Virginia Started a Unique Climate Change Fund. 2 Years Later, It's Empty.
By Peter Coutu
In the spring of 2016, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe signed a bill that gave Virginia a first-of-its-kind loan program.
Instead of just trying to mitigate current flood damage, the new revolving fund would help homeowners and businesses elevate their properties to prepare for sea level rise.
The legislation showed promise. It would not only save residents a fortune on their property, but also maintain ever-important tax revenues for local governments on the coast.
The only problem? It came with no dedicated funding, and now -- more than two years later -- that well is still dry.
"It exists in Virginia code, but there are no funds," said Jeff Caldwell, spokesman for the Virginia Department of Emergency Management.
But some leaders around southeast Virginia remain optimistic, especially with an administration currently in office that they describe as keen on helping with issues pertaining to sea level rise.
"The fund without funding -- the coastal resilience fund," said Karen Forget, a Virginia Beach resident who leads the environmental group Lynnhaven River Now. "We are hopeful that this year will be the first year that there is actually some money allocated to it. I think we're moving in a good direction at the state level."
Lynnhaven River Now is a member of the larger Virginia Conservation Network, a group of more than 100 environmental organizations throughout the state. The network puts together an annual briefing book that includes policy recommendations for the state.
And this year, for the first time, the network is calling for $50 million annually for the Virginia Shoreline Resiliency Fund.
"The coastal communities need help. We can't shoulder this on our own," she said. "This is a huge, really unprecedented, issue for the coastal communities all up and down the East Coast. We definitely need assistance."
This region is one of the most at-risk from sea level rise, as the area also is facing land subsidence, meaning the ground is sinking at the same time the sea is rising.
Skip Stiles, the executive director of the Norfolk-based environmental group Wetlands Watch, worked with state Sen. Lynwood Lewis, a Democrat, on the initial legislation.
It was sparked, he said, after realizing how long the backlog was for the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide grants to raise properties repeatedly damaged by flooding. In Norfolk, it would take a home at the bottom of the list roughly 190 years to get any money, he said.
In Virginia Beach, he said, it would "only" take 100 years.
The new Virginia program could speed up that waiting time, but not without funds, Stiles said.
If the money does come, the state government would control the purse strings, and could dole out cash to coastal localities, which would distribute low-cost loans to specific properties. As money is repaid, others could borrow from the fund.
Stiles, like Forget, thinks the environment is promising for some money to finally land in the fund. With a "slight state surplus," he said the situation is more favorable now than it has been the last couple of years.
"There's actually some money knocking around," he said.
But Stiles knows that it'll be difficult to pull off. Other projects, in education and water quality, for example, are battling for the same resources, he said.
"You got to go talk to someone from Lynchburg and ask them to give up their pet projects so we can get some money," Stiles said. "It's a tough ask, but I think it's essential."
"It's just a matter of muscle. Politics is simple physics. If you push on it, it moves," he said. "The harder you push on it, the faster it moves."
(c)2018 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.)