Managed Retreat Toolkit



Given the cross-jurisdictional impacts of sea-level rise, flooding, and land loss, states and local governments may contemplate regional approaches for managed retreat. The need for regional governance structures could be compounded by shifting populations and ecosystems that move from one jurisdiction to another. Notably, if people choose to leave vulnerable coastal areas, those municipalities may suffer losses to their tax bases. This will hinder municipalities’ ability to provide basic and essential services and make sustained investments in their communities (e.g., building and maintaining infrastructure, schools) more difficult. While larger urban municipalities may be able to absorb some or many of the costs associated with these tax transfers, these losses could exacerbate resource inequities in underserved smaller and frontline communities. Compartmentalized governmental structures could also contribute to the insufficient oversight of important shared coastal resources and public assets, which can lead to their deterioration or destruction. In addition, governments will have to meet the needs of “receiving” communities in different jurisdictions.

One potential solution to avoid or mitigate economic, environmental, and social impacts on individual municipalities would be to share the costs of sea-level rise, flooding, and erosion by distributing them across a greater number of people over a larger area.See footnote 1 Regional solutions could be more equitable in addition to better protecting migrating ecosystems and public beaches and coasts. To overcome these challenges, state and especially local governments can consider various approaches for regional governance including:

  • Establishing regional government entities that supplement, but do not displace independent local authorities to administer prescribed government functions like collecting and distributing tax revenues; building, maintaining, and funding cross-jurisdictional investments in infrastructure like roads and drinking and stormwater systems; or implementing tools for larger-scale retreat strategies like buyouts and Transfer of Development Rights programs (e.g., San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission; Maryland Senate Bill 547; Charlotte-Mecklenburg Storm Water Services Floodplain Buyout Program, North Carolina; Harris County Flood Control District, Texas; King County Transfer of Development Rights Program, Washington State; New Hampshire Senate Bill 285);
  • Altering municipal boundaries either by dissolving and merging independent municipalities together or annexing parts of other municipalities to create consolidated local government units and acquire higher ground land that can serve as receiving areas (e.g., Princeville, North Carolina; Punta Gorda, Florida); 
  • Engaging in regional planning for managed retreat to identify and prioritize coastal adaptation actions and leverage funding and other resources to implement those actions (e.g., Louisiana Strategic Adaptations for Future Environments or “LA SAFE”); or
  • Entering into informal, non-binding agreements (e.g., memoranda of understanding or agreement) or regional collaborations to better guide and coordinate the actions of individual municipalities to achieve mutual benefits and shared outcomes (e.g., Southeast Florida Regional Climate Compact). 

As climate change and coastal hazards increase in frequency and intensity, local governments and particularly smaller municipalities may have an increasing need to evaluate regional models for the purpose of administering or supporting either select or multiple government functions. 

States may also consider developing inter-state regional approaches for retreat.  In addition, states can provide different types of support for intra-state regional efforts at the local level, including through technical and funding assistance and amending existing or creating new laws to meet regional governance needs.

Related Resources

New Hampshire Senate Bill (S.B.) 285: Establishing a Coastal Resilience and Economic Development Program

On August 3, 2019, the State of New Hampshire passed Senate Bill (S.B.) 285 to establish a coastal resilience and economic development program and provide local governments with innovative new tools to address climate emergencies due to sea-level rise, storm surge, and flooding. One notable provision of the bill allows municipalities to either alter their existing boundaries or create a new municipality by combining existing ones (Section 2). Another notable provision allows municipalities to establish Joint Municipal Development and Revitalization Districts, which may include land from several municipalities, to create agreements to share tax revenues and expenditures across jurisdictions (Section 3). The bill provides an example of an innovative state law supporting local governments to overcome governance challenges when adapting to climate change impacts that pose cross-jurisdictional challenges, including coordinating regional responses to sea-level rise and sharing tax revenues and the associated costs of these responses. Other states might consider authorizing similar tools for annexation or multi-jurisdictional districts to aid local governments confronting these emerging issues and improve cross-jurisdictional resilience to sea-level rise and other coastal hazards.

Annexing and Preparing Higher Ground Receiving Areas in Princeville, North Carolina Through Post-Disaster Recovery Processes

In 2017, the Town of Princeville, North Carolina engaged experts and communities in a long-term, comprehensive planning process to annex a 53-acre parcel of land located outside of the town’s 100-year floodplain to develop a safer, higher ground area where residents, structures, and infrastructure can be relocated. After experiencing flooding impacts from Hurricane Matthew in 2016, Princeville was selected as one of six municipalities in North Carolina to receive technical and funding support from the state through the Hurricane Matthew Disaster Recovery and Resilience Initiative. After completing a study called the Land Suitability Analysis, Princeville worked with the State of North Carolina to annex a nearby 53-acre parcel — located two miles from the Princeville town center and at a higher elevation area outside the 100-year floodplain to implement this managed retreat strategy. The State of North Carolina purchased this privately owned land on behalf of the town. Following the decision to annex this land, Princeville initiated a community engagement process to plan for this move to higher ground. As done in Princeville, local governments may consider options for relocating vulnerable residences and community facilities and services, including by annexing new land where sufficient higher ground land within existing municipal boundaries is not available to reallocate critical land uses and maintain local communities, tax bases, and economies.

Annexing Higher Ground and Preparing Receiving Areas in Hamilton, Washington

In 2019, after decades of repetitive flooding, the town of Hamilton in Skagit County, Washington partnered with Forterra, a local land conservancy nonprofit, to annex a 48-acre parcel of land located outside of the town’s 100-year floodplain. Annexing this land will provide Hamilton with a higher, drier ground area where town residents could voluntarily relocate to new homes. Forterra is developing plans for the annexed parcel to build affordable, environmentally conscious homes for Hamilton residents. Hamilton provides an example for other municipalities and local governments either in a pre- or post-disaster context for revitalizing a community challenged by frequent flooding through adaptation actions. As done in Hamilton, local governments may consider possibilities for providing relocation options to residents within a floodplain, including by annexing new land, particularly where sufficient higher ground land within existing municipal boundaries is not available. Annexation can allow local governments to maintain local communities, tax bases, and economies.


Managing the Retreat from Rising Seas — State of Louisiana: Louisiana Strategic Adaptations for Future Environments (LA SAFE)

Louisiana Strategic Adaptations for Future Environments (LA SAFE) is a community-based planning and capital investment process that will help the state fund and implement several projects, including for managed retreat, to make its coasts more resilient. Notably, LA SAFE is being implemented on both a regional and individual parish scale to coordinate adaptation actions along Louisiana’s coast. In 2016, Louisiana’s Office for Community Development–Disaster Recovery Unit received a nearly $40 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development through the National Disaster Resilience Competition and additional state and nongovernmental funds to implement LA SAFE. The grant will support the design and implementation of resilience projects to address impacts in six coastal parishes that were affected by Hurricane Isaac in 2012. The state partnered with the nonprofit Foundation for Louisiana to administer LA SAFE and facilitate an extensive, year-long community engagement process that will result in implementation of ten funded projects across the six parishes. LA SAFE adopts a regional approach to addressing coastal flood risk; projects are designed to address risk and resilience across multiple sectors (e.g., housing, transportation, infrastructure, economic development), and to advance adaptation projects to achieve different risk-based goals (e.g., reshape development in low risk areas that will receive populations migrating from coastal areas, retrofit development in moderate risk areas to accommodate increasing flood risk, and resettle people from high flood risk areas losing land and population). By contemplating a regional, rather than a parish-specific, approach to addressing coastal risk, LA SAFE provides a model that other states and local governments may consider when making long-term adaptation and resilience investments, including for managed retreat.

Louisiana Strategic Adaptations for Future Environments (LA SAFE) Adaptation Strategies

Building on LA SAFE’s community-driven framework for adaptation and the ten state-funded projects, the state is continuing to work with the six parishes to mainstream and institutionalize adaptation and resilience at both the regional and parish levels. In May 2019, the state released a regional adaptation strategy and six parish-level strategies to support long-term adaptation planning. Each strategy follows LA SAFE’s framework for identifying projects to meet different adaptation and development goals based on flood risk to ensure that future regional and local projects are similarly designed to advance comprehensive approaches. Notably, to support parishes in reaching their housing and development goals, the strategies identify projects that direct growth to low risk areas and prepare receiving communities. These strategies will assist the parishes to develop and invest in additional projects that will be more resilient to coastal impacts over the state's 50-year planning horizon and achieve multiple benefits for communities.

Managing the Retreat from Rising Seas — King County, Washington: Transfer of Development Rights Program

In Washington State, King County operates a regional Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) Program to achieve long-term planning goals and incentivize development in strategic growth areas. Municipalities and unincorporated areas across the county can voluntarily choose to participate in and integrate the necessary provisions into their local codes. Municipal programs are then administered individually according to local laws and an interlocal legal agreement with King County. Between 2000 and July 2019, 144,290 acres of rural and resource lands were conserved and protected through the King County TDR Program. As a result, 2,467 potential dwelling units have been relocated from rural to urban areas. Washington State also created the regional Landscape Conservation and Local Infrastructure Program to support TDR Programs like King County’s by financing infrastructure development and other improvements in receiving communities to ensure these areas can keep pace with population growth. In a managed retreat context, TDR Programs modeled after King County can be used to preserve lands for ecological benefits through conservation easements, while ensuring new development is concentrated in areas that are less vulnerable to flooding and coastal hazards, such as sea-level rise and storm surges.

Managing the Retreat from Rising Seas — Punta Gorda, Florida: Climate Adaptation and Comprehensive Plans and Updates

Punta Gorda, Florida has responded to the threat of coastal storms and climate change impacts with two different plans — a Climate Adaptation Plan and a local comprehensive plan  — to promote, manage, and protect the city’s natural resources and plan for development in a way that minimizes risks to people and property and conserves ecosystems. The Adaptation Plan includes a variety of adaptation options that enjoy broad community support, including managed retreat or “planned relocation.” Among other actions identified in a 2019 update to the Adaptation Plan, the city has adopted a voluntary annexation policy to acquire higher and drier land that can provide the city with options to potentially relocate development and infrastructure locally and maintain tax bases as climate impacts occur. This policy can serve as an example or model for other local coastal governments.

Maryland Senate Bill 457: Resilience Authorities

Passed on May 8, 2020, Maryland’s Senate Bill 457 authorizes local governments to establish and fund a Resilience Authority under local law. A Resilience Authority enables a local jurisdiction  — or multiple jurisdictions in Maryland — to flexibly organize funding for and manage large-scale infrastructure projects specifically aimed at addressing the effects of climate change, including sea-level rise, flooding, increased precipitation, and erosion. Authorities can draw from diverse funding sources, including non-tax-based fees, bonds, and state, local, and nongovernmental contributions, to support a non-exhaustive list of infrastructure projects, such as  conserving green and open spaces to enhance flood mitigation. The power to establish these Authorities allows local governments to accelerate infrastructure financing for climate adaptation and managed retreat, where appropriate, through new local and regional approaches.

Managing the Retreat from Rising Seas — Charlotte-Mecklenburg County, North Carolina: Floodplain Buyout Program

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Storm Water Services (CMSS) — a county-wide regional utility in North Carolina — has been administering a Floodplain Buyout Program to relocate vulnerable residents out of floodplains and reduce long-term flood damage. The buyout program is focused on risk reduction and flood mitigation best practices, where once bought out, properties are returned to open space uses to restore their natural beneficial flood retention and water quality improvement functions and provide other community amenities, like parks and trails. CMSS has purchased more than 400 flood-prone homes and businesses and enabled over 700 families and businesses to relocate to less vulnerable locations outside of the floodplain. As a result of the floodplain buyouts, the community has gained an additional 185 acres in open space and recreational assets and encouraged the development of newer, more resilient buildings in less vulnerable locations within Mecklenburg County. As a result, the county estimates it has avoided an estimated $25 million in property damage and related losses to date, and prevented $300 million in future losses.

Managing the Retreat from Rising Seas — Harris County, Texas: Flood Control District Local Buyout Program

Harris County, Texas established a voluntary home buyout program through the regional government agency, the Harris County Flood Control District (HCFCD), that can serve as an example for other local jurisdictions considering retreat from coastal and riverine flood-prone areas. As a result of the program, more than 3,000 properties (as of 2019) have been purchased to remove residents from flood-prone areas and prevent future flood damage to people, property, and the environment. The buyout program is focused on risk reduction and flood mitigation best practices, where once bought out, properties are returned to open space uses to restore their natural beneficial flood retention functions.

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