Managed Retreat Toolkit

Open Space Acquisitions

Introduction to Open Space Acquisitions

State and local open space programs — and similar programs for agriculture and forestry — are designed to protect open space and working lands, respectively. Through these programs, governments voluntarily acquire title to all or part of a tract of privately owned land for specified conservation purposes. Governments can acquire either fee simple title or interests in or use rights to land through easements or covenant agreements. Landowners who decide to participate in one of these programs receive money for the purchase of their land or a conservation easement. In addition, federal, state, or local law may also provide private landowners with tax incentives or credits, particularly for conservation easements. 

In contrast to hazard mitigation buyout programs, open space acquisition programs and policies are typically executed for the primary purpose of voluntarily acquiring privately owned land for open space or recreation (e.g., parks, trails) or working land uses (e.g., agriculture, forest) that are compatible with conservation. In addition, the lands purchased tend to be — although are not always — undeveloped or moderately-altered habitats, whereas hazard mitigation properties are more often developed or contain structures. Although the two types of programs are not mutually exclusive in terms of resulting environmental and community benefits, they can be administered separately — even within a single agency — and may have different sources of funding (e.g., New Jersey Green and Blue Acres programs, New York City Land Acquisition and Flood Buyout programs). 


Open Space Acquisitions in a Managed Retreat Context

As part of a comprehensive managed retreat strategy, open space acquisition programs can support coastal conservation in multiple ways. States and communities can use these programs to protect priority migration corridors that will enable coastal ecosystems — consisting of both habitats (i.e., wetlands and forests) and species — to migrate inland and help to mitigate the overall loss of coastal habitats as a result of sea-level-rise inundation, saltwater intrusion, and salinization. Governments can also use these programs to acquire land in higher ground areas that can serve as future habitat to enable the inland transition or “establishment” of these migrating ecosystems. 

To support open space acquisition programs, state and local coastal governments can leverage voluntary buyouts for hazard mitigation purposes to conserve land to enhance coastal resilience and accommodate migrating ecosystems. Governments can also evaluate opportunities to build climate change and projected habitat data into these programs so that land purchases are informed by future impacts.

Acquisition programs and the funding sources that support acquisitions often specify the types and uses of properties that can be acquired and the purposes for which land can be acquired. As a result, governments will need to ensure that the lands they are identifying for acquisition for retreat purposes meet the requirements of the particular program and funding sources.


Policy Tradeoffs of Open Space Acquisitions


  • From educating and engaging communities about land conservation to the active restoration and maintenance of acquired land, open space acquisition programs necessitate a  long-term commitment of resources and diversified support staff that can contribute important expertise (e.g., grants management, real estate, economics/benefit-cost analysis, floodplain, natural resources, and park management). Staff may also require regular training and/or new staff could be hired to address emerging needs.
  • Governments without an existing open space acquisition program will have to develop one, which could require additional investment in staff and funding resources. Agencies will also need to navigate the potential political and community concerns around acquisitions (e.g., potential losses of property tax revenue by converting land from private to public ownership, inland wetland migration or encroachment, spending limited public funds on open space conservation at the expense of other community needs). 


  • Open space acquisition programs require significant capital for the short-term purchase and long-term maintenance, restoration, and monitoring of land, in addition to costs for staff and other resources necessary to accomplish these tasks. 
  • To pay for the above costs, governments ideally need sustainable sources of funding to operate and manage these programs and acquire land. 
  • Governments can offset some of the costs of these programs by allowing revenue-generating land uses compatible with conservation, like by incorporating passive recreational amenities and educational facilities. Funding restrictions on the money used to purchase a property may affect the types of land uses that may be allowed. 
  • Open space and agricultural preservation programs often also allow for continued economic use of lands for recreation or farmland.


  • Open space acquisition programs can remove or preclude the construction of hard, structural barriers to facilitate the inland migration of coastal wetlands and forests that are unable to keep pace with sea-level rise inundation, saltwater intrusion, and salinization, and a loss of sediment to “adapt-in-place” on the coast. Inland migration can mitigate the overall loss of important coastal habitats. 
  • Open space acquisition programs play important roles in protecting and restoring sensitive coastal ecosystems that deliver important ecological services like reducing flood or storm impacts, reducing flood insurance premiums for neighboring residents, and providing habitat for species like migratory birds.


  • By preemptively pursuing open space acquisition programs, governments and nongovernmental partners can acquire lands in vulnerable areas with high potential for development and ensure that new development is not constructed in harm’s way.
  • By incorporating recreational amenities, open space acquisition programs can be used to preserve and increase public access to coastal ecosystems.
  • Coastal ecosystems provide a host of benefits for communities that include preserving a sense of cultural identity and history. 
  • Lands acquired through open space programs can facilitate the encroachment of wetlands near or on surrounding private properties. Some private property owners, particularly in rural areas, may have concerns that encroaching wetlands could impact existing and future land uses and development.


Practice Tips

When implementing open space acquisitions in a managed retreat context, decisionmakers may consider the following practice tips to address and balance different policy tradeoffs: 

  • Leverage and align priorities across different types of acquisition programs: Both state and local governments usually administer hazard mitigation buyout and open space acquisition programs separately, despite their overlapping staff expertise and benefits for communities and the environment, among other factors. By leveraging and aligning priorities and funding sources across different types of acquisition programs, governments can reduce the costs and administrative complexity of acquiring, restoring, and maintaining land to enhance beneficial outcomes. To implement both types of acquisitions as part of a comprehensive managed retreat strategy, governments can start by identifying the following for each type of program: (1) all of the potential agency participants that should be consulted; (2) how both types of property purchases can be prioritized to advance mutual program objectives; and (3) potential sources and structures for funding. Alternatively, governments could consider combining land acquisition programs (or creating a hybrid version where they do not already exist) to more efficiently manage limited staff and funding. Both types of programs require similar answers to administrative and funding questions,  that include how to secure sustainable sources of funding,  what agency resources are needed to buy and restore, manage, and monitor land in the long term, and at what point should governments conduct benefit-cost and policy tradeoff analyses before acquiring title to privately owned land. 
  • Incorporate climate change data into open space acquisition programs: Governments should consider ways to incorporate data about forecasted climate impacts into their land acquisition programs and decisions. This data can enable governments to make more informed decisions about how to prioritize and allocate limited funds. For example, governments may choose to prioritize acquiring land that will not be inundated by sea-level rise over a specific time horizon or can serve as important habitat or species migration corridors (e.g., Florida Forever Program, Maryland GreenPrint and Program Open Space). Where sufficient data is unavailable, governments can consider partnering with nongovernmental organizations, like universities, to supplement their expertise and resources. 
  • Coordinate land acquisitions with other legal and policy tools: Governments should combine buyouts and open space acquisitions with other planning, regulatory, market-based, and other policy tools to facilitate coastal habitat migration including potential state or local regulatory restrictions on hard shoreline armoring and relocating infrastructure inland to remove barriers to migration pathways. 
  • Build public-private partnerships: Governments can build different types of public-private partnerships to maximize environmental and social/equity benefits and minimize administrative, environmental, and social/equity costs. Given the amount of and geographic scale of privately owned land that will be impacted by rising seas, public-private partnerships will enhance a community’s ability to protect and conserve important coastal ecosystems. Depending on the purpose of a given partnership, nongovernmental partners can include a host of entities like environmental nonprofits, universities, community development or community-based organizations, and land trusts. For example, environmental nonprofits, universities, and conservation land trusts can lend governments scientific expertise, volunteers, and funding support or supplement limited government staff and funding resources to restore and monitor acquired land. Different land-owning entities, including governments, can seek to leverage their funds to acquire more land in priority areas like migration corridors or higher ground areas where coastal habitats can become established. In addition, nonprofits and community-based organizations can conduct outreach to educate people about the benefits of coastal ecosystems and create local stewards. These organizations can also help governments gather information about community preference for different land purchases.

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