Policy evaluation offers insight into local responses to flood risk and climate change

Aerial assessment of Hurricane Sandy damage in Connecticut
Photo taken by the Connecticut National Guard during an aerial assessment of Hurricane Sandy damage in the state. Photo from the Office of Governor Dan Malloy.

A recent Climate Central analysis projected that over 14,000 homes in low-lying coastal areas across Connecticut will be prone to chronic flooding by 2050. Additionally, the report determined that housing growth rates in these flood risk zones are double that of new residences constructed further inland. Homeowners appear to be more motivated by the amenities of ocean views and beach access than by the potential dangers of tidal flooding and storm surge.

Communities are primarily responsible for deciding their own land use policies governing building and re-building in these increasingly vulnerable coastal areas. Local citizens serving on various boards and commissions in towns and cities draft and implement regulatory mandates that include floodplain building regulations, planning and zoning ordinances, participation in flood insurance programs and coastal zone management. Communities may also voluntarily plan for coastal resilience. Residents and developers use these regulations and plans to guide their building decisions. Charles Towe, an associate professor in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics, is studying the policies municipalities establish and their influence on the decisions residents, renters, developers and investors make to live or build in flood zones.

“Connecticut’s coastline is heterogeneous, it’s geographically and economically diverse, so policies and responses can differ widely from town to town,” says Towe. “We have gathered information from many coastal municipalities about their policies. We are currently assessing the information we gathered and analyzing the amenities that people value to learn more about the changing response to climate change and flood risk.”

Towe’s work is helping the Connecticut Institute for Climate Resilience and Adaptation (CIRCA) better understand the challenges and diverse goals of communities. CIRCA is funding the research and will use the information to further support municipalities in the development of comprehensive climate adaptation policies and strategies that plan for the future. The stated mission of CIRCA is to “increase the resilience and sustainability of vulnerable communities along Connecticut’s coast and inland waterways to the growing impacts of climate change on the natural, built and human environment.”

“We researched how people behave in certain policy regimes and exploring how they might act if the policies were different. Our goal is real and relevant policy analysis,” says Towe.

CIRCA uses these types of analyses to develop model policy options for municipalities. This can help towns and cities make the most suitable decisions for their communities. Towe is looking at a number of factors to address pressing concerns shared by both CIRCA and municipalities.

A major worry is how policy changes can affect the tax base and real estate values as flood risk increases. For example, Towe is exploring what might happen to the value of properties if new regulations restrict rebuilding following a devastating storm and second row houses become waterfront property.

“Policies rest on established baselines, but the floodplain is evolving,” says Towe. “It’s difficult to make long-term decisions on a discrete piece of information today that may not be the same in the near future, so we’re exploring different scenarios. For example, few people have seriously looked at retreat, but it’s something we’re evaluating.”

Aerial assessment of Hurricane Sandy damage in Connecticut
Photo taken by the Connecticut National Guard during an aerial assessment of Hurricane Sandy damage in the state. Photo from the Office of Governor Dan Malloy.

Towe is focusing on houses within 0.6 miles of the coast and employing geographic technologies to study views and elevation. These pieces of information can help untangle the relationship between policy and personal choice as well as predict shifting tax and property values. With geographic information software (GIS), he is analyzing viewshed, the ability to see a geographic feature from a certain point, to approximate the value of ocean views as an amenity. By using light detection and ranging (LiDAR), a pulsed laser light that can easily capture surface heights, Towe is examining housing elevation and changing building requirements.

“Part of what we’re looking at answering is how residents and developers respond to the state of the world they’re in,” says Towe. “They’re also operating within a policy regime that is keeping them in a lane, but maybe there are issues with where those policy guardrails are and they’re not always helping to keep people and property safer. What are their expectations of risk and insurability?”

The policy research also delves into the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). NFIP runs a voluntary incentive program called the Community Rating System (CRS) that encourages communities to exceed the NFIP requirements in exchange for discounts on premium rates for flood insurance.

“NFIP and CRS are intricate programs that can be difficult for communities to navigate,” says Towe. “It’s a federal policy running through the state and being implemented by a town or municipality. A community’s eligibility for decreased premiums depends on the resources they can put towards reaching the established goals of those programs. Unsurprisingly, there are stark demographic and socioeconomic differences in the state that come into play. In short, wealthy communities can do more to prepare while less wealthy communities lack resources.”

Towe says another difficulty communities face in attaining NFIP coverage, or participating in the CRS program, is the interaction of policies. The program appears designed for states with coastal typologies like those of the southern states that have traditionally faced flooding and storm damage. Connecticut’s unique coastline can lead to a problematic relationship between these programs and particular policies.

“There are many questions we started asking that became much more complicated as our research continued,” says Towe. “We’ve collected massive amounts of data and interested to see what all of it tells us. With the help of CIRCA, we hope our work can help inform communities about the effects of policy decisions, or absence of policy, and response to climate change and flood risk in a changing world.”

By Jason M. Sheldon