Zoning Rewrite in Norfolk Offers Potential Breakthrough on Adaptation

Schematic of how Norfolk’s resilience point system would work to retire development rights

Schematic of how Norfolk’s resilience point system would work to retire development rights

Snapshot: Norfolk has rewritten its zoning ordinance to make it more “resilient.” Key to this novel approach is a scheme to reward developers who take flooded property and put it into a land trust, fostering an orderly retreat for frequently flooded properties. Wetlands Watch wants to figure out the details, make this work in Norfolk, and then export it along the coast.

Backstory: As we reported, the City of Norfolk, Virginia, spent the last three years rewriting its zoning ordinance, the operating plan for how people develop and do business in this coastal city. We were part of a team helping the city and feel the ordinance is novel in a number of respects, raising resilience standards for development across the city, establishing a novel point system of actions required before development can occur, combining the 10-year floodplain and the 500-year floodplain in a "Coastal Resilience Overlay" (CRO)  district with special conditions for development.

But the most novel of the changes is the emergence of a development option that awards resilience points to a project being planned in the higher parts of the city ("Upland Resilience Overlay") if it extinguishes development rights in the CRO. Under this provision a developer would buy a property in the CRO (or purchase the development rights only) and then transfer it to a land trust. This transaction is a private arrangement between the developer, the property owner in the CRO, and a land trust. The land would be put into a conservation easement, allowing the property owner to take advantage of federal tax deductions and state tax credits.

Wetlands Watch is working with the Elizabeth River Project’s Living River Restoration Trust (LRRT), a new urban land trust working along the Elizabeth River. The LRRT is a partner in this work and is developing a critical role in the restoration of an urbanized shoreline in Southeastern Virginia and adding this forward-looking adaptation component. We recently made a presentation on this proposal that explains more completely what we envision.

Increasing numbers of shoreline property owners are trapped in their homes, unable to sell them at market value due to high flood insurance premium costs or recurrent flooding that becomes a known problem for the property. This Norfolk zoning provision provides some escape for those properties and allows the owner to extract much of the invested value in direct payment from the developer and in the form of tax deductions and credits.

There is much complexity in these transactions, however, and much uncertainty. This arrangement has not been tried anywhere in the country so some adjustments, tweaking, and changes will be needed. For the parties involved, there will need to be more certainty about the economics of the transaction before this comes into widespread use.

Wetlands Watch also wants to have these arrangements contain “rolling easements,” provisions for triggering abandonment of the property when certain natural/flooding/flood loss conditions are met.

We are seeking funding for a two-year project to develop this work into a pilot demonstration that we can move into other Virginia communities and then along the entire US coastline.