Delaware local governments can direct development and investment away from vulnerable, flood-prone areas by adopting planning tools outlined in the Delaware Complete Communities Planning Toolbox. The Toolbox provides planning tools within the five elements of a complete community—complete streets, efficient land use, healthy and livable, inclusive and active, and sustainable and resilient.
Flooding from extreme precipitation, high tides, storm surge, and slow sea level rise will challenge the ability for local governments and state agencies to maintain infrastructure in low lying areas. Delaware’s transportation infrastructure—including roads, bridges, transit system, bikeways, and pedestrian walkways and trails—is particularly vulnerable to impacts of flooding. Therefore, planning for Complete Streets needs to consider adaptation strategies in the planning, design, construction, and maintenance of Delaware’s transportation facilities. Complete Streets in Delaware: A Guide for Local Governments describes how communities can address transportation planning and develop context-sensitive solutions through the comprehensive planning process, land use policy development, and adoption of plans, policies, and design standards.
Because today’s decisions on land use and infrastructure investments have a long lifespan, potential impacts of flooding must be considered. Preparing for Tomorrow’s High Tide states that 8 to 11 percent of Delaware’s total area with a tax assessed value of $1.5 billion will be potentially inundated and directly impact all Delaware communities. “Protect, accommodate, retreat, and avoid” are all appropriate options for public infrastructure and assets that may be threatened by recurrent flooding. Severe conditions may reduce the lifespan of capital assets and increase operational disruptions. Municipal infrastructure and assets that are susceptible to flooding may require design, construction, and maintenance methods to be altered. In addition, public services and infrastructure—especially roadways—must be fully functional and provide for emergency operations and evacuations in extreme weather conditions.
Efficient Land Use
Balancing a strong demand for development with the protection of fragile environmental and cultural resources—the hallmark of sustainable and resilient places—is a challenge in achieving complete communities. Delaware Strategies for State Policies and Spending articulates the need to coordinate land use decision-making in a manner that makes the best use of Delaware’s natural and fiscal resources. One of the major goals for land use planning in Delaware is to direct development to designated growth areas, as identified in the Map of Strategy Level Areas. These are areas that are prepared for development with existing infrastructure, and/or where infrastructure investment is planned. Local government plans and regulatory tools should foster efficient land use and consider vulnerabilities and risks when planning for growth (e.g., siting of infrastructure, type and location of future development) in designated growth areas. Regulatory measures such as zoning code changes, development of natural resource protection standards, and/or the establishment of open space zones, conservation districts or agriculture/conservation districts regulations can protect land, limit, or restrict development in high-risk areas.
Planning for and creating incentives for infill development, or the development of vacant or existing parcels of land within previously built areas, is desired in designated growth areas with available infrastructure. This is consistent with Delaware’s policy agenda and should be addressed in local government comprehensive plans. Infill development takes advantage of existing public infrastructure such as transportation, water, wastewater, and other utilities. Such development provides an alternative to development in environmentally sensitive areas that may be vulnerable to floods. Benefits of infill include preservation of open space and natural resources, community revitalization, and efficient investment in and use of infrastructure. It should be noted that many Delaware’s historic, maritime towns are located along coastal and inland waterways that are prone to flooding. Strategies to protect, avoid, accommodate, or retreat should be considered where development already exists in vulnerable areas.
Delaware’s Downtown Development Districts (DDD) program incentivizes development within infill areas. It is designed to spur private investments that renovate old properties, build new ones, and revitalize neighborhoods. Authorized by Senate Bill 191 on June 5, 2014, this program establishes economic development incentives that promote revitalization of Delaware’s downtowns and direct development to designated growth areas. Investors who make Qualified Real Property Investments (QRPI) to commercial, industrial, residential, and mixed-use buildings or facilities located within the boundaries of a designated DDD may apply to the Delaware State Housing Authority (DSHA) for a DDD Grant. Applying for this designation and these benefits allows Delaware communities to direct development to their urban cores and away from vulnerable, “out-of-play” greenfield, environmentally sensitive, or floodplain areas.
Healthy and Livable
Conserving land, protecting natural environments, and discouraging development in particularly vulnerable areas (e.g., floodplains and tidal floodplain areas) are strategies that can reduce flood risk by absorbing and making room for water during floods. Communities can undertake parks and recreation master planning to provide trails, open space, parks, and passive recreation areas that can withstand flooding. Other natural ways to protect and conserve environmental resources include preventing encroachment of development within a floodplain and managing shoreline and waterways (bays and canals) through the regulation of coastal construction activities and implementation of dune and beach management practices.
Coastal communities also can develop “living shorelines,” a method of shoreline stabilization and protection for wetlands that is built using natural materials and native plants. In addition to protecting wetland habitat, living shorelines protect a coastline against erosion and provide “soft infrastructure” to absorb wave energy and reduce flooding during hurricanes and storms.
Inclusive and Active
In addition to involving stakeholders in local planning initiatives, Delawareans can be actively involved in flood protection and conservation activities. DNREC’s Division of Watershed Stewardship annually gathers volunteers to plant beach grass along Delaware’s dunes. The beach grass helps protect the dunes, which in turn, help protect the area behind them from the relentless sea and coastal flooding. DNREC’s Adopt-A-Beach, the Delaware Coastal Training Program, and Delaware Sea Grant’s programs, and Delaware Coastal Programs’ outreach and education programs address critical resource management issues in Delaware by providing current scientific information, access to technologies, and skill-building opportunities to citizens and local decision makers.
Sustainable and Resilient
Although state and federal regulations provide extensive protection to flood-prone areas, these locations are often threatened by pressures from development. Land management approaches such as conservation easements, transfer of development rights (TDRs), land acquisition, and buy-out programs are effective strategies. Conservation easements, legal agreements between a landowner and the government to place environmental restrictions on a property, can effectively prohibit the owner of a vulnerable property from building in a buffer zone or could require the removal of existing structures. Transfer of development rights (TDRs) could be used to restrict development in vulnerable areas and allow property owners to transfer development rights of their property to an area less susceptible to impacts of sea level rise. Jurisdictions should consider adopting guidelines for the placement of fill in special flood hazard areas to prevent improperly designed fill areas that create negative consequences to adjacent areas.
Land acquisition and buyout programs could be also targeted to properties that have been repeatedly or severely impacted by flooding. The private property that is purchased, such as one in Bowers Beach, Delaware could then be converted to a flood-friendly use such as a public park. Rolling easements have been used in other states to provide a rolling boundary designed to accommodate fluctuating shorelines due to storm impacts, but they have faced legal challenges. Any land use change or management approach should be considered in consultation with the city solicitor and with guidance from state agency officials.
Sustainable and resilient practices also include the adoption of green infrastructure development standards such as reducing impervious surfaces (e.g., paved surfaces and hardscaping) and constructing wetlands and detention ponds for stormwater management. For more information on strategies and other tools to increase a community’s flood readiness, visit Georgetown Climate Center’s Sea Level Rise Adaptation Tool Kit and Widener University School of Law’s Assessing the Legal Toolbox for Sea Level Rise Adaption in Delaware.