Exploring Open Space Conservation in the Floodplain
In coastal communities, water is their biggest gift and largest natural hazard. Leaving room for the floodplain and open space provides a natural solution.
Communities can use the CRS Explorer as a roadmap for undertaking a proactive approach to address risk from floods and storms. By conserving open space in the floodplain, communities can also gain both financial and nature-based benefits.
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In Currituck County, North Carolina, the CRS Explorer highlighted the benefit of conservation subdivisions, an option within their development ordinance which allows for density bonuses when clustering residential development and setting aside and conserving open space in the development design. Conservation subdivisions are one way the county has expanded the protected open space in the floodplain and helped to tie into and buffer larger, protected natural areas.
Working with the CRS Explorer to inventory all protected open space was an effective exercise, helping the county see their contributions to open space alongside private and state landowners who manage and protect the beneficial natural areas throughout their borders. The process restored interest and conversations with these stakeholders on access to open space and natural areas, particularly with respect to ecotourism opportunities. And in 2019 the county in partnership with conservation groups installed camping platforms as part of a larger regional paddling trail to support ecotourism.
Additionally the process brought up questions like: “Is new development sited in risky areas or adding to overall risk?” or “What is the county involved in, leading or directing to reduce future risk?” The county is a member of the Currituck Sound Coalition and can bring this work to that group as well as develop new approaches to answer those questions. The CRS Explorer illustrates the big picture of existing protected lands in the floodplain and can help communities highlight opportunities to increase that protected open space to improve CRS scores, reduce risk and be more involved in actively shaping their community.
Sharing lessons learned and improving CRS ratings
In 2017, South Carolina’s Department of Health and Environmental Control’s Office for Ocean and Coastal Resource Management (SCDHEC OCRM) established the Coastal South Carolina CRS Users Group, a forum for coastal communities to share lessons learned, identify best practices and gain efficiencies in planning processes that result in hazard mitigation and realized cost savings. This group identified activity 420, Open Space Preservation, as a top priority and invited The Nature Conservancy to present on its CRS Explorer tool.
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Using Coastal Zone Management funding, SCDHEC OCRM partnered with TNC’s South Carolina chapter to bring the CRS Explorer tool to CRS-participating coastal communities in the state. This effort was a substantial leap from the work done in North Carolina, as OCRM and TNC worked to get 30 communities engaged and participating in the tool. Due to time constraints during the budget period, we were able to get 20 South Carolina communities in the tool, where they can identify land for current and future CRS points.
TNC looks forward to working with more communities in South Carolina to utilize the tool and prioritize future land for protection and CRS points.
The CRS Explorer tool was very helpful in our CRS visit and was one of the main reasons Charleston County moved from a Class 4 to a Class 3! It is easy to use and the generating of the maps and spreadsheets were very convenient! – Katherine Faith, CFM; Environmental and Land Use Planner, City of Folly Beach (former Planner with Charleston County).
Gulf of Mexico
Expanding the CRS Explorer in the Gulf Coast
The Digital Coast Partnership is a collaboration between NOAA and eight non-governmental member organizations, all working to address complex coastal management issues. The Digital Coast Partnership funds collaboration between partner organizations through Digital Coast Connects grants. The Nature Conservancy’s Gulf of Mexico Program received a Digital Coast Connects grant in 2019 to expand the use of the Community Rating System Explorer across the Gulf of Mexico.
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The Nature Conservancy (TNC), American Planning Association, Association of State Floodplain Managers, Coastal States Organizations and National States Geographic Information Council worked together on the Digital Coast Connects funded project to help communities in the Gulf of Mexico use the CRS Explorer to increase their CRS scores around Activity 420, Open Space Preservation (OSP). NOAA staff helped identify suitable target communities by comparing these communities’ likely eligible Open Space points using the NOAA Open Space GIS workflow. TNC then collected feedback from Digital Coast partner organizations and from TNC state chapters to identify overlapping priorities and select communities. The selected communities were a priority for both TNC and at least one partner organization and could potentially increase their CRS points for open space by participating in this project. Ultimately, three communities agreed to partner and participate in the project. These communities were City of Rockport, Texas, Aransas County, Texas, and Jefferson County, Florida.
The project was an exercise in education and partnership. First and foremost, the CRS Explorer has provided a great foundation for collaboration between communities and the Digital Coast partners. It has provided a launching pad for helping a community to think through the protected areas within their floodplains and how additional protections can reduce future flood risk. TNC staff learned the ins and outs of the Open Space GIS workflow developed by NOAA. From TNC’s engagement with Jefferson County, they learned that communities with development restrictions within wetlands can potentially earn a large amount of OSP points through this regulation. Project participants also learned how to use the protected areas database to get a baseline of protected areas within a community.
Read a Q+A with Tom Mohrman, who is working along coastal Mississippi to help communities understand and benefit from CRS.
Tom Mohrman is The Nature Conservancy in Mississippi’s Director of Marine Programs. Tom is working along coastal Mississippi to help communities understand the Community Rating System and implement changes to maximize the system’s community, environmental, and economic benefits.
Can you explain a little about CRS?
The Community Rating System (CRS) is a voluntary FEMA program that offers (NFIP) federal flood insurance discounts to communities that meet certain criteria related to resiliency. Participating communities are ranked into categories (1-10) based on scoring a specific number of points. For example, if you score at or above 2,500 points you are ranked a class five, which gives residents in that community’s flood zone a 25% discount. A specific number of points are allowable in across several different categories, some of which overlap with nature-based resiliency approaches. A 641 page handbook defines the categories, allowable points, and interprets what actions could qualify. Often a community will employ or contract a Certified Floodplain Manager (CFM) to submit the communities CRS certification to FEMA.
How does the CRS work fit within the broader context of TNC’s work along the Gulf of Mexico?
Protecting the habitat and functionality of the Gulf’s floodplains are important to maintain the health of nearshore waters. The CRS program offers communities a financial incentive to protecting those lands that fall within their flood zones. This is further explored in the Gulf Program publication “ Protecting Open Space & Ourselves” where high priority lands are identified for protection overlapping with repetitive flood claims. Protection of open space and natural benefits can support the resilience of a community; the CRS program helps to make that linkage via an insurance discount.
What can the impacts be for a community like those along the Gulf Coast?
The first benefit is a savings on an individual’s NFIP cost, which the discount should be stated on a policy holder’s bill. In general, a community can score a 10-25 % discount depending on what they certify. This can also help justify why a particular property is in conservation rather than on the tax roll. More importantly however, I believe that this program can open the door for conversations regarding the use of habitat and open space for their natural benefits. Conversations between city officials and Land Trusts are needed to complete the certification process. This is important facetime as it allows for greater interaction between Land Trusts and communities.
What has the reception been like for those learning about CRS?
Admittedly, we received very little response at first. We were lucky to have a prior relationship with one city to get started, however it wasn’t until we started showing outputs and identifying uncredited points that we started getting interest. We added a handful of communities to the CRS Explorer mapping tool, that was originally developed for the North Carolina coast. I am happy to say that all the communities that were included in the CRS Explorer tool are now using it and additional communities have expressed interested in being added. I have also heard from other Land Trusts that they are being contacted by neighboring communities interested in including their protected lands as part of a CRS application.
Do you anticipate this program growing along the Gulf?
I believe that this work is organically expanding into different communities, but it is largely dependent on city staff expertise and experience. You need to have a municipal partner or advocate that understands the CRS program and the added value that engaging with TNC offers. In many ways we are adding capacity and expanding community participation. Currently the Gulf Program is working in Sanibel, Florida, Biloxi, Mississippi, and Rockport, Texas. There is no reason to prevent us from working in additional communities as long as we have engaged partners.
What’s next for yours and TNC’s work on CRS?
In Mississippi, later this spring TNC and partners will be hosting workshops with the City of Biloxi to develop a “Blueprint” which should identify potential CRS points related to habitat and open space preservation. I am hoping that this could be an exportable process and model for other neighboring communities. If we get some interest I’d like to repeat this process in other coast communities. We also have several communities interested in being added to the CRS Explorer tool. I’d like to seek funding opportunities to expand the CRS Explorer tool to include these communities.
From my experience engaging in CRS is a process that requires an investment in time to develop the relationships needed to be successful. I have been fortunate that the Gulf Program has provided me the time and funding needed to engage with Mississippi communities. What we have been able to do has largely been because we have been physically visible and present whenever the opportunity existed.
Success can build upon itself and spread, but every community needs to be treated individually.
Photo credits this page ~ Gulf of Mexico Photo: Hansje Gold-Krueck; North Carolina Photo: Margaret Fields/TNC; South Carolina Photo: Sarah Hartman/TNC