Mary-Carson Stiff of Wetlands Watch examines a fringe of phragmites in Chesapeake, VA, that stands between an open space parcel and Mains Creek. Five parcels in the neighborhood are the focus of a feasibility study for transferring ownership of the land from the city to a land trust. Tamara Dietrich / The Chesapeake Bay Journal

VA - Virginia City Seeks Conservation Solution for Flood-Prone Properties

As climate change fuels flooding all over the country, one coping strategy is managed retreat: Local governments use federal funds to buy up waterlogged properties at fair market value, throwing distressed owners a financial lifeline and repurposing that land to help mitigate the impacts of recurrent flooding.

But what becomes of those properties once communities acquire them? Who oversees them? What’s the cost to local taxpayers to mow, maintain and manage them in perpetuity?

The burden can be so daunting that many municipalities have ditched their efforts to acquire flood-prone properties altogether, even if the Federal Emergency Management Agency foots the bill.

“There are communities that have outright abandoned their acquisition efforts because they don’t want to be landlords of open parcels and because of the administrative burden to monitor the parcels, to report on them to FEMA and certainly to mow them, if mowing is required,” said Mary-Carson Stiff, policy director at Wetlands Watch in Norfolk.

But now the city of Chesapeake is partnering with Wetlands Watch and Living River Trust on a pilot project that, if successful, could offer municipalities a guide on how to transfer FEMA-acquired properties to a land trust devoted to conservation use.

Typically, a land trust works with willing landowners who grant conservation easements to help protect and conserve their properties forever, said John Harbin, administrator of Living River Trust in Norfolk. The owners retain the property but outline the terms of the agreement in a legal document called an easement. But this pilot project is exploring how to completely transfer ownership of these properties to the land trust.

“Because they were acquired using these FEMA funds,” Harbin said, “they are restricted in what they can be used for in the future — restoration of natural wetland functions, reforestation of properties, other kinds of passive recreation uses.”

That means the FEMA requirement and mission of the land trust are similar. But while the concept sounds straightforward, it’s actually quite tricky to achieve within FEMA’s byzantine regulatory framework. Project partners say no municipality has managed it so far. “The city of Chesapeake is not alone in its efforts to think outside the box for how these parcels can be managed, and one of the reasons we think the pilot [project] is so important is that it gets at this very issue,” Stiff said.

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