Advocacy & Policy

Flood risk protection program proposed for Massachusetts

Legislation filed this session proposes to create a statewide “flood risk protection program," providing support for relocation before disaster hits.

Climate change impacts such as sea level rise, and more frequent and intense storms—projected to accelerate in coming years—are already affecting Massachusetts communities today, including through erosion, flooding of roads, and damage to homes. Flood insurance and adaptation solutions can be cost-prohibitive for homeowners, residents, and business owners on their own.

But waiting to build-back after a storm comes with even higher costs.

Legislation filed this session proposes to create a statewide “flood risk protection program,” enabling the state, cities, towns, and nonprofit partners to acquire flood-prone property from willing owners before disaster hits, providing support for relocation. Under the proposed program, procured property is then restored to natural landscapes and permanently conserved, so the parcels are better able to buffer climate impacts, protecting nearby homes, businesses, and infrastructure.

Property buyouts can give vulnerable homeowners, business owners, and other property owners options in areas subject to chronic flooding, and areas anticipated to face worsening impacts from climate change. The 6th United Nations Climate Assessment Report shows that climate change puts billions of people at imminent risk of flooding from sea level rise and more frequent and intense storms. Locally, State of the Coast reports authored by The Trustees project significant impacts to both built and natural landscapes in the Commonwealth, including coastal banks, developed coastlines, beaches, armored shorelines, salt marsh, and more.

A virtual briefing, co-hosted by The Trustees, took place on October 1 to detail this legislation, An Act establishing a Massachusetts flood risk protection program (S.603 and H.983). Panelists reviewed the legislation, highlighted gaps that exist in current federal funding programs, and shared on-the-ground examples of how local communities are facing flooding issues, both inland and on the coast. The discussion was led and moderated by Representative Sarah Peake (D-Provincetown) and Senator Marc Pacheco (D-Taunton) the bill’s lead sponsors.

Above: An October 1 virtual briefing reviewed this legislation in a discussion led and moderated by Representative Sarah Peake (D-Provincetown) and Senator Marc Pacheco (D-Taunton), the bill’s lead sponsors.

“This landmark legislation would give property owners and entire neighborhoods options to safely relocate from areas being hit hard by the impacts of climate change,” noted Linda Orel, Trustees Director of Policy. “Importantly, the benefits of this program prioritize low-income families and environmental justice populations.”

The Trustees is leading efforts to secure legislative support for this effort in close coordination with nonprofit partners at Conservation Law Foundation, Environmental League of Mass, Mass Audubon, Mass Association of Conservation Commissions, Mass Land Trust Coalition, Mass Rivers Alliance, Metropolitan Area Planning Council, The Nature Conservancy, and others.

To learn more about this program, explore the FAQs below:

What is the Flood Risk Protection Program (FRPP)?

This statewide climate adaptation program would be entirely voluntary, acquiring at-risk properties from interested owners and helping them relocate to safe areas, covering both inland and coastal properties. Once property is acquired, the legislation requires the removal of houses and other structures, and the permanent conservation and restoration of the land.

How would relocation help, long-term?

Conservation and restoration of previously occupied land could help create new climate-resilient landscapes that can serve as a natural buffer against flooding to protect neighboring communities. Buyout projects under the FRPP would be a one-time investment and would be more affordable when compared to the long-term costs of rebuilding, flood insurance, and municipal expenses associated with emergency response, damaged infrastructure, and future climate impacts.

Why does Massachusetts need the FRPP now?

Climate change is causing more frequent and intense storms, leading to severe and repetitive flooding caused by rainfall, storm surge, tidal flooding, and sea level rise. Over 320,000 properties across Massachusetts are currently at risk of flooding, according to a 2020 report from the First Street Foundation (65% more than existing federal flood maps indicate.)

Buyouts may be the only solution available for low-income homeowners and Environmental Justice (EJ) populations who face skyrocketing flood insurance premiums in the face of increasing flood risk and who cannot afford to rebuild when extreme weather hits.

How is this different from FEMA’s Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities program?

FEMA’s new BRIC program offers pre-disaster hazard mitigation funds. However, FEMA funds are limited, and property owners can wait in limbo for up to a decade before FEMA decides whether to acquire a property. FEMA also does not focus on restoring to its natural floodplain functions, nor does it prioritize low-income property owners or EJ populations. Massachusetts needs a reliable statewide buyout program to support needs that FEMA does not address.

How would the FRPP work?

The FRPP bill requires state agencies to use current data to prioritize the allocation of public funds to the communities at the highest risk of repetitive or substantial flooding and that need it most, including low-income residents and EJ populations. An interested property owner would offer their land to sell. If the land is eligible, then state agencies would oversee a buyout in cooperation with cities, towns, and other eligible stakeholders to acquire that property, relocate owners and tenants, remove homes and structures, and permanently conserve and restore the land to its natural state. The FRPP encourages the restoration of natural areas to provide co-benefits to the community, including climate resiliency, drinking water supply protection, habitat conservation, and recreational opportunities. This program would be entirely voluntary.

How would the FRPP be funded?

The legislature enacted environmental bond bills in 2014 and 2018 that together authorize $50 million for a coastal property buyout program. However, the legislature would need to authorize additional bond funds and/or create another funding mechanism to also support inland buyout projects. The bill creates a new FRPP Trust Fund designed to manage public funds dedicated for all aspects of buyout projects. Community Preservation Act funds can also be used locally for property buyouts. However, state funds are critical to leverage project investments from local, state, federal, and private sources.

Do similar programs exist elsewhere?

Yes, to view an example of a similar state buyout program, please visit: New Jersey Blue Acres.

How can I help?

Call your local representatives and voice support for An Act establishing a Massachusetts flood risk protection program (S.603 and H.983). Click here to find contact information for your local legislators.

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Questions? Email The Trustees Director of Policy, Linda Orel at lorel@thetrustees.org.

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