Norfolk to Create Special Service Districts for Flood-Prone Areas

The City of Norfolk has created a new mechanism for citizens to adapt to flooding and eroding coastlines. Neighborhoods now can vote to form “special service districts” that raise property taxes for projects dealing with flood mitigation, dredging, water quality improvement, and coastal protection, reports the Virginian-Pilot.

Property owners can initiate projects by submitting a petition with signatures from 30% of the homeowners in a proposed district. Once the city has estimated the cost of project, the service district and tax must be approved by 75% of the affected property owners and also by owners of at least 50% of the property value. If the neighborhood votes yes, the district still requires City Council approval.

The Pilot cited the low-lying Hague neighborhood on the edge of downtown Norfolk that might use a district to jump-start much-needed stormwater improvements and floodgate construction.

Bacon’s bottom line: The creation of special service districts represents a huge step forward in building resilience into Virginia’s low-lying communities, although it is only one reform among many that must be made. Special service districts won’t work for every neighborhood. Flood control projects are subject to cost-benefit tradeoffs like any other kind of infrastructure. Economics dictate that districts will be created only where development is dense enough, property values are high enough, and the project scope is limited enough geographically that the resulting taxes are not onerous to property owners. Districts will be less likely to make sense in areas of low-density or low-value development.

Predictably, a concern expressed in the Norfolk City Council meeting was that the districts would benefit mainly “people who are wealthy and have more disposable income [to] solve their problems.” True. But it makes no sense whatsoever to deprive people of a tool to protect against sea-level rise simply because it won’t help everyone.

In flood-prone areas that lack the density or property valuations to justify flood-control districts, residents may have to get accustomed to the idea that they’ll need to move one day. Perhaps Norfolk could consider creating some kind of “sea-level refugee” fund to help these people relocate.

In the meantime, the federal government needs to price flood insurance rates so they reflect the flooding risks property owners incur by their location on the coast or in flood plains. Local governments also should create no-go districts vulnerable to sea-level rise where the municipality gives advance notice that it will maintain existing public infrastructure but will build no more new infrastructure.

Hampton Roads can adapt. If Rotterdam, Netherlands, much of which lies below sea level, can thrive in an era of encroaching sea levels, so can Hampton Roads. Special service districts represent a good start. But they are only a start.

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11 responses to “Norfolk to Create Special Service Districts for Flood-Prone Areas

  1. Huzzah! Someone, in the form of the City of Norfolk, appears to be walking the talk. To the extent sinking land and rising seas threatens portions of the city, Norfolk leaders are going beyond trying to regulate and tax the world for Climate Change. The City is proposing to engage in mitigation and get funds from those whose property is at risk. It’s not all that needs to be done but a sensible step in the right direction.

  2. I agree that this is a good step. However, a cautionary note: It seems that it is up to the initiative of residents to create a district. That means someone has to come up a viable project, provide enough detail to cost it out, and organize the residents of the area to support it. That could be a tall order and it might leave the door open for opportunistic entrepreneurs to sell the residents on a questionable project. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

    • Perhaps, homeowners (and if appropriate, businesses) might get a break on insurance costs if they live in an area that has been improved with some flooding mitigation structures.

  3. Important to recognize that this is NOT a neighborhood going to the private sector for insurance for everyone in the risk group.

    This is the Govt imposing additional taxes on people in that neighborhood and as Dick warns – the devil is in the details.

    How much higher taxes?

    That’s the starting question. The answer to that is hard and illustrates why the Federal Flood program is in financial trouble. They way, way underestimated who would be flooded and the cost of the flood.

    Unlike the Federal Govt – a service district cannot just vote itself more money from all taxpayers if they guess wrong!

    The reason for the uncertainty – is that accurate flood maps must be available (someone must do them and THAT costs money!).

    Here’s an article from the Wall Street Journal:

    ” Is Your Home at Risk of Flooding? The Data Is Hard to Find
    Flood maps are outdated and information about whether a property has flooded before isn’t always disclosed

    When Heather Gaker found the perfect sage-green beach house in Boynton Beach, Fla., four years ago, she hired multiple inspectors and researched the property’s flood history. Finding no serious history of flooding, she used most of her retirement savings to buy it with cash.

    Then during a rainstorm in 2017, a half-foot of water filled her home, damaging cabinets and electrical wiring and causing mold. After she filed an insurance claim, she discovered her home had flooded repeatedly before. It was no longer eligible for flood insurance, making it virtually worthless.

    “My life savings is in this house,” she said. “That would have been a deal breaker right there, knowing now the flood history.”

    https://www.wsj.com/articles/is-your-home-at-risk-of-flooding-the-data-is-hard-to-find-11560418204

    So THIS is the problem.

    Do the current owners really want their property mapped as a flood risk which would surely result in a lower valuation not to mention run off the mortgage bank folk.

    And how often should those maps be re-done if sea level increases at faster levels than originally estimated?

    I’m sorta wondering if this was truly a good faith effort by Government or is this their way of washing their hands of it for private property?

    Accurate flood maps will have BIG consequences.

    How many buyers will there be for a home in a designated flood zone – service district or not – if they cannot get insurance nor mortgage?

    My guess is that a lot of folks – once they actually see their home on a flood map – will not want to stay if they can leave without losing everything.

    But HEY – talk about more “affordable housing” – HECKFIRE!

  4. As I mentioned to Jim, the BiPartisan Policy Center (BPC) seems to have an active program on flooding. There is a webcast meeting next Wednesday:

    “On the Front Lines of Flooding: Local Perspectives on Adaptation and Resilience

    Bipartisan Policy Center and the American Flood Coalition (is having a panel discussion) of the local response to increased flooding and storm surges.

    The event provides a unique opportunity to hear directly from local stakeholders about the risks their communities face and the ways they are reducing potential impacts by prioritizing adaptation and resilience.

    Speakers:
    Harold Hunter, Texas State Director of Environmental Services
    Matt Ries, Director, Watershed Management, DC Water
    Mayor Donnie Tuck, Hampton, VA
    Moderator: Melissa Roberts, Director, American Flood Coalition”

    Normally I try to sit in at home but I probably have a conflict for this one.

  5. I think the bottom line is – if you own property that is in a flood zone – it’s going to be a risky thing and certain institutions like insurance and banking will bail.

    That leaves the government for insurance and what Norfolk is saying is “form your own neighborhood Service District” which will require some significant expertise to determine what will be flooded to what level and how often and stuff like that – in order to estimate damage and costs. You have to do that to be able to set a tax rate and even then – can you buy insurance with those supplemental taxes or will it be essentially a self-insurance?

    These are things the average homeowner don’t have a clue about and usually what Govt and private sector insurance analysts do. In fact, the private sector won’t insure these places and the Feds seem to be the sole provider – and they are billions in deficit right now.

    Perhaps this is something that SHOULD be handled by property owners and the private sector and not government.

    But my suspects are – that many who are not rich and they have one pot of money for a home and if they lose it – they’re broke and can’t replace it – those folks – if they are smart – are going to get out – because there is a lot of uncertainty about not only the flood zones, but are they changing – and no private sector wants any part of it anyhow.

    Is this something that only Govt can do?

  6. I just luv to tax myself extra and spend a gazillion hours organizing unwilling neighbors to get something sensible going on a local basis that ought to be SOP region-wide. Sure, ya have to start somewhere; but when is the City as a whole going to adopt policies to prevent more such flood-prone developments, let alone to fix the ones already built?

    • Wait. You’re making a cogent point here! Thank You!

      But also, my understanding is that for a locality to be able to participate in the FEMA Flood Insurance program – the locality has to agree to not let more development in the designated flood zones.

      the problem is the accuracy of the flood maps which takes money and time to update and keep current.

      Without those maps – the idea of “flood zones” is merely a concept and a guessing game.

      Finally, if someone owns a property and flood maps show future flooding what should they do? Should they sell and if they do – should the prospective buyer also know about that flood map?

  7. Neighborhoods are going to form service districts? That’s so Virginia. What are they going to do – issue buckets and snorkels to their residents?

    From the article on Rotterdam …

    “Mr. van Waveren described how it works. When the gate is closed, the arms float out onto the canal, meet and lock, the tubes filling with water and sinking onto a concrete bed, making an impenetrable steel wall against the North Sea. The process takes two and a half hours. Pressure from the sea is then transferred from the wall to the largest ball joints in the world, embedded in the banks on either side of the river.

    Computers, using a closed electronic system to avoid cyberattack, monitor sea levels hourly and can shut the gate automatically — or open it. This is critical: Thirty pumps inside the gate are linked to one of the country’s power grids. They extract water from the tubes when it is time for the Maeslantkering to be reopened.

    If the grid fails, there is a backup grid and, as a last resort, a generator, because even more dangerous than the gate’s not closing is the gate’s not reopening. In that case, water pouring down from the Rhine and Meuse rivers could not flow into the sea and would overwhelm Rotterdam even more swiftly than the North Sea could. As Mr. Aboutaleb noted, escape would be impossible.”

    Does that sound like a neighborhood self-help project?

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