportunities to use land acquisition powers to transfer more land to public ownership. Publicly owned, compared to privately owned land, can be held for the benefit of communities and the environment. Land acquisitions can occur through either the purchase of properties in fee simple or development rights (to part of or an entire property) through easements. Acquisition tools can require the expenditure of public and private funds (buyouts and open space acquisitions) and/or the in-kind exchange of land (land swaps).
Acquisition tools should be conceived of and communicated as one part of a comprehensive managed retreat strategy to facilitate the transition of people and coastal ecosystems away from vulnerable areas. By linking acquisitions with other tools (e.g., planning, regulatory, market-based), decisionmakers can minimize the social disruption of acquisitions and maximize economic, environmental, and social benefits by restoring acquired lands. This toolkit presents examples of how state and local governments and nongovernmental partners are implementing different buyout and acquisition tools to achieve these outcomes. Governments and residents should evaluate and address the tradeoffs that come with land acquisitions at the outset of climate adaptation and retreat decisionmaking efforts. For purposes of this section and the toolkit, all acquisition tools are presented as voluntary acquisitions in contrast to eminent domain. While eminent domain is a legally feasible option state and local decisionmakers may consider for purposes of effectuating managed retreat, it is not likely a politically viable adaptation strategy, particularly for residential areas.
This section will introduce five types of acquisition tools that state and local coastal governments could include — one, a few, or all — as part of a comprehensive managed retreat strategy.
Large-scale flooding, known as the “Halloween Flood of 2013,” in Austin’s Onion Creek neighborhood. Credit: Watershed Protection Department, City of Austin.
State and local governments can use hazard mitigation buyouts to acquire residential development from private property owners who choose to accept a buyout offer. Bought-out land is converted to natural floodplains and open space uses, which can offer a variety of benefits for communities and the environment. Traditionally, buyouts have been used as a post-disaster recovery tool in riverine areas. Buyouts, however, are increasingly being evaluated to proactively relocate existing development away from vulnerable coastal and flood-prone areas, particularly in groups of contiguous properties or clusters.
In addition to voluntary buyouts, state and local governments can acquire land with high conservation value to enhance coastal resilience and accommodate migrating habitats like wetlands and forests. In addition to moving private development and people out of harm’s way, decisionmakers can evaluate the opportunities that comprehensive retreat policies offer to protect and conserve, and where possible, restore coastal ecosystems that are also retreating due to rising seas.
Conservation land trusts are nonprofit organizations that are incorporated for the purpose of acquiring and holding land for the public benefit. Conservation land trusts often focus on preserving and restoring undeveloped lands for their natural resource values. Conservation land trusts can be constructive partners in helping governments facilitate retreat from vulnerable flood-prone areas and efforts to restore and maintain natural floodplains. In some areas, land trusts are already helping governments facilitate retreat by acquiring flood-prone properties, restoring natural floodplains, and creating new “receiving” developments to help families relocate to homes out of harm’s way.
A land swap is the exchange of title to land in perpetuity between two or more property owners. They generally only involve an in-kind exchange of land instead of money between parties. Land swaps can take a variety of forms, involve different numbers and types of property owners, and can be highly complex, but also serve as an effective means of implementing retreat on a larger scale. Land swaps can also be used to supplement government-funded acquisitions.
A leaseback is a legal tool that governments can use to lease acquired properties back to their original owners to generate revenue or a third party to reduce maintenance costs. Leasebacks provide governments with a more flexible means to acquire vulnerable properties for hazard mitigation or open space purposes by meeting private landowners’ present needs before future impacts occur due to sea-level rise, flooding, or coastal erosion.
Ownership of a parcel of land can be divided between a current possessory interest and a future interest that will entitle the future interest holder to possession only upon the occurrence of some event specified in a deed. For example, a property owner can grant a future interest to a third party, such as the government, through a life estate. The government will acquire future title to that land upon the property owner’s death. Like leasebacks, property arrangements using life estates and future interests in the government can encourage seller participation in hazard mitigation and open space acquisition programs. They also can reduce the government’s purchase, demolition, restoration, management, and other costs.