Hurricane Irene: Examining Resilience in Vermont

Earlier this year, the American Planning Association’s Hazard Mitigation and Disaster Recovery Planning Division, in cooperation with Texas A&M University, sponsored a student paper contest for students in urban planning programs across the country. The papers would need to deal with some aspect of natural hazards and planning. The contest involved a $2,500 prize and presentation of the award at APA’s National Planning Conference, which just occurred in New York City May 6-9. The award was announced at a joint reception of the hazard division and APA’s Sustainable Communities Division on May 8. As might be expected, numerous papers were submitted by students in graduate planning schools across the U.S..

To my surprise and great pleasure, the winner of this first-ever contest was one of my own students from a course I teach at the University of Iowa School of Urban and Regional Planning. Emily Seiple, of Mahomet, Illinois, was in my Fall 2016 class, “Planning for Disaster Mitigation and Recovery.” She was one of three students who sought my endorsement to submit their papers, but there were undoubtedly dozens of others, if not hundreds, from other schools. I have not inquired as to the total submitted.

 

Courtesy of NOAA, National Weather Service

Emily’s paper is very deserving of the recognition she has now received. In her paper, written as an assignment for my class, she expertly dissected the dynamics of a challenging recovery situation for the town of Waterbury, Vermont, following Hurricane Irene in the fall of 2011. Many readers may recall seeing television footage of glutted streams rushing downhill from the mountains, inundating one Vermont community after another. The flood itself was but the prelude, however, for then followed the arduous work of organizing recovery committees, managing recovery funds, working with state and federal agencies, and finding and implementing the silver lining in an otherwise bleak situation. Resilience involves a community’s ability both to respond well to such challenges and to build back better and stronger. Emily examined that story with a remarkably clear and perceptive eye to both details and the big picture, as you will learn by reading her paper, linked here. I present it because I believe her recpaper will allow blog readers to gain a greater understanding of the many nuances involved in disaster recovery planning, which has never been a simple subject.

I took the extra step, during the APA National Planning Conference, of arranging to videotape an interview with Emily Seiple about her paper, with the help of Michael Johnson of the APA staff. It may be two or three weeks before that video is posted, but you will ultimately be able to find it on the APA website, at www.planning.org. We will also arrange to post the paper on that site. I invite reader comments on both the paper and its subject matter.

Finally, I apologize to my readers for the relative shortage of postings in recent weeks. The final months of my tenure at APA, leading to my working independently as a writer, consultant, and speaker as of June 1, have been surprisingly hectic, and I want to be sure that I leave the APA Hazards Planning Center in good hands and in excellent shape. That has taken priority, but the end is near, after which I hope to give this blog considerably closer attention well into the future.

 

Jim Schwab

Natural Solutions for Natural Hazards

Boulder Creek, Boulder, Colorado

Boulder Creek, Boulder, Colorado

It has taken a long while in our modern society for the notion to take hold that some of the best solutions to reduce the impact of natural hazards can be found in nature itself. Perhaps it is the high cost of continuing to use highly engineered solutions to protect development that has often been sited unwisely in the first place that has finally gotten our attention. Particularly after Hurricane Sandy, however, the notion of using green infrastructure as part of the hazard mitigation strategy for post-disaster recovery began to gain traction; green infrastructure was highlighted in the federal Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Strategy. These approaches are also known as natural or nature-based designs. They involve understanding the role natural systems play in reducing damages and in using that knowledge to deploy such solutions as part of an intelligent game plan for improving community resilience.

But where should community planners and local officials get reliable information on the best and most proven strategies for implementing green infrastructure solutions?

About a year and a half ago, researchers from The Nature Conservancy (TNC) approached me about involving the American Planning Association (APA) Hazards Planning Center in a project they were undertaking with support from the Kresge Foundation to prepare such information in the form of a green infrastructure siting guide. In the end, they also involved the Association of State Floodplain Managers (ASFPM), the National Association of Counties (NACo), the American Society of Civil Engineers, and the Boston-based design firm Sasaki Associates to assist with this effort. Over the past year or more, we have all met regularly to discuss what needed to be done and our progress in making it happen. We produced case studies, strategy briefs, and other material to populate the project’s web-based resources.

Bioswale in a subdivision development in Boulder County, Colorado.

Bioswale in a subdivision development in Boulder County, Colorado.

Last month, after all that teamwork, TNC unveiled its new website for the project, called Naturally Resilient Communities. For those interested in knowing how trees, living shorelines, dunes, coastal marshes, and oyster reefs, among other types of natural infrastructure, can help mitigate natural hazards like coastal storms and urban flooding, the website provides a serious and interactive introduction to the subject matter, backed up by numerous resources.

What is especially valuable about the website design is that it allows users multiple avenues into the specific types of information they need. Not all natural infrastructure solutions are born equal. Some are more appropriate in certain settings than others. Some work best in inland river valleys, some along coastlines, and others in mountains or high plains. Some coastal solutions work well in the rocky coastlines of California or Oregon, while others work better along Atlantic or Gulf Coast shorelines. Applying such solutions is largely a matter of learning what works best in a specific natural environment in the face of specific hazards—riverine flooding, hurricanes, thunderstorms, or other threats that communities face. It is critical to adapt the solution to the problem.

Accordingly, the website, largely the work of Sasaki Associates with vetting from the other project partners, allows users to approach the information by deciding which strategies they wish to investigate or which part of the United States is relevant. They can also look at considerations such as cost, the geographic scale of the solution (neighborhood, municipal, regional), and the type of community in question. These are precisely the frames of reference familiar to most urban planners and civil engineers who are most likely to be involved in implementing natural infrastructure projects. The emphasis throughout is on the practical, not the ideal or the ideological. A particular approach either works or does not work, but it does so in very specific settings, such as a neighborhood in a city along one of the Great Lakes or in the Southwestern desert. Context is the central question.

This memorial to Gilbert White, the pioneer of modern floodplain management, marks the high point of flooding along Boulder Creek.

This memorial to Gilbert White, the pioneer of modern floodplain management, marks the high point of flooding along Boulder Creek.

Establishing context is why the project put considerable emphasis on case studies, which cover a variety of communities around the nation. Specify, for example, Rocky Mountain West as a region and riverine flooding as a problem, and the site gives you a case study from Boulder, Colorado, that examines the alternatives considered and solutions adopted for flooding along Boulder Creek and discusses the involvement of the city and the Denver-based Urban Drainage and Flood Control District to implement a stream restoration master plan. One can also find case studies from Florida, Ohio, and numerous other locations. One can also, however, explore sections of the website devoted to additional resources and funding

sources to support green infrastructure projects. These allow the user to connect to other websites and some PDFs for additional information.

Go explore. I admit to taking pride in our involvement in this effort. It is, I think, a welcome resource and great learning tool for planners, engineers, local officials, and the interested public.

 

Jim Schwab

Can You Sue the Government for Climate Change Impacts?

The American Planning Association has just posted today this article I wrote for its APA blog: https://www.planning.org/blog/blogpost/9111027/.

Jim Schwab

In the Valley of the Crooked River

DSCF3156Two weeks ago, I wrote about Cleveland’s Flats Entertainment District, where restaurants and bars now line the sides of the once filthy Cuyahoga River that now hosts boats and rowers. The Flats is but the last reach of a river that extends south into the Akron area. What has often been far less well known to outsiders than the more notorious industrial past of the river is the beautiful, forested valley that surrounds it upstream. In fact, about the time the Cuyahoga River was making environmental history by becoming a driving force behind passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, U.S. Rep. John Seiberling, an antiwar Democrat from Akron, was leading an effort to designate a new national park. By 1974, he had won authorization for the creation of what is now the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, which remains a hidden treasure for many. I have personally discovered from discussing our trip that many people outside Ohio do not even know that the park exists.

For some interesting background on the politics and commitment behind the drive to create the park, I recommend a book I read several years ago about the life of John Seiberling, A Passion for the Land: John F. Seiberling and the Environmental Movement, by University of Akron emeritus history professor Daniel Nelson.

As for the Cuyahoga Valley National Park: Yosemite or Yellowstone it is not. Ohio, which became a state in 1803 and rapidly urbanized and industrialized afterwards, does not offer such massive public spaces for preservation. But it does contain gorgeous smaller valleys such as the Cuyahoga where protection of the landscape was still possible in the 1970s, and land was assembled from numerous small landowners and public spaces, woven in some cases into the fabric of the existing Metroparks system. In the area that contains the park, certain places seem to take one back in time to the 19th century, when Ohio built a canal to connect the Ohio River and Lake Erie and move agricultural and other products to markets a generation before the railroads began to dominate. Towns such as Peninsula and Boston, in the heart of the upper Cuyahoga Valley, still have the small town feel of that era in many ways, and many older homes have been preserved.

DSCF3157One, in fact, now hosts the Conservancy of the park, along Hines Hill Road just east of Boston, where one finds the visitor center. When we arrived, staffers were erecting a tent for an outdoor wedding that weekend. Curiously, we were also in town for an outdoor wedding for one of my nephews, but his was at Thorn Creek Winery in Aurora, several miles to the northeast. Although we merely stopped to investigate the scenery, and we were totally unexpected arrivals in the Conservancy office, the staff in the office treated us like honored guests, plying us with materials about the park and answering questions. Their friendliness is a tribute to the attitudes and sense of mission of both the Conservancy and the National Park Service itself.

DSCF3164The park itself is a fantastic playground for hikers, bikers, backpackers, and even skiers and sledders. This is the north, after all. Near the Boston Visitor Center is the Boston Mills ski resort, offering some modest hills but great accessibility for people in the metropolitan area. But we arrived in June, and we began to wander the Towpath trail that leads away from the visitor center back into the forest, south beyond the massive bridge that carries Ohio Turnpike travelers past the Cuyahoga River below. From the height of the turnpike, one might never realize that what lies below is a national park, although it is certainly an impressive expanse of forested greenery. Down below, however, we were treated not to nature’s silence but to its music. For one thing, it was cicada season, so the buzz was all about the woods, but so were the birds, some of whom may have been feasting on cicadas. We surely could have seen other wildlife, had we come around dawn or dusk, but we were hiking in the late morning, when the deer and the rabbits and coyotes were well hidden. It is remarkable how easy it is to get away from everything, although the trails are popular enough to keep you in touch with other passing humans. The trails seemed to attract both young and elderly, providing a great excuse to all ages to stay in shape and in touch with nature. I began to wish I had tree and bird guides with me to better understand parts of my experience. If I still lived in the area, I might revisit with those guides, but it may be a while before I return.

DSCF3169Our hiking visit occurred on a Thursday. Jean and I made a return visit on Friday, but of a different nature, and one that accommodated my sister, Carol, who lives nearby in North Royalton. She joined us at the parking lot on Rockside Road in Independence at 9 a.m. for the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad, a fine way for first-time visitors (and others) to see the park and its valley from a different perspective. The CVSR is a passenger train that uses tracks that largely run along the edge of the river. It is mostly run by volunteers who simply love the job of educating people about the local environment and its history. Audio is available that allows you to hear some of that history along with what one crew member jokingly referred to as “some pretty bad music,” most of it evoking a sense of bluegrass and Civil War and the early frontier with the use of banjos and bass fiddles. Call it “mood music.” The train ride takes about an hour and a half to get to Akron before turning around and bringing you back to where it started. Along the way, there are several stops that allow riders to get off and explore and then wait for the next train coming through. Explorers may want to get the schedule before they wander off. The price is only $15; as senior citizens we got tickets for $13. The money supports the train and is well worth it for the scenery along the way.

Because the park is interwoven among small towns and private property, the park leases some land for sustainable farming of vegetables and sheep, goats, and chickens, with some of the products finding their way to the Countryside Farmers’ Markets. The Conservancy staff also noted for us that there is now a visitor home in the park called Stanford House, built in 1843. It is not a bed and breakfast because visitors are on their own in sharing the use of a kitchen, but rooms can be rented starting at $50 per night, and the home provides immediate access to the Towpath Trail and the railroad, among other attractions.

Ultimately, the Cuyahoga Valley National Park is a study in adaptation, fitting a park into the scenery of a river valley that is also at the center of the large Cleveland-Akron metropolitan area. The park has been evolving since its advent in the 1980s and will continue to evolve as conditions change. But one major contribution it has already made is to stymie the urban sprawl that has so adversely affected much of the Cleveland area and allow residents to enjoy an expanse of refreshing greenery.

One reason it has taken two weeks to return to this blog and tell the story, since we returned to Chicago on June 12, is that I left again on June 19 for Grand Rapids, Michigan, to participate in the 40th annual conference of the Association of State Floodplain Managers, which was founded about the same time the national park was being organized. Today it is a growing organization of more than 17,000 floodplain managers, about 1,000 of whom attended the conference at the DeVos Convention Center, which sits along the Grand River opposite the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum, to which it is connected by a stone pedestrian bridge. ASFPM members have always been familiar with nature-based strategies for reducing flood damages and preserving the quality of rivers and streams, and the conference contained numerous discussions of such approaches. It occurred to me that what I had seen in the Cuyahoga Valley was one of the best possible approaches to floodplain management, the prevention of the encroachment of development to allow nature its due, preserving a natural setting that nonetheless endows humans with wonderful opportunities for outdoor recreation and exercise in an age when public health authorities worry about an epidemic of obesity. We have to make our cities attractive places for people to get the exercise they need. Many factors in the Cleveland metropolitan area, frankly, work against that goal, but the park exemplifies it. It is modern floodplain management at its best with a healthy dose of environmental protection in the bargain. The fact that the park is sprinkled with outdoor attractions like the Blossom Music Festival only serves to enhance that goal by acquainting people with what the park has to offer.

John Seiberling was clearly a visionary in fighting for the creation of the park in Congress. But every city has its environmental champions. It is the job of the rest of us to make it politically possible for them to survive and to achieve their objectives. We all benefit from a better quality of life when they do.

As for the title of this blog post: The Cuyahoga River derived its name from the local nomenclature of the Mohawk Indians, an Iroquois nation, who referred to the river as “crooked” because of the way it winds through the landscape, hence “crooked river.” (The Seneca, also Iroquois, used a similar name.) Meandering is nature’s way of diffusing the force of flood waters while distributing silt into the rich agricultural soils along the banks. Ohio grew up on such wealth. Now it is preserving some of it.

 

Jim Schwab

Drifting into Disaster

Scene from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta

Scene from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta

Across the United States of America, about one in five people live under the rules and structures of some sort of private association that governs common property interests. These can be condominium associations, homeowners associations, or similar entities that are somehow responsible for levying fees and maintaining communal property. To degrees they often may not realize, the residents are thus controlled and constrained by the decisions these associations make, which often may concern themselves with details that a local government would not even consider, such as the color of aluminum siding, allowable holiday decorations, and other matters with minor impacts on the quality of life. Many homeowners associations are established by developers at the time they get permits to create a new subdivision. In some states, local governments are happy to offload responsibility for infrastructure maintenance, such as private roads, onto these associations while coveting the property taxes they will still pay.

The implications of all this were brought to my attention in the past week or two by Chad Berginnis, the executive director of the Association of State Floodplain Managers (ASFPM). He has been working with me on material for a future report we plan to publish at the American Planning Association on subdivision design as it relates to areas with flood hazards. The issue that concerned him as he wrote a chapter on subdivision standards for local governments, which have the primary responsibility for permitting new development, is how well these private owner associations can sustain over time the financial responsibilities for infrastructure designed to protect their properties from disaster, most notably but not exclusively, flooding.

Among the items that have come to my attention is a paper by two California attorneys, Tyler P. Berding and Steven S. Weil, disturbingly titled, “Disaster! No Reserves. No Insurance. What’s Left if a Natural Disaster Destroys a Community Association?” They begin with a cautionary tale about the Bethel Island Municipal Improvement District, actually a California special district, not a homeowners association. Its mission is to maintain and improve the levees that surround the Sacramento Delta island of 2,500 residents, where the interior is seven to 15 feet below sea level. To say that their survival depends on well-maintained levees is no exaggeration. Moreover, in that part of California, the levees are subject to collapse from earthquake shaking as well as from overtopping in a flood. I have some idea of their peril because four years ago, a representative of the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) took me on a six-hour guided tour of the levee system in the delta area, plying me with a number of the background studies by DWR of the overall situation. There are hundreds of such islands throughout the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, many used for agriculture, and some developed. In their 2012 article, produced about the time of that tour, Berding and Weil note, “But the district is broke.” Voters “soundly” rejected a 2010 parcel tax measure to fund improvements, and much of the district staff was laid off. The levees were deteriorating, to some extent “suffering damage by beavers and rodents.”

It is disturbingly easy for homeowners association or other private association board members to take their eyes off the ball of maintaining adequate reserves and resources to address dangers that seem less than imminent, and even to forget why they are responsible for collecting assessments in the first place. And it is even easier for residents who must approve some of those assessments to lack meaningful knowledge of the consequences of either depleting or failing to maintain adequate reserves for unfortunate natural events like floods, earthquakes, or other disasters. Once they begin sliding down that slippery slope of amnesia and unawareness, it is not long before they have put a good deal of common and individual property at risk. The few who may be aware of the long-term consequences often may lack the ability to make their case to less concerned neighbors.

This issue is one of concern in the field of urban planning because new subdivisions, in particular, often arise at the edge of metropolitan areas in unincorporated county lands or small towns, where governance capacity may be limited and resistance to government regulation particularly high. The result is that oversight is weakest, and the desire for new development highest, precisely where the need for that oversight may be greatest. In regulatory terms, it is the theory of the weakest link. One of our motives for the new report (underwritten by the Federal Emergency Management Agency) is to help shore up those weak links with stronger guidance about sound practices in reviewing plans for new subdivisions. Berding and Weil were serving a similar purpose, at least in the California context, by describing sound practices for community associations, particularly in sustaining adequate reserves for contingencies such as disasters.

But finances are only part of the problem. Sometimes, the leadership of such associations can become so focused on issues like aesthetics and conformity that they lose sight of larger issues like public safety. In the past, the National Fire Protection Association, which supports the Firewise Communities initiative, has trained its attention on the question of covenants that run counter to public safety, for example, by inhibiting well-researched methods for containing wildfire threats. Many of these techniques involve either landscaping or building design, yet some associations have rules limiting tree trimming or landscaping that would aid in wildfire mitigation. In Safer from the Start, NFPA’s 2009 study of the issues involved in building and maintaining “firewise-friendly developments,” a sidebar notes that the state of Colorado’s recently passed “Colorado Common Interest Ownership Act,” among other measures, basically invalidated a number of types of association covenants and restrictions that inhibited defensible space around private dwellings in order to advance wildfire safety statewide. In effect, the state was saying, with regard to rules that made wildfire safety more difficult to enforce, “enough.” At the same time, the publication overall provided a significant amount of sound advice about best practices in wildfire protection in rural subdivisions and new developments.

That seven-year-old NFPA advice recently got a new boost from an interesting direction: Green Builder Media just recently issued its own e-brochure, “Design with Fire in Mind: Three Steps to a Safer New Home,” in cooperation with NFPA. Green Builder Media has more of a direct avenue to influence those developers who want to build safe, resilient, energy-efficient communities.

The fact that these resources have continued to materialize on a regular basis over the past decade or two indicates, to me, that the subject of good design and homeowner association responsibility is not going away any time soon. It is the job of planners, floodplain managers, and local and state officials to ensure that those responsibilities remain on their radar screens and are taken seriously. One-fifth of the American population depends to a significant degree on the quality of their oversight.

 

Jim Schwab

Flood Regulations Not a Taking

Link

In a ruling on August 12—just four days ago—the South Carolina Supreme Court, in Columbia Venture v. Richland County, did the nation a great favor that, I suspect, stands little if any chance, in my opinion, of being overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court even if it is appealed by the developer that filed the case against Richland County. The Association of State Floodplain Managers is happy with the decision, as well they should be, having played a role by filing a significant amicus curiae, or “friend of the court” brief on behalf of the county, which includes the state capital of Columbia.

The essence of the case is that Columbia Venture, a joint venture firm led by Burroughs & Chapin, a developer based in the Myrtle Beach area, sued over Richland County’s application of floodplain regulations based on an expansion of the floodway and regulatory floodplain by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) while the firm was acquiring the property from an area farmer about a decade ago. Curiously, Columbia Venture argued that the taking of its property that it alleged began in 2002, at the time FEMA revised its flood maps, as the date the taking occurred, even though it was suing the county for its regulatory actions.

Columbia Venture was clearly hoping to produce a major development in acquiring 4,461 acres of land along the Congaree River for $18 million, although the Columbia Venture was an attempt to muster adequate investment when Burroughs & Chapin had commitments of only $11 million. The farmer selling the property was persuaded to take $6.65 million in shares as part of this process. Columbia Venture was also relying to some extent on public investment in levees under a county resolution that included a number of contingencies that failed to materialize. Those facts helped persuade the court that the company’s investment-backed expectations were unrealistic.

Ultimately, prior to the state high court decision, Columbia Venture sold about two-thirds of its land, mostly to State Rep. Kirkman Finlay, R-Richland, who farms in the area and say he has no plans to develop it. Land that began as farmland apparently will remain in farm use.

Among other points, Columbia Venture alleged that the county’s regulations prohibiting development in the floodway as newly defined by FEMA constituted a flood easement across its property without compensation. Both the trial court referee and the state high court disagreed, noting that any financial losses experienced by Columbia Venture were outweighed by “the important public purposes of mitigating the social and economic costs of flooding” served by the county’s ordinances, which also “further the important federal purposes” of reducing flood losses. Moreover, all county taxpayers and residents benefited “by reducing the County’s potential liability incurred in emergency response, rescue, evacuation, and other actions taken during a flood.”

Indeed. One might think that, in light of all the experience with flood damage of recent decades, this point would not even need to be argued anymore, but apparently some developers are still wont to try. Most, unlike Columbia Venture, are more inclined to recognize a bad or speculative investment in flood-prone land when they see one.

Frankly, the case also recognizes good planning. Rather than elaborate further, I encourage readers to explore the decision and resulting news coverage for themselves. But I will note that a footnote early in the decision quotes the testimony of former Richland County Planning Director Michael Criss with regard to the public safety benefits of the county’s regulations:

The federal flood maps do not account for the continued urbanization and development of the corresponding watersheds and the resulting increase in stormwater runoff and potential flooding . . . . The federal flood maps are not retrospective. They rely on historical flood records and don’t project th potential of increased flooding in the future from urbanization or from the possibility of more intense storms due to climate change.

This is a victory for good floodplain management, sensible planning in the interest of public safety, and for common sense. Supporters of effective hazard mitigation have reason to celebrate.

Jim Schwab

Postscript: The day after I first posted the above article, APA posted on its Recovery News blog my video interview with Chad Berginnis, the executive director of ASFPM, about the new Federal Flood Risk Management Standard. View it here.