Should Virginia Beach Buy Out Flood-Prone Properties at Fair Market Value?

by James A. Bacon

As Hurricane Dorian bears down on the South Atlantic Coast, the Virginian-Pilot reports that Virginia Beach officials are considering a program to buy out residents who want to move out of homes that have flooded or face a risk of flooding. The land would be converted into parks, planted with trees, or used as a flood-control projects.

That’s just one of the strategies city officials are pondering to deal with sea-level rise. The seal level in Hampton Roads has increased by a foot since the 1960s, and some climatologists claim that the rate of rise could accelerate. If the city does not take preventive action, writes the Pilot, a projected three-foot rise in the sea level could cost $330 million yearly by 2065.

The Virginia Beach plan would be based on a similar program in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., which spends $3.8 million yearly in voluntary acquisitions, funded through stormwater fees, to manage local floodplains. The city assesses which properties are the most vulnerable and targets those first.

For every dollar spent on such a program in Virginia Beach, the city would get more than $5 in benefits, according to engineering consulting firm Dewberry. The firm has identified 2,500 properties that would be beneficial for the city to buy. Most are in the southern part of the city near Back Bay. Additional funds would be spent to convert the residential property into forest or wetlands.

Bacon’s bottom line: The proposal is definitely a step in the right direction. Localities need to adapt their land-use policies to the reality of sea-level rise.

I’m not convinced that the sea level over the next 50 years will increase at three times the rate of the last half century, a projection that is based on the assumption that rising atmospheric CO2 will accelerate the rate of climate change, melting polar icecaps and sea-level rise. Further, it would be interesting to know if city projections take into account plans by the Hampton Road Sanitation District to replenish the Potomac Aquifer, the drainage of which gas contributed to subsidence and roughly 25% of the region’s relative sea level rise. Injecting treated waste water back into the aquifer could partially reverse subsidence in parts of the region. Whatever the rate of sea-level rise, however, flooding is increasing in frequency and severity, and the city does need to take remedial action.

It makes sense to identify the areas most prone to flooding. It makes sense to encourage residents to voluntarily move out. And it makes sense to convert residential properties into wooded or wetland buffers. My question is whether it makes sense for taxpayers to pay residents fair market value for the properties.

It would be a no-brainer for Virginia Beach to take over properties that homeowners voluntarily abandon on their own. It might even make sense to pay off homeowners’ mortgage obligations, so the large financial liability doesn’t inhibit them from moving to higher, drier land. But the full market value of the property? Why should local government bail property owners out of their poor real estate investments? The necessity of moving people out of flood-prone areas needs to be balanced against the interests of city taxpayers. Soaring flood-insurance rates will run homeowners out of flood-prone areas soon enough. No sense in the city paying more than it needs to.

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11 responses to “Should Virginia Beach Buy Out Flood-Prone Properties at Fair Market Value?

  1. Well, step one is to stop all future construction in any of the low-lying areas, and all coastal regions need to plan for the more likely flooding events of major rainfalls, worsened by all the development. It makes sense to remove buildings and impervious surfaces that add to the problem.

    Sea level rise is moving at about 2-3 millimeters per year, which means .2 to .3 of a meter per century. So perhaps one foot per century. It has been going on since the end of ice age. Hampton Roads, of course, is dealing with subsidence and erosion is another issue, so locally the change could be higher. I’m sure the string will now explode with falsehoods….was just watching a promo on the CNN Circus of Deception on the issue due to air soon.

  2. It would be nuts for government to buy up properties due to fear of future flooding. But I guess we can add to the campaign wish list: gov’t to pay off college loan debt, gov’t to retire medical debt, and now buy out properties from owners who are worried they bought in flood prone areas.

    • True, you might get a better price if buying right after the flood, when the owner is weighing whether to rebuild (which usually should be discouraged). If the engineers can see that clearing certain areas will improve drainage, prevent flooding, I can see the case for moving that way. But again, step one when in a hole is always stop digging.

  3. Flood insurance is government-subsidized regardless of how one feels about the “science” of flooding and sea level rise.

    The question is not whether other taxpayers should pay to buy others out but whether we should be providing government-subsidized flood insurance to start with. Why not end it right now and let people make their choices based on what private sector insurance costs and availability?

    All this blather about CNN and climate science to essentially divert the issue from whether or not people should be responsible for their choices and whether the government should be subsidizing those choices …… what happened to real “conservatism” when it comes to flood insurance?

    Oh – and for land that floods – and is unfit for building homes and businesses – why not solar panels to cover up all that nasty flooded land? 😉

  4. Few things are as destructive to any form of machinery as water, Larry, so no, only an idiot would built a major solar field in an area likely to be flooded, especially by salt water. Electricity and water go so well together….. The classic conservative position on flood insurance would be a private sector product, priced purely on risk like all other forms of insurance. Don’t forget the major tax subsidy provided by casualty losses (did that survive TCJA?).

  5. we’re talking about lands that are PERIODICALLY flooded but for that matter ANY lands that are not suitable for building or agriculture…

    but in terms of subsidies – government subsidies for flood insurance and Conservative values – why do we continue to have them? When we did TCJA why didn’t they go away? Is that a major policy position of elected Congress critters from districts where there is “sea level rise”?

    You know if we had government subsidies for car insurance – all these Conservative types would be up in arms about “moral hazard” but if it is flood insurance, the cat has their proverbial tongues and we talk about the govmint “buying out” private land owners (with other taxpayers money). I mean…. LORD O’Mighty – if that’s not snowflake liberalism , what is?

    • Larry, what are you talking about?

      “You know if we had government subsidies for car insurance – all these Conservative types would be up in arms about “moral hazard” but if it is flood insurance, the cat has their proverbial tongues and we talk about the govmint “buying out” private land owners (with other taxpayers money).”

      What “conservative types” are you referring to? I’ve consistently campaigned for eliminating flood-insurance subsidies. So have the other conservatives on this blog. But that’s a separate issue. Virginia Beach has no say-so regarding flood insurance rates. VB is talking about something that it can do to prod people into moving out of flood-prone areas.

  6. We don’t have government subsidies for car insurance but we do have government mandates for car insurance (coupled with a tax for being uninsured). But that’s because the driver is not the only one facing financial or medical costs from an accident – he or she hits someone else, usually. Like Jim, I can’t think of any conservative who is not offended by flood insurance subsidies in principle. Political reality is another thing, so it survives…and flooding is hardly a problem only on the ocean fronts, and you know it Larry. Jim and I both remember the water lapping at the front door of the Roanoke Times building in 1985. Ocean rise is an exaggerated political club – but flooding is a common risk just about everywhere.

  7. re: “VB is talking about something that it can do to prod people into moving out of flood-prone areas.”

    why does VB have to do ANYTHING , much less take taxes from one group of property owners to buy out others?

    answer please?

    If “Conservatives” are “offended” by subsidized flood insurance, I have to say, I’ve not heard any elected GOP advocate gettting rid of it – like I’ve heard them advocate getting rid of Obama care.

    re: sea level rise and CNN and liberals and bad science and bad breath.

    Anytime we talk about sea level rise and the implications of it to people and property and infrastructures – Conservative types slides off that subject and back to accusing scientists of being lying SOBs – because they really don’t want to talk about the financial consequences of sea level rise and who ends up paying – it’s easier just go back and accuse scientists of engaging in global conspiracies to defraud people.

    Forget those lying scientists – that’s just a distraction and diversion from the real issue which is the moral hazard of subsidized flood insurance and why localities like VB should us other peoples taxes to “prod” others to move.

    Don’t conflate this issue with climate science skepticism… just focus on the sea level rise and oh by the way if you don’t believe science on how much the sea level will rise then WHAT WOULD you base things like flood insurance on? I can tell you the private sector insurance companies are not “skeptics” on this issue… they are realists and the price for flood insurance is pegged at real calculated risks – no matter what your favorite political beliefs might be.

    so – no – no self respecting “conservative” should advocate VB taking taxes from some property owners and giving it to others, don’t yall call that a “wealth transfer” in other narratives?

    • “so – no – no self respecting “conservative” should advocate VB taking taxes from some property owners and giving it to others, don’t yall call that a “wealth transfer” in other narratives?”

      I agree completely.

  8. Who says Trump is the craziest? A Swedish behavioral scientist, who is speaking about climate change, has called for eating human corpses to combat warming. http://www.abcbusinessnews.com/2019/09/swedish-behavioral-scientist-suggests-eating-humans-to-save-the-planet/

    Compared to this one, buying up waterfront homes on the taxpayers’ backs seems downright sensible.

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