Managed Retreat Toolkit

Social/Equity: Receiving Communities


A group of women and girls stand on a trail in the woods, smiling at the camera. They are wearing athletic pants and sweatshirts, ready for a day of hiking. There is a sign that says "King County: Cedar River Trail."Source: King County Parks.

Working with communities to facilitate voluntary transitions is only one side of the managed retreat coin. “Receiving communities” — or “receiving areas” — is the broad term used to refer to locations where people may be relocating in response to coastal hazards and climate impacts. Receiving areas can be located within the same municipality as a “sending” area or in a different municipal, county, state, or national jurisdiction. While the geographic characteristics and land-use patterns of individual receiving communities will vary, they will ideally be located at a higher elevation and/or further inland away from coastal sending areas experiencing sea-level rise, flooding, and/or erosion. This will better ensure that people are safer and better off, at least from a reduced risk standpoint. Receiving communities can apply in both a pre- and post-disaster context where people seek refuge in response to either episodic (e.g., hurricanes) or chronic (e.g., high tide flooding) threats. People may choose to stay there temporarily or indefinitely. Given the focus on proactive managed retreat strategies, this toolkit section primarily discusses and proposes legal and policy recommendations for receiving communities where people permanently choose to relocate in a non-disaster-related context.

To adequately prepare receiving areas, state and especially local governments should aim to plan for and make proactive investments in affordable housing, infrastructure, and critical services (e.g., schools). These actions are necessary to support anticipated population increases unless particular regions or municipalities already possess sufficient but underutilized capacity. The growth of receiving communities will present governments with important fiscal and social questions. Fiscally, governments will have to evaluate how to fund the implementation of potential policies and projects and assess the impacts of population changes and these investments on state and local budgets and tax bases. Socially, governments must work with both current and new residents to guide and inform the future development of these areas.

Where governments implement hazard mitigation buyouts (e.g., Minot, North Dakota), land swaps (e.g., Resilient Edgemere and New Orleans, Louisiana), or Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) programs (e.g., King County, Washington), policymakers will be directly confronted by some or all of these considerations; however, some areas will indirectly receive people from outside their jurisdiction and not as a direct result of their managed retreat policies. For example, some places that will serve as receiving communities will choose to adapt through non-retreat strategies or will not experience significant sea-level rise or coastal erosion. These locations would include urban cities with seawalls that protect shorelines; and non-coastal cities like Buffalo, New York or Cincinnati, Ohio that are anticipating future population growth as people leave the coast. Regardless of the cause or impetus, governments should be aware of the potential ways they could become receiving communities. Governments can use demographic and other types of data to track or monitor these shifts.

In elevating and prioritizing considerations about receiving communities, it is important for governments to simultaneously recognize that not everyone will choose or be able to move away from vulnerable coastal areas (e.g., people who desire to stay in place and/or lack the financial resources to leave). Different adaptation strategies are needed for low risk receiving areas with growing populations and high and moderate risk areas that may be losing population; therefore, measures are also needed to help residents and businesses that will continue to occupy higher risk areas. Policies and programs can be designed to help communities transition and mitigate impacts from population losses and reduced tax bases — for example, by making investments to sustain communities by enhancing the resilience of homes and infrastructure (e.g., through floodproofing or elevation). 


Practice Tips

State and local governments that anticipate becoming receiving communities may consider the following practice tips:

  • Invest in data: Before governments can evaluate whether to plan for and make investments in receiving communities, they will need the best available data to identify these areas. In most cases, this will be a threshold or dispositive question before governments take any actions to avoid wasting limited resources. Through one approach advanced by the Louisiana Strategic Adaptations for Future Environments, or “LA SAFE” program, governments can overlay demographic and economic data with physical risk data (i.e., rate of sea-level rise and erosion, flooding) to identify low-risk areas receiving people migrating away from the coast. Specifically, demographic and economic data can indicate places experiencing population gains (compared to losses) over specific time periods to inform where receiving regions and municipalities may be located. While receiving areas are not geographically homogenous and will likely face varying degrees of physical risk, they will ideally possess a lower risk profile as compared to coastal sending areas that supports or justifies an increased number of people. With LA SAFE, the state used this model to help guide community discussions with six coastal parishes experiencing significant rates of sea-level rise and land loss. Based on demographic, economic, and physical risk data, the state identified three levels of flood risk — high, moderate, and low — that correspond with different development principles to adapt to that flood risk. Notably, the state characterized low-risk areas as having relatively favorable future flood risk projections for 0–3 feet in a 100-year or one-percent-chance flood event over a 50-year planning horizon. In general, the state recommended that, based on this low risk, these areas could present new development opportunities, and could receive populations and businesses supporting economic activities that are relocating away from moderate and high-risk areas.

    It is important to recognize that data will largely serve a predictive function with varying degrees of accuracy. One of the greatest challenges demographers and other experts will encounter is how to account for personal preferences and choices when building predictive models to show future population patterns.See footnote 1 Additionally, models may not account for legal and policy decisions around climate adaptation that may otherwise enable people to stay in their homes longer.See footnote 2 Data collected on a regional or local scale over a statistically reasonable time period will likely have more predictive accuracy compared to population shifts examined on a cross-state or national scale presumably because, among other factors: (1) there are likely fewer variables to control for on a smaller spatial scale; and (2) people may be more inclined to stay closer to home when relocating to remain near family, friends, and jobs.See footnote 3 One exception, however, could be in states and municipalities where governments can, at least to some degree, anticipate that they will receive an influx of people in a post-disaster context because their residents have well-established cultural, historical, familial, or other connections with those affected by a disaster event. For example, Holyoke, Massachusetts has a large Puerto Rican population. After Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, the city prepared to receive a large number of family members and friends who were either temporarily or permanently displaced by the storm due to their familial or kinship ties and relationships with Holyoke’s residents. In the end, policymakers will have to determine what level of statistical risk they are comfortable with before planning for or making investments in receiving communities.

    As a starting point, governments can engage in partnerships with universities and nonprofits to collect and analyze this data and develop predictive models to inform planning and policy decisions and use publicly available sources of data, like the U.S. Census Bureau. Other experts have used forwarding mailing addresses to show where those who can afford to move are moving and information on which cities received displaced people after disaster events.See footnote 4 Residents in both sending and receiving areas can also provide important information, namely to help policymakers better understand relocation trends (e.g., why are people leaving the coast, what factors influence where they are moving) and how population increases and decreases are affecting communities. Governments implementing hazard mitigation buyouts can also seek to collect information from willing participants to learn where people are moving. This data — which should be collected voluntarily and protect personally identifiable information — can be shared between buyout sending and receiving areas to increase community-level awareness of these population shifts.
  • Plan for receiving areas: Where receiving communities can be reasonably identified, different types of plans can help state and local governments prioritize considerations about receiving communities. Notably, local comprehensive plans and post-disaster recovery plans could play key roles here given their purpose in guiding future land-use and zoning at the local level (for more information about plans, see the Planning Tools section of this toolkit). Plans can also guide policymaking decisions that inform legal and investment decisions in areas that are likely to receive people leaving the coast; and phase and distribute anticipated costs over a longer time period to minimize present economic impacts. For example, plans can help local policymakers proactively identify parts of a municipality that may have to be upzoned or where to allocate funding for road, stormwater, or other infrastructure upgrades to accommodate an increased number of residents. Additionally, plans can serve as a medium to engage existing residents in receiving locations to reflect community priorities and needs in the design and implementation of potential projects. States can also support and coordinate land-use and other types of planning across local jurisdictional boundaries. 
  • Seek new funding sources — or use existing funding sources in new ways: Overall, current examples of federal, state, and local funding programs do not contemplate or prioritize funding for receiving communities. As the concept of managed retreat and receiving communities becomes increasingly mainstream, policy reform and innovation will be required to sufficiently support investments in receiving communities. For example, eligible state and local governments look to the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) Hazard Mitigation Grant Program and Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) Community Development Block Grant–Disaster Recovery program to fund disaster recovery in their jurisdictions; however, state and local governments generally prioritize funding for areas that are covered by a presidential disaster declaration.See footnote 5 Additionally, for funding sources like FEMA’s Public Assistance (PA) grants, agency policy can prohibit grantees from directing funds to receiving communities that fall outside of disaster-designated areas.See footnote 6 While it is important that governments prioritize funding to meet the needs of those hit hardest, the current system does not provide governments in receiving areas with adequate funding to support any new costs associated with a temporary or permanent influx of residents. In the month after Hurricane Katrina made landfall, several nearby urban centers, including Houston, served as receiving areas that took in large numbers of residents displaced from Louisiana. Houston was the largest receiving point outside of the State of Louisiana with approximately 240,000 people.See footnote 7 This sudden population increase tested the capacity of Houston’s schools, hospitals, social welfare organizations, and communications and local infrastructure systems.See footnote 8 As these examples illustrate, governments at all levels should seek opportunities to either create new sources of funding or use existing funding sources in new ways so that policymakers can support all areas necessitating financial assistance whether they are covered by a disaster declaration or not.See footnote 9

    Washington State presents one example of a unique funding program for receiving communities. 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 a TDR Program. The State of Washington created the regional Landscape Conservation and Local Infrastructure Program (LCLIP) 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.See footnote 10 By adopting a TDR Program and agreeing to accept a specified amount of regional (as opposed to only municipal) development rights, municipalities within three counties in the state are eligible to receive a bonus portion of their county’s property tax revenues to finance investments in receiving areas, such as transportation, water, and sewer system repairs and upgrades, construction of public transit, community amenities like parks and trails, and electric, gas, or other utility infrastructure.See footnote 11 LCLIP only reallocates a portion of the incremental property taxes that result from new development and does not impose any new tax burden on residents or businesses. LCLIP is a novel, but rare funding example which has not yet gained a lot of traction: As of 2019, Seattle is the only city that has created a “Local Infrastructure Project Area” tax financing district.See footnote 12 In short, more state and local experimentation is needed. 
  • Anticipate the need for potential new laws or legal amendments: Governments with oversight of receiving communities may need to adopt new laws or draft amendments to existing laws to align local land-use and zoning provisions with managed retreat policies or projects (e.g., upzoning). Governments should anticipate these types of potential changes and seek to make them in advance of when policies or projects will be implemented to avoid social and economic costs associated with delays (e.g., affordable housing shortages due to zoning density restrictions). 
  • Actively and meaningfully engage community members: Residents in receiving areas should guide and inform the development and implementation of plans and projects that will affect their lives and livelihoods. Governments need to ensure that any investments in or decisions affecting receiving areas are compatible with a community’s character, needs, and priorities, and, most important, do not displace current residents from their homes or businesses. For example,  black communities and other low-income communities of color are being forced out of their neighborhoods in Miami due to “climate gentrification.” As sea levels rise, developers and homeowners are looking to higher ground areas in the Liberty City, Little Haiti, and West Coconut Grove neighborhoods to shift development away from the coast.See footnote 13 As a result, these communities are being displaced from their homes and businesses. In response, the Mayor of Miami passed a resolution in 2018 directing city staff to research the effects of climate gentrification on these and other low-income communities to explore ways to stabilize property taxes to reduce displacement. Threats of displacement like the ones in Miami may increasingly require local government responses to better understand these issues and protect current residents. In protecting current residents from displacement, however, receiving communities should not exclude people moving away from the coast. Instead, receiving communities should, at a minimum, provide them with a comparable home and necessary infrastructure and services in a safer location. To the greatest extent practicable, local policymakers should aim to balance the needs of both current and future residents; although achieving a balance may be especially challenging where the interests of the two groups significantly diverge from one another. 
  • Build bridges between sending and receiving areas: Although it is an emerging and evolving concept, governments can seek opportunities to create or support partnerships that build individual- and community-level bridges and connections between coastal sending and higher ground receiving areas. These bridges can potentially encourage people to get out of harm’s way sooner and help to minimize the social and psychological impacts of relocation. If people feel welcome and more at home in their new locations, they will have a better chance of thriving. For example, religious institutions and organizations, and other groups located in receiving areas can be encouraged to establish and grow relationships with people living in vulnerable coastal areas who may consider moving in the future.See footnote 14

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