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Despite Growing Flood Risks, Virginia Coastal Development Continues

Coastal flood hazard composite for Norfolk and surrounding areas (Map: NOAA)
Coastal flood hazard composite for Norfolk and surrounding areas (Map: NOAA)

*VPM Intern Patrick Larsen reported this story.

According to a new report from Climate Central and Zillow, over 800 new homes -- valued at about $420 million -- were built in flood risk areas on Virginia’s coast between 2010 and 2017.

Specifically, they are at risk of decadal floods -- damaging and costly events that occur about once every ten years.

Elizabeth Andrews of the Virginia Coastal Policy Center at William and Mary says that these localities are not blind to the problems involved with building real estate in such areas, but they are ill-equipped to know the full extent of or deal with those problems. Finding ways to encourage safer development is often beyond the means of such places. 

Andrews said that without state or federal funding, cities and towns are likely to keep building in these at-risk but lucrative areas.

“As long as they’re relying on that tax base, there’s an incentive to continue development in areas that are flooding,” she said. “And some of their highest-priced real estate is along the coast, right?  That’s where people want to live.”

Andrews added taking steps to install green spaces or other water-permeable developments puts a large burden on local funding by taking away a source of income.

Norfolk is one locality that has taken steps to encourage safer development. 

Andrews said that by first determining what the coastal city would need to do to withstand higher sea levels in a comprehensive plan, it was able to write its zoning requirements accordingly.

Andrews referred to these steps as “cutting-edge.”

The current zoning ordinances, put in place in January 2018, create “Coastal Resilience Overlays.”  Construction projects in these areas are subject to additional requirements that would help offset increased flooding.

Still, Andrews sees outside funding as the only way to truly succeed in resilience efforts.

“I absolutely believe there’s a need for state or federal funding,” she said.

In the absence of government help, it remains largely unclear where funding to encourage more flood-resilient development will come from.