Managed Retreat Toolkit


Introduction to Planning

Five people of different races and backgrounds sit around a table at a public engagement meeting examining a series of charts.Source: Louisiana Strategic Adaptations for Future Environments (LA SAFE).

Plans are important collaborative tools at all levels of government. Planning initiatives simultaneously help state and local governments prepare their communities for the future while also having the practical effect of establishing frameworks for future collaboration between diverse government agencies and stakeholders. Plans come in a variety of types and sizes at all levels of government and have different spatial and temporal attributes. In addition, some plans may be legally mandated or have legal force or effect, while others may have no particular legal mandate or requirements and are initiated primarily because of the strategic policy benefits they can provide governments. Plans should be developed through highly participatory public processes that provide all interested stakeholders an opportunity to meaningfully engage and inform the plan’s development. Plans often require updates and can evolve as living documents as changes occur, such as with community needs and environmental considerations. 


Planning in a Managed Retreat Context 

The Benefits of Planning

A man and young boy participate in an exercise with at an LA SAFE planning meetingSource: Louisiana Strategic Adaptations for Future Environments (LA SAFE).

Planning will be a critical component of managed retreat strategies for many reasons. These include: (1) plans serving as useful organizational and implementation tools; (2) elevating and encouraging proactive discussions about managed retreat; (3) supporting the phasing of actions over time; and (4) promoting community participation and support. 

First, plans and planning processes can serve as tools to help states and communities evaluate and balance legal and policy tradeoffs for managed retreat and organize and prioritize strategies that inform future implementation actions. There is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to managed retreat and governments and residents will have to consider what acquisition, infrastructure, regulatory, and market-based tools, if any, can be adapted to meet state and local needs. In addition, plans can assist governments in identifying more resilient and adaptive investments, particularly for urban development and infrastructure that will be directly impacted by long-term sea-level rise. 

Second, plans can proactively engage stakeholders about managed retreat as a part of comprehensive adaptation processes. Due to the challenges associated with managed retreat, governments and communities have primarily thought about retreat in a post-disaster or reactive hazard mitigation context. As a result, protection and accommodation strategies have historically been prioritized. Importantly, plans can elevate discussions about managed retreat and put it on an equal playing field with protection and accommodation at the start of decisionmaking efforts. This is not to say that managed retreat will always be the best or preferred adaptation strategy, endorsed by community members, or even appropriate given the physical risks facing an area. Nonetheless, by elevating discussions about managed retreat, plans can help maximize benefits (e.g., social, economic, environmental) and minimize costs by bringing a comprehensive suite of adaptation strategies to state and local decisionmaking tables at the outset. Notably, proactive plans can also help policymakers and communities better “manage” retreat over a long period of time. “Unmanaged” retreat can exacerbate historical inequities and environmental degradation and should therefore be avoided, when and where possible, to provide policymakers and community members with an opportunity to evaluate and consider a feasible range of adaptation alternatives (for more discussion, see the Crosscutting Policy Considerations>Community Engagement and Equity section of this toolkit). 

Third, plans can be used to phase implementation actions over time so that governments can better formulate budgets and investments with the timelines associated with physical coastal impacts. Plans can also help governments identify legal and policy changes that must take place before certain actions can be implemented (e.g., state grant of authority to local governments, amend land-use and zoning regulations). In addition, phasing actions can minimize the potential adverse consequences or costs of managed retreat by distributing those costs over extended time periods. For example, if voluntary buyouts are scheduled to occur over a ten- rather than a one-year period, residents may be more willing to participate in buyout programs and support managed retreat strategies because community character and tax bases will not shift as suddenly. 

Fourth, participatory planning can help educate stakeholders and build support for complex community solutions. Through the visionary component of plans, governments can give residents a voice to inform the future state of their communities in light of changing coastlines. Plans can potentially mitigate the sense of loss people may feel by giving them a platform to influence the future of their communities and providing them with a tangible vision for which they can aim. In short, plans can potentially aid governments in creating managed retreat processes that reflect community transformation instead of loss. 


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Developing Plans for Managed Retreat

The issues associated with coastal zone management should not be considered separate or apart from ongoing land-use and infrastructure planning. As such, these issues need to be explicitly incorporated into the regular cycle of legally mandated planning documents. There may, however, also be an opportunity to pursue supplemental planning initiatives for discrete purposes or areas. These efforts might be out-of-cycle or discretionary planning initiatives that explore solutions to challenges, such as specific inter-governmental coordination efforts, or unique conditions associated with inter-jurisdictional challenges, such as metropolitan-scale coordination or ecological asset-based planning centered on watersheds or regional wetlands.  

Among the many types of planning efforts that can be applied in a managed retreat context, below are nine types of plans that states and local governments can consider developing:

These particular plans, described in detail below, reflect current examples of coastal jurisdictions that have developed or are in the process of implementing plans with a strong or explicit nexus to managed retreat. This list and these case study examples will be updated as other jurisdictions incorporate managed retreat in their plans.   

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Hazard Mitigation Plans (e.g., State of Hawaii and City and County of Honolulu): In hazard mitigation plans, state and local governments develop strategies to protect people and property from future disaster events. These plans must meet requirements set by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).See footnote 1 Hazard mitigation plans start by identifying risks and vulnerabilities related to a given disaster or multiple types of disasters, like hurricanes, tsunamis, or flooding, and then potential strategies to reduce those risks and vulnerabilities.See footnote 2  In a managed retreat context, hazard mitigation plans can identify and increase awareness of coastal risks and vulnerabilities related to climate change. Hazard mitigation plans can also include strategies like buyouts that can be used to implement retreat. 

A road runs parallel to a rocky coast, protected only by a short concrete wall.Source: Wikimedia Commons.

While hazard mitigation plans can serve as an effective planning tool for managed retreat, they are also notable because a hazard mitigation plan approved by FEMA is a prerequisite for state and local governments to receive funding from FEMA’s Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communiteis (BRIC)Hazard Mitigation Grant, and Flood Mitigation Assistance programs.See footnote 3 Hazard mitigation plans provide the dual benefit of making state and local governments eligible for potential federal funding opportunities to implement retreat strategies. Only those strategies that are included in or consistent with hazard mitigation plans, however, can be funded; therefore, it is important for state and local governments to evaluate potential managed retreat strategies in these plans if they want to preserve their options for future funding consideration. 

Hazard mitigation plans can be cross-jurisdictional and cover multiple hazards in multi-hazard mitigation plans. The physical impacts of sea-level rise, flooding, and land loss may necessitate regional and multifaceted approaches to planning for retreat that hazard mitigation plans can offer because coasts and flooding extend across jurisdictional boundaries and can be influenced by various climate- and disaster-related factors. Although distinct, hazard mitigation plans can be similar to and aligned with climate adaptation plans and incorporated into other types of state and local plans.See footnote 4   


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Coastal Management Plans (e.g., Hawaii Feasibility Study on Managed Retreat, Louisiana Coastal Master Plan, Rhode Island Shoreline Change Special Area Management Plan or “Beach SAMP”): Coastal management plans are a way for state and local governments to consider and articulate balancing human uses and development with ecosystem conservation and protection in vulnerable coastal areas. The federal Coastal Zone Management Act (CZMA) and state-developed coastal management programs approved by the U.S. Secretary of Commerce under the CZMA regulates the “coastal zone” as a unique legal jurisdiction.See footnote 5 

In a managed retreat context, this type of plan can specifically guide development and conservation actions within a jurisdiction. While governments can develop new coastal management plans to meet individual needs, jurisdictions may not have to “reinvent the wheel” and can think creatively about existing plan opportunities, templates, and models and adapt them for climate change and managed retreat purposes. For example, Special Area Management Plans or “SAMPs” can be developed using coastal zone enhancement fundingSee footnote 6 from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) under the CZMA.See footnote 7  SAMPs are resource management plans developed to better manage specific geographic areas, although this may include a state’s entire coastal zone (e.g., Rhode Island). Notably, the CZMA provides that SAMPs can be used to “provide for increased specificity in protecting significant natural resources, reasonable coastal-dependent economic growth, improved protection of life and property in hazardous areas, including those areas likely to be affected by land subsidence [and] sea level rise . . . .”See footnote 8 Rhode Island capitalized on its extensive experience with the existing SAMP modelSee footnote 9  to create the nation’s first coast-wide adaptation plan, the Beach SAMP, that mapped climate and flooding impacts along the state’s coastline to inform more resilient development and redevelopment and potential retreat or relocation strategies. In contrast, some states or local governments may choose to pave the way with new examples of coastal management plans for retreat. In 2019, the State of Hawaii released the first example of a non-SAMP coastal plan assessing the potential feasibility of managed retreat in Hawaii. States and local governments can evaluate opportunities for both adapting existing types of plans like SAMPs and creating new types when reinvention is needed.  

Coastal management plans can complement or supplement state and local pre-disaster mitigation planning and recovery efforts, and local comprehensive plans and zoning regulations. 

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Local Comprehensive Plans (e.g., plaNorfolk 2030, Punta Gorda, Florida): Municipalities are generally required to have a long-term comprehensive plan that anticipates future land-use controls, such as zoning and special urban design districts.See footnote 10  A comprehensive plan provides the legal basis and support for land-use regulations.See footnote 11  Comprehensive plans are often referred to as general or master plans as well. Comprehensive plans are generally prepared for anywhere from a 10- or 25-year time horizon. Typically, legislation mandates updates (e.g., every five years) and that plans must be informed by many different studies, not the least of which are demographic projections, assumptions around the economy, housing, and infrastructure, as well as environmental studies. After this document has been completed (typically with robust stakeholder engagement), it is usually adopted by either a jurisdiction’s city council, board of supervisors, or a dedicated planning commission. Once adopted, comprehensive plans become the legal foundation for zoning in a jurisdiction, which typically specifies site-specific standards for discrete land-use proposals.See footnote 12  

A harbor walk in Punta Gorda, Florida. The brick walkway is dotted with palm trees and streetlights, and the water is visible below.Source: Wikimedia Commons.

At least in theory, municipalities possess tools and legal structures to anticipate coastal change and plan for managed retreat — where appropriate and prioritized by communities — through existing comprehensive plans and land-use and zoning regulations and programs. It is important to note that to date, there are only a handful of municipalities in the United States that have meaningfully incorporated sea-level rise into their comprehensive plans. Comprehensive plans can play an important role in identifying and coordinating many actions related to retreat including: identifying areas most suitable for long-term land uses; designating open space zones for wetlands migration corridors; providing legal justification for coastal setbacks or other regulatory tools for new development; and factoring future demographic data about population shifts due to climate change into demographic projections to support housing and infrastructure investments in higher ground receiving areas.

By meeting the legal requirements for comprehensive plans, local governments can develop a key tool to enhance the potential for incorporating sea-level rise, flooding, and land loss considerations into local land-use and zoning decisions. In addition, local governments can utilize comprehensive plans as a tool to integrate and potentially implement other types of plans for retreat that traditionally lack a concurrent legal nexus, particularly hazard mitigation plans and climate adaptation plans (e.g., Punta Gorda, Florida). 


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Climate Adaptation Plans (e.g., Punta Gorda, Florida, Louisiana Strategic Adaptations for Future Environments or “LA SAFE” Adaptation Strategies, Virginia Beach Sea Level Wise Strategy): Climate adaptation plans outline or direct how states and local governments will prepare to address forecasted climate change impacts. These plans vary in format, level of detail, and sectors covered, among other factors, and are often preceded by and aligned with or include a climate vulnerability assessment. 

For coastal states and communities, climate adaptation plans will ideally provide an opportunity for governments and other stakeholders to consider the full range of climate adaptation strategies for protection, accommodation, and retreat. This decisionmaking process informs where and when, if at all, each strategy will be prioritized and potentially implemented through different legal and policy tools. While managed retreat may not play a role in or be appropriate for all climate adaptation plans, the key is that these plans can be used as a mechanism to elevate proactive discussions about managed retreat to put it on an even playing field with protection and accommodation strategies. Where managed retreat is identified as a preferred coastal adaptation strategy, these plans can better enable states and communities to mitigate potential costs (e.g., economic, environmental, social) at the outset of these processes and not solely view retreat as an option of last resort.

As sea-level rise, flooding, land loss, and disaster events are expected to increase in frequency and intensity, it will become increasingly important to prepare these comprehensive adaptation strategies early and not just in a post-disaster context. Early discussions are particularly advantageous where efforts to conserve coastal ecosystems require more lead time to protect migration corridors and prepare receiving areas for people choosing to relocate away from the coast. These efforts may also require significant investments in housing and supporting infrastructure and services.

Climate adaptation plans may overlap with other types of plans, particularly longer-term or visioning ones, and can be integrated with or implemented through hazard mitigation plans and disaster recovery funding or local comprehensive plans and land-use and zoning regulations. 

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Two images: the top image shows the Short-term Vision for Resilient Edgemere. It includes hard barriers to protect against sea level rise. The second image is of the Long-term Vision for Resilient Edgemere. It incorporates greenspace, living shorelines, and less development near the water.

Short-term and long-term visions from the Resilient Edgemere Community Plan. Credit: New York City Department of Housing, Preservation, and Development.

Long-Term or Visioning Plans (e.g., Norfolk Vision 2100, Virginia, Resilient Edgemere Community Plan, Queens, New York): Long-term or visioning plans are distinct from local comprehensive plans because they are not legally required and can help communities plan over longer time periods (i.e., beyond a 10-25-year time horizon) by taking a forward-facing look at what their communities could look like in light of anticipated climate impacts. These types of plans can also provide municipalities with more flexibility to engage communities and design plans to suit their unique climate adaptation and managed retreat needs and priorities without having to meet specific legal requirements (e.g., complex plan formats, extraneous elements). For example, while Norfolk Vision 2100 encompasses the entire municipality of Norfolk, the Resilient Edgemere Community Plan was drafted through a community engagement process to address the specific needs of one neighborhood in Queens after Hurricane Sandy.

While these types of plans are likely to play a greater role at the local level with communities on the front lines of coastal change, states can also consider long-term or visioning plans that complement or support local initiatives (e.g., Louisiana Coastal Master Plan). Since physical impacts on the coast will manifest over present and future time periods, long-term and visioning plans can help states and communities better plan for and make smarter, more resilient investments in coastal development that will be in place for more than a few years. 

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Post-Disaster Recovery and Redevelopment Plans (e.g., State of Florida, State of Georgia, Princeville, North Carolina): Post-disaster recovery and redevelopment plans guide how a community will recover and rebuild after a major disaster. Post-disaster recovery and redevelopment plans can help state and local governments implement post-disaster response and recovery actions to mitigate future risk in coastal areas. These plans can be integrated with hazard mitigation and local comprehensive plans. Like hazard mitigation plans, post-disaster recovery and redevelopment plans can help align state and more often local actions with comprehensive managed retreat strategies in a coordinated rather than a haphazard fashion. While governments should strive to proactively plan to “manage” retreat, discussions about retreat have traditionally been and will necessarily continue in a post-disaster context. Coordinated responses and recovery actions can also help governments avoid conflicts with longer-term managed retreat policies.  

A flooded road in Princeville, North Carolina after Hurricane Matthew

A Flooded road in Princeville, North Carolina after Hurricane Matthew in 2016. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

In a managed retreat context, local governments can develop a post-disaster plan to identify opportunities to enhance resilience during disaster recovery efforts. Post-disaster plans prioritize the use of disaster recovery funding to discourage or prohibit redevelopment in repeatedly flooded areas through tools like rebuilding moratoria or stricter regulatory standards (e.g., setbacks and coastal buffers, minimum greenspace requirements). In addition to local comprehensive plans, local governments can utilize these plans to proactively make investments in higher ground, safer affordable housing options that can temporarily or permanently receive people after disasters.

Federal and state governments can provide support for local planning efforts through funding and technical assistance and possibly even require that local governments prepare these plans for statewide consistency in administering emergency management programs. Notably, the State of Florida requires that local governments prepare post-disaster redevelopment plans and provides best practices and guidance for developing them. In addition, Georgia’s coastal program, emergency management agency, and FEMA Region IV are coordinating with four coastal counties to complete disaster recovery and redevelopment plansSee footnote 13 with funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Coastal Resiliency Grant Program.See footnote 14 Similar to Florida, Georgia also created a guidance document to assist the counties going through this process.See footnote 15  

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Managed Retreat or Relocation-Specific Plans (e.g., 2018 Green Cincinnati Plan, Ohio, Hawaii Feasibility Study on Managed Retreat, Quinault Indian Nation Taholah Village Relocation Master Plan [Washington State]): Managed retreat or relocation-specific plans are an emerging example of plans that guide how communities can proactively plan for different aspects of a managed retreat strategy. These plans are focused on a community’s specific managed retreat goals and objectives and can facilitate easier project implementation because they provide a strategic look or analysis on this one subject, in lieu of solely including managed retreat as one element of a larger plan. For example, Quinault Indian Nation in Washington State created a comprehensive relocation master plan to direct and inform the phased relocation of its Taholah Village from a lower to higher elevation location. Communities or neighborhoods, like Quinault Indian Nation, that choose to relocate in whole or in part may consider this type of plan to be a useful tool.

Given the complex and interdisciplinary nature of managed retreat, managed retreat or relocation-specific plans can help communities identify, prioritize, organize, and coordinate a multifaceted approach to climate adaptation for a defined spatial area or a number of interested parties. Local governments can also tailor these plans to meet their individual needs around managed retreat. In the future, Cincinnati, Ohio anticipates receiving people moving away from the nation’s coast. In its 2018 Green Cincinnati Plan, Cincinnati aims to prepare to become a receiving area as one part of its resilience strategy. Here, managed retreat or relocation-specific plans can provide support to fill specific goals or objectives.

Given their place-based need and focus, these plans are more likely to be developed at the local level and can supplement other broader or longer-term or visioning plans. Nonetheless, states can provide support for plan development, like technical assistance and funding. 

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A crowd of people gather in a large meeting room for a public workshop on the Green Cincinnati plan

More than 250 residents participated in the 2018 Green Cincinnati Plan Kickoff held at the Cincinnati Zoo. Source: City of Cincinnati, Ohio. 


Wetlands Migration or Ecosystem-Specific Plans (e.g., Blackwater 2100, ReWild Mission Bay, San Diego, California): Wetlands migration or ecosystem-specific plans can help direct state and local actions to facilitate coastal ecosystem changes in response to sea-level rise, flooding, and land loss. These plans can ensure that public and private efforts are compatible with comprehensive managed retreat strategies addressing structures, infrastructure, and other community needs.

Adults and children examine the marsh ecosystem up close.

People take part in interactive learning during Love Your Wetlands Day at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: Greg Hoxsie for ReWild Mission Bay.

As sea levels rise, wetlands are encountering physical barriers to inland migration in a phenomenon known as "coastal squeeze." Wetlands are being squeezed between sea-level rise on one side and human development on the other, preventing their natural ability to adapt by moving to higher ground. As wetlands migrate, they encroach on existing land uses, such as agriculture, forestry, and residential communities, raising additional questions about shifting economies, equity, and wetlands and private development regulations (e.g., Clean Water Act, coastal zone management and local land-use regulations).

Wetlands migration plans can help state and local governments identify and prioritize areas for coastal restoration that can serve as migration corridors and higher ground wetlands establishment areas before future development exacerbates coastal squeeze and precludes wetlands from transitioning inland. Wetlands migration plans can also be used as a tool to proactively seek community input to avoid or mitigate potential land-use conflicts. These plans can vary based on their spatial scale to cover a protected area (e.g., Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge) or a state’s or municipality’s entire coastline to elevate awareness of this challenge, particularly given the extensive and multiple benefits wetlands provide people, economies, and the environment. For example, a statewide wetland mitigation or adaptation plan could help guide state acquisition efforts, and a local one could support the development of zoning or overlay districts that enhance open space and natural resources conservation. For similar reasons, ecosystem-specific plans could be created for other types of coastal habitats, like forests, and species that are being impacted. 

For more information on wetlands migration, see the Crosscutting Policy Considerations>Wetlands Migration section of this toolkit. 

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Long-Range Transportation Plans (e.g., Miami-Dade Transportation Planning Organization’s 2045 Long-Range Transportation Plan): As a condition of receiving federal surface transportation funds, state transportation agencies and metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) are required to engage in performance-based planning for the transportation system in their state or region.See footnote 16 States and MPOs must develop long-range plans (Long-Range Statewide Transportation Plan, or LRSTP, and Metropolitan Transportation Plan, or MTP, respectively) that detail performance measures and targets that will help to further national transportation goals set out in federal law.See footnote 17 Long-range plans typically have a 20- to 25-year planning horizon and provide a vision and overarching policy, and in some cases cite specific transportation projects planned. They provide the framework for developing the required short-term (four-year) plans, which detail specific priority projects and improvements that will be funded (Statewide Transportation Improvement Programs, or STIPs, in the case of states; and Transportation Improvement Programs, or TIPs, in the case of MPOs). 

Some state departments of transportation and MPOs (e.g., Maryland Department of Transportation; Miami-Dade Transportation Planning Organization; North Florida Transportation Planning Organization) have begun integrating climate change and sea-level rise considerations in their long-range plans. These plans could provide an appropriate means to consider transportation infrastructure needs relating to a managed retreat strategy. For example, state DOTs and MPOs that opt to include performance targets in their long-range plans relating to climate change resilience and sea-level rise will then have to link their investment priorities (as laid out in STIPs and TIPs) to those targets. These plans can then further describe how planned transportation improvements and investments will help achieve targets relating to resilience. Furthermore, the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation or “FAST” Act (the five-year surface transportation authorization passed in 2015) added new requirements for long-range plans to consider projects, strategies, and services that improve system "resiliency and reliability" and reduce or mitigate stormwater impacts.See footnote 18 State DOTs are also now required to conduct periodic evaluations on whether "reasonable alternatives" exist to roads, highways, and bridges that have repeatedly required repair or reconstruction as a result of emergency events.See footnote 19 In addition, state DOTs are required to consider these evaluations when developing projects and are encouraged to integrate findings in their planning documents as well, such as long-range plans.See footnote 20 These new planning requirements, while not citing climate change or sea-level rise specifically, may help encourage the consideration of strategies like managed retreat and asset relocation or disinvestment as long-term approaches to improving resilience and reliability of transportation infrastructure and networks. 

For more information on infrastructure tools for managed retreat, see the Infrastructure section of this toolkit. 

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The types and examples of plans described above can serve as a starting point for state and local governments looking to incorporate or elevate discussions about or goals and objectives for managed retreat into one or multiple types of planning efforts. Other project- or subject-based plans or guidance documents could be tiered from or created independently of any of these plans. For example, state and local governments that administer buyout programs could produce a plan or policy document that includes criteria to prioritize buyouts among properties volunteered to be acquired.

The important takeaways are that plans, whatever number and/or type, can be used as a strategic and guiding mechanism to proactively plan for managed retreat to maximize benefits and minimize costs for multiple stakeholders and the environment. Furthermore, different plans including elements of managed retreat should be coordinated and clearly linked. 


Policy Tradeoffs of Plans 

Plans can be used as a mechanism to help governments and communities decide among and prioritize different acquisition, infrastructure, regulatory, and market-based tools in their communities. Governments will have to choose between different types of plans to determine which options are better suited to meet state and local needs and specific objectives for managed retreat (e.g., an ecosystem plan to facilitate wetland migration in a more rural area, updates to comprehensive plans to prioritize investments in receiving areas in urban centers). Plans should be used in combination with and not to the exclusion of acquisition, infrastructure, regulatory, and market-based tools. Accordingly, it is more important for decisionmakers to determine what types of plans and planning processes can best meet state and local needs for retreat than weigh the policy tradeoffs of plans against other tools to select one type of tool over the other. 

Moreover, since plans come in a variety of types and sizes, since they are created for different purposes, and take place at multiple jurisdictional levels, it is difficult to present every potential policy tradeoff of planning tools in a single table. For example, a local government with limited staff and funding resources might decide to prioritize investments in plans that can come with potential project funding opportunities, like a hazard mitigation plan, over a local long-term visioning plan. In contrast, some municipalities may have multiple types of plans with a managed retreat nexus. There are, however, some overarching policy considerations state and local governments can think about before initiating planning efforts:

  • Administrative: Whether a short- or longer-term plan, plans require investments in government staff to start and sustain planning processes for activities that can often span multiple months or years and engage many diverse stakeholders. Smaller or rural communities may face more resource constraints and have less funding allocated to support specialized planning staff for these purposes. In addition, preparing a plan can be expensive and potentially cost-prohibitive for some governments. There are costs associated with the staff time needed to administer the process, retain specialty consultants to draft the plans, and expenses for data collection and engaging with the public. Federal and state grants to local governments are often limited by caps on how much money grantees can spend on planning or administrative functions and tasks. It is important that governments consider opportunities to fund planning processes in conjunction with project implementation. 
  • Social/Equity: Plans are more successful when communities are engaged throughout their conception, development, and implementation. Plans can serve as an effective vehicle for bringing communities together, elevating community voices and concerns, ensuring communities have influence on the process and are included in the decisionmaking, and minimizing inequities by enabling governments to “manage” or be more strategic, inclusive, and thoughtful about the social and economic consequences of climate adaptation and managed retreat. For more information on community engagement and equity in a managed retreat context, see the Crosscutting Policy Considerations>Community Engagement and Equity section of this toolkit. 

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Practice Tips

When implementing planning tools in a managed retreat context, decisionmakers may consider the following practice tips: 

  • Invest in data at an appropriate scale: Physical impacts from sea-level rise, storm surge, different types of flooding (e.g., precipitation), and coastal erosion are the impetus or drivers for state and community decisions to retreat. Accordingly, governments will need the best available scientific data and information on an appropriate scale to effectively guide and inform planning, legal, policy, and project decisions on the ground. This data must be highly placed-based and is key to helping governments and communities identify what coastal areas may necessitate retreat and if so, when and how. While some governments may already have the necessary data, others will have to invest in or look for opportunities to obtain data before they can engage their agencies and communities in discussions about managed retreat. Federal agencies (e.g., National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Geological Survey) and conservation nonprofits (e.g., The Nature Conservancy) may already have data on an appropriate scale that governments can use to inform the development of their plans and corresponding legal and policy decisions. Alternatively, state and local governments may have to consider grant or other funding opportunities to initiate partnerships to collect this data from scratch. Of particular note, flood data from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) can serve as a starting point, but it has its limitations. Specifically, FEMA’s data only includes historical and not future flood data, does not incorporate climate change considerations, and may not present data for a community’s most at-risk areas outside of the 100-year (one-percent annual chance) floodplain, particularly for locations that are experiencing compounding flood risks.

    While scientific data is important, community residents — particularly those who have lived in an area for a long time or have historical or cultural ties — can provide additional types of data or information based on historical or lived experiences that, among other things, can help governments better understand cyclical or long-term changes on the coast to inform climate adaptation discussions (e.g., Louisiana Strategic Adaptations for Future Environments or “LA SAFE,” Quinault Indian Nation Taholah Village Relocation). Governments, therefore, should aim to make data collection processes as comprehensive as possible and reach out to more than just scientific and coastal experts. In addition to scientific data, it will also be important for governments to gather and analyze other types of data like economic, housing, demographic, and habitat- and species-specific data to make more resilient investments to account for shifting human and natural resources populations (e.g., Louisiana Coastal Master Plan). Complementary datasets will be key to crafting well-rounded, interdisciplinary approaches for managed retreat.
  • Collaborate across agencies and levels of governments: Given the interdisciplinary nature of managed retreat, it will be crucial for governments to collaborate across agencies and different levels of government (i.e., federal, state, and local) and integrate relevant plans that address various components of a managed retreat strategy. Although government collaboration and planning integration require investments in staff time and resources, they can contribute to more comprehensive strategies that increase the potential for maximizing and more equally distributing the various benefits of managed retreat while minimizing associated costs. For example, plans can enable governments to leverage limited staff time and funding to identify and implement managed retreat laws, policies, and projects that can achieve co-benefits for multiple stakeholders and the environment. Strategic and guiding mechanisms like plans  — or intra- or inter-governmental committees or coordinating bodies built around a plan — can allow different agencies and levels of government to contribute their individual jurisdiction or expertise to a collective “bigger picture” vision for managed retreat. 
  • Plan over both short- and longer-term time horizons: One of the systemic risks associated with short-term planning is that the long-term impacts of climate change are not being adequately incorporated into decisionmaking. Since there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach for planning, governments should consider developing plans over different and multiple temporal horizons. Physical impacts from climate change will manifest differently over time in places and planning processes can help governments coordinate the legal and policy decisions related to those impacts. Planning over shorter-term (e.g., ten years or less) and longer-term time horizons (e.g., more than ten years) will prompt different types of questions and needs that should be addressed proactively in the appropriate types of plans to guide managed retreat decisions both today and tomorrow. Importantly, short-term or present decisions about investments with multiple-decadal life spans (e.g., infrastructure) will have long-term consequences if future development and redevelopment are not designed and sited with sea-level rise, flooding, and coastal erosion in mind.

    In addition, states and communities make decisions along different time horizons (e.g., two- or four-year election cycles, 20-30-year mortgage or infrastructure investments). As a result, plans can be used as a tool to foster cooperation among policymakers and residents in ways that align with important life decisions and milestones. A coordinated approach can help to frame discussions about climate adaptation and managed retreat in more understandable or analogous terms that can create political and community buy-in to advance and support planning and potential implementation efforts. 
  • Create flexible planning models and tools, including phased approaches: State and local governments should consider opportunities to design and implement flexible planning models that can absorb and respond to different factors like changing physical impacts on the coast, community needs and priorities, and other administrative factors (e.g., funding availability, state and local policy or political changes). For example, governments can evaluate how to apply adaptive management principles in their plans, particularly for novel or evolving projects that are anticipated to be implemented and have uncertain impacts or effects. Moreover, flexible and phased approaches to community-driven plans can be used to shape and manage community expectations and mitigate the potential costs of managed retreat. Notably, elected officials, agency policymakers, and residents may be more willing to engage in longer-term planning efforts for managed retreat if potential policies and tools are phased in over time. Specifically, a plan to implement policies over a longer time horizon can mitigate potential losses to local tax bases, economies, and community character and networks. 
  • Align plans with the prerequisite and supporting actions needed to implement managed retreat strategies: Plans can serve as strategic guidance for implementation and help coastal communities respond to climate change impacts. Durable planning documentation can provide enhanced legal certainty to support resilient investments in communities. Plans can also assist governments in taking actions that will have to occur or take place before managed retreat strategies can be implemented. These actions can include removing barriers to implementation by proactively identifying potential funding sources or amending land-use and zoning ordinances. By incorporating these supporting actions into planning efforts, governments can also assess the feasibility of different managed retreat strategies and either prioritize or eliminate many at the early planning phase before investing time and resources into those strategies at the point of implementation.   
  • Remove procedural barriers to equitable participation in planning processes: As with all aspects of developing comprehensive managed retreat strategies, governments should provide communities with the tools, information, and opportunities they need to meaningfully engage and actively participate in planning processes. Governments can make upfront investments to support outreach and educational and information needs by providing meals, daycare, and compensating participants for their time with a stipend to defer travel costs. Allocating funding to support community engagement removes procedural barriers to equitable participation. These investments can ultimately increase the number of people who are able to participate and encourage valuable input through sharing important first-hand knowledge of coastal flooding impacts and community needs. Community insights can be factored into the design and selection of a plan’s mission and vision statements, goals, objectives, and potential adaptation projects. For more information, see the Crosscutting Policy Considerations>Community Engagement and Equity section of this toolkit and Georgetown Climate Center’s Equitable Adaptation Legal and Policy Toolkit
  • Build community capacity to participate in planning efforts: In addition to encouraging and facilitating participation from all interested residents, governments should also evaluate opportunities to build local capacity for residents to lead and meaningfully contribute to planning processes and their implementation. For example, as part of the Louisiana Strategic Adaptations for Future Environments or “LA SAFE” community engagement planning process, the state partnered with a nonprofit, the Foundation for Louisiana, to train local facilitators who played an active role in leading the development of local adaptation plans. Facilitators were offered stipends to compensate them for their time and contributions to the process. Governments can also design and implement plans in ways that can be used as a vehicle to build local capacity.
  • Build public-private partnerships: State and local governments can build various types of partnerships to offset some of the administrative, economic, and social costs of planning processes for managed retreat. For example, public-private partnerships with universities or nonprofits could be used to collect localized data, engage communities in planning discussions and determine how plans can best support local needs to minimize social costs, and evaluate how projects identified in plans can be implemented on the ground. Nonprofit organizations like Urban Land Institute are working to bring private sector investors, developers, and economic development officials to the decisionmaking table as well.

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