Managing the Retreat from Rising Seas: Lessons and Tools from 17 Case Studies

As seas continue to rise and disaster events and extreme weather increase in frequency and intensity, climate change is driving state and local policymakers to evaluate strategies to adapt to various risks affecting many communities. In addition to protection (e.g., hard shoreline armoring) and accommodation (e.g., elevating or flood-proofing structures) measures, coastal governments and communities are increasingly evaluating managed retreat, where appropriate, as a potential component of their comprehensive adaptation strategies. Managed retreat is the coordinated process of voluntarily and equitably relocating people, structures, and infrastructure away from vulnerable coastal areas in response to episodic or chronic threats to facilitate the transition of individual people, communities, and ecosystems (both species and habitats) inland. 

The aim of managed retreat is to proactively move people, structures, and infrastructure out of harm’s way before disasters occur to maximize benefits and minimize costs for communities and ecosystems. For example, policymakers may maximize opportunities for flood and risk reduction by conserving wetlands and protecting habitat migration corridors and minimize the social, psychological, and economic costs of relocation by making investments in safer, affordable housing within existing communities.

This report is composed of 17 individual case studies listed below. Each one tells a different story about how states, local governments, and communities across the country are approaching questions about managed retreat. Together, the case studies highlight how different types of legal and policy tools are being considered and implemented across a range of jurisdictions — from urban, suburban, and rural to riverine and coastal — to help support new and ongoing discussions on the subject. These case studies are intended to provide transferable lessons and potential management practices for coastal state and local policymakers evaluating managed retreat as one part of a strategy to adapt to climate change on the coast. 

  1. Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, Maryland: Blackwater 2100
  2. State of Hawaii: Assessing the Feasibility and Implications of Managed Retreat Strategies for Vulnerable Coastal Areas in Hawaii
  3. Punta Gorda, Florida: Climate Adaptation and Comprehensive Plans and Updates
  4. Quinault Indian Nation, Washington: Taholah Village Relocation Master Plan
  5. Queens, New York: Resilient Edgemere Community Plan
  6. San Diego, California: ReWild Mission Bay
  7. Charlotte-Mecklenburg County, North Carolina: Floodplain Buyout Program
  8. City of Austin, Texas: Flood Risk Reduction Buyout Projects 
  9. Harris County, Texas: Flood Control District Local Buyout Program
  10. New York City, New York: Land Acquisition and Flood Buyout Programs
  11. State of New Jersey: Blue Acres Buyout Program
  12. Woodbridge Township, New Jersey: Post-Hurricane Sandy Buyouts 
  13. Long Beach, California: Los Cerritos Wetlands Restoration and Land Swap
  14. Hampton, New Hampshire: Community-Driven Climate Adaptation Planning Process
  15. State of Louisiana: Louisiana Strategic Adaptations for Future Environments (LA SAFE)
  16. Staten Island, New York: Oakwood Beach Buyout Committee and Program
  17. King County, Washington: Transfer of Development Rights Program

Collectively, these case studies present a suite, although not an exhaustive list, of legal and policy tools that can be used to facilitate managed retreat efforts. Legal and policy tools featured include: planning; hazard mitigation buyouts and open space acquisitions, as well as other acquisition tools like land swaps and reversionary interests; land use and zoning; and Transfer of Development Rights programs. The case studies also highlight various policy tradeoffs and procedural considerations necessitated by retreat decisions. Each jurisdiction is confronting different challenges and opportunities and has different, perhaps even competing, objectives for retreat. In addition, stakeholders in each of these cases are attempting to balance multiple considerations, including: protecting coastal ecosystems and the environment; fostering community engagement and equity; preparing “receiving communities” or areas where people may voluntarily choose to relocate; and assessing public and private funding options and availability. The case studies included in this report were selected to reflect the interdisciplinary and complex nature of retreat decisions and underscore the need for comprehensive solutions and decisionmaking processes to address these challenging considerations.


These case studies were written to support Georgetown Climate Center’s Managed Retreat Toolkit, which also includes additional case study examples and a deeper exploration of specific legal and policy tools for use by state and local decisionmakers, climate adaptation practitioners, and planners. For future updates about these and other case studies and the Managed Retreat Toolkit, please visit the Managed Retreat Toolkit.

Publication Date: July 15, 2020

Authors or Affiliated Users:

Related Organizations:

Related Resources:


Resource Category:

Resource Types:

  • Best practice
  • Case study
  • Funding program
  • Laws
  • Plans (other)
  • Policy analysis/recommendations
  • Regulation


Go To Resource