Buy-in for Buyouts: The Case for Managed Retreat from Flood Zones

In this report, the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy and the Regional Plan Association present best practices for state and local governments to encourage residents and communities vulnerable to flooding to relocate from coastal and riverine areas through managed retreat. Based on the experiences of communities in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut following Hurricanes Sandy (2012) and Irene (2011), the report summarizes the political, social, and economic challenges of using buyouts and acquisitions as an adaptation strategy. Despite these challenges, the authors conclude that buyouts and acquisitions are viable and important tools that can help state and local governments address flooding impacts associated with natural disasters and rising seas. The report also provides recommendations on how to establish, fund, and implement such programs.   

As development continues in coastal areas and climate change increases the frequency and severity of storms, the toll of flooding on individuals and communities’ property, health, and finances is increasing. Although buyouts and acquisitions introduce new challenges, the report argues that they can mitigate risk and support additional benefits, such as creating more open space.  

Recognizing that flooding exacerbates existing inequalities, the racial and economic makeup of communities and their housing tenure (renter vs. owner) were considered in ensuring the case studies represented diverse types of communities. The report also includes discussion of historical patterns of displacement of nonwhite populations and the mistrust that has generated as well as ways to avoid perpetuating these injustices moving forward.

The authors evaluate two state programs - New York Rising Buyout and Acquisition Program (NY Rising) and New Jersey’s Blue Acres Program - and five local case studies - Oakwood Beach and Mastic Beach in New York State; Milford, Connecticut; and Wayne and Sayreville, New Jersey. These demonstrate some of the political, social, and economic challenges of buyout and acquisition programs. For example, buyouts can be controversial political decisions that can potentially deprive governments of revenue (e.g., residential property converted to open space can eliminate or decrease property taxes collected) and displace people from their communities and important social connections. Additionally, the report looks at historical examples from Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin; the State of Iowa; Grand Forks, North Dakota; and New Orleans, Louisiana (post-Hurricane Katrina) to provide a longer-term point of reference and comparison.

Building on the case studies, the report uses socioeconomic factors (income, race, and housing tenure), along with flood risk, to develop a typology of places. This typology was used to analyze equitable implementation of buyouts and acquisitions and to better understand communities’ unique needs. A fiscal impact analysis was also carried out for each case study, analyzing the cost of buyouts and their impact on tax revenues, insurance spending, as well as costs of storm damage and dislocation. These quantitative approaches, along with in-person interviews and discussions, offer insight into the feasibility of buyouts and acquisitions for different types of communities. The authors recognize that strategic planning is necessary to ensure that policies are carefully designed to avoid exacerbating existing social and economic inequalities. 

The report finds that, while costly, well-designed buyout programs are a “viable adaptation tool” and less expensive than inaction. The report includes general recommendations regarding equity, planning, and administration, but primarily focuses on how state and local governments can secure sufficient funding, particularly where they have to share the cost with or “match” federal contributions. The authors suggest, for example, that local governments could introduce or levy open space or community preservation taxes.


Publication Date: 2016

Authors or Affiliated Users:

  • Robert Freudenberg
  • Ellis Calvin
  • Laura Tolkoff
  • Dare Brawley

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  • Best practice
  • Case study

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