How Virginia's Preparing for Climate Change Like No Other State

by | April 26, 2016

By Dave Mayfield

Virginia has established a revolving loan fund to help homeowners and businesses make changes to their properties in anticipation of sea-level rise -- a step the program's advocates say no other state has taken.

But the distinction comes with an asterisk: There's no money in the fund, and there may not be for several years.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe on Friday signed legislation establishing the Virginia Shoreline Resiliency Fund. Sen. Lynwood Lewis, a Democrat from the Eastern Shore, sponsored the bill, SB282.

It's similar to a program in Connecticut called ShoreUp CT. But that fund and those like it in other states focus on helping applicants deal with current flooding threats. Virginia's program would lend money not just for immediate needs, but also for changes "to mitigate future flood damage" -- in other words, sea-level rise.

The Norfolk-based nonprofit group Wetlands Watch worked with Lewis to develop the legislation. Skip Stiles, the group's executive director, said the fund has the potential to accelerate retrofits of buildings in flood-prone areas throughout coastal Virginia.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency provides grants to elevate properties for which multiple damage claims have been made through the National Flood Insurance Program. But that mitigation assistance program is so backlogged that new applicants in this region have almost no chance of getting any money through it in their lifetimes, he said.

In Norfolk, the wait would be 188 years at the pace applications are being processed now, Stiles said. An increase in flooding episodes in recent years led more people to apply for the federal help.

"This is a big problem getting bigger," he said.

New Orleans is the only U.S. metro area considered at greater risk from climate change than Hampton Roads. Scientists have predicted water levels could climb in the region from 1.5 to 8 feet by the century's end, and that was before a study published last month in the journal Nature that warned Antarctic ice melting could cause sea-level rise to accelerate.

Lewis first introduced the legislation in 2015, and Stiles said it was an accomplishment to win bipartisan support for it in this year's General Assembly. Business or home owners would go through their local governments to apply for the low-cost loans, which would be secured by placing liens on their properties. As loans are repaid, money would be freed up to lend to others.

The next step, actually getting money for the fund from the legislature or through a state bond issue, could take three or four years, Stiles said: "But at least now we've got a bucket to put it in."

(c)2016 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.)