Should coastal residents who stay put in face of flooding get tax breaks to fortify their property? Ballot question sparks debate

By: - November 2, 2018 6:10 am

A large home along the Chesapeake Bay. (Chesapeake Bay Program/Creative Commons)

An environmental group in coastal Virginia is urging voters to oppose a constitutional amendment intended to offer tax relief to property owners facing recurring flooding, prompting a debate that echoes larger concerns about how states and localities should respond to sea-level rise.

On ballots statewide Tuesday, the measure would give local governments the authority to provide partial real estate tax exemptions to people who make flooding resiliency improvements like raising buildings or fortifying shorelines.

“It is fundamentally unwise for any incentives to be given for building or rebuilding on land with recurrent flooding, especially in a tidal region where relative sea levels are expected to continue rising,” said the president of the 200-member Northumberland Association for Progressive Stewardship, Mike Ahart, in an email.

“It would be much wiser to expand incentives not to build or rebuild on this land.”

The issue has drawn limited statewide attention and large environmental groups like the Virginia League of Conservation Voters and the Sierra Club haven’t taken a position.

Others have said they support it, including Wetlands Watch and the Chesapeake Climate Action Network Action Fund.

The measure was put forward by state Sen. Lynwood Lewis, D-Accomac, who said he wanted to offer local governments a tool to deal with flooding and sea-level rise.

The Northumberland group only learned about the amendment two weeks ago from a member and decided to take a position after talking to scientists and other experts, who Ahart said agreed with their concerns that the tax breaks could actually make things worse by incentivizing the hardening of shoreline with riprap or bulkheads. That, they argue, would lead to worsening flooding in areas where property owners either can’t afford or don’t want to install the barriers.

“Not only will their taxes subsidize the neighbor’s improvements, their property will experience increased flooding and erosion from the inflow reflected by the protected neighboring property,” he said.

Lewis, the measure’s sponsor, said the concerns are misplaced and that there are responsible ways to protect coastal property, such as with living shorelines, where native plants rather than stone and concrete are used to protect against flooding and erosion. And he said objections that it might actually encourage new development are addressed by language in the amendment that specifically limits applications to improved property.

“I guess people who don’t live in these areas think we’re talking about million-dollar, ocean-front homes,” he said. “In Norfolk and the rural areas I represent, we’re talking about middle-income folks in homes they’ve lived in 30 to 50 years that are experiencing flooding. To tell them to pack up and move out is just a little impractical.”

Likewise, Skip Stiles, the director of Wetlands Watch, said he supports the ballot measure. “There are possible applications that might be overly broad but localities will tend to keep the eligible practices narrow to avoid giving away too much of their tax base,” he said in an email.

The director of the Virginia Coastal Policy Center at William & Mary Law School, Elizabeth Andrews, said she hopes the final legislative language will include limits that lead people toward environmentally responsible approaches such as living shorelines.

As to whether people should be encouraged to stay, she said that’s the kind of policy debate that’s only going to get more pressing.

“There is an overarching discussion that the commonwealth needs to have about what areas we are going to continue to occupy and what areas we are eventually going to retreat from,” she said. “No one wants to have that conversation. It means uprooting businesses and homes — loss of tax revenue. It’s a very difficult conversation we need to have.”


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Ned Oliver
Ned Oliver

Ned, a Lexington native, has been a fulltime journalist since 2008, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. He was named Virginia's outstanding journalist for 2020 by the Virginia Press Association.