In my previous blog I assessed the feasibility of floodplain buyout programs in New York City, ultimately noting that while state and federal buyouts would work well for certain homeowners, they would fail to address the needs of the vast majority of those living in areas at risk for catastrophic flooding. In part, this is because renters are notably left behind in buyout programs, which incentivize building owners to relocate but which, in so doing, actually limits the options for renters.  Here, I will assess a framework that may better capture these communities in NYC: Land swaps.

There is a lot of public land in New York. According to the Congressional Research Office, the federal government owns 230,992 acres in New York state, or around 0.8% of the total land. The state itself owns about 14% of that total, over 4.2 million acres, making it the state with the fifth most land ownership in the country. New York City itself doesn’t tend to measure its municipal ownership in acres but in existing buildings, of which it owns over 17,000. Across all three categories, land use is extremely mixed: Some of those acres are state parks or national forests, and some of those buildings are not zoned for anything beyond industry or offices. I note this because, while this post will not address zoning beyond the cursory, it is very much an issue when looking at the feasibility of land swaps. However, even glancing at the full breadth of land available, there appears to be ample room to play around with the idea of moving people out of flood zones and into existing or feasible housing.

The Georgetown Climate Center defines land swaps as “the exchange or ‘swap; of title to land in perpetuity between two or more property owners … typically center[ing] on an in-kind exchange of property between parties instead of the purchase of land.” Such exchanges can “remove existing development and hard, structural barriers to facilitate the inland migration of coastal wetlands and forests that are unable to keep pace with sea-level rise, saltwater intrusion and salinization, and a loss of sediment to ‘adapt-in-place’ on the coast.” Further, these swaps can occur “between a government and private landowners, like residents or businesses, or involve other parties or intermediaries, like nonprofits or land trusts.” Land swaps are “a valuable tool for land management agencies to acquire important and threatened resource lands while conveying public lands that have become difficult, if not impossible, to manage,” per Western Land Group. So, a land swap does what it says on the label: A public or nonprofit entity exchanges a parcel of its inland property for a parcel of private property located in a flood zone, thereby moving people out of at-risk areas. The entity then turns those floodplains into wetlands and guarantees they stay that way through deed restrictions, rezoning to prohibit further development, and other building disincentives. What makes them distinctly different from buyouts, aside from the fact that money need not be exchanged (at least in theory) is the localized nature of the swap. By trading private owners for local public land, communities can stay together while also increasing their climate resiliency.

Land swaps as a formal mechanism have been around for a long time, although not in the managed retreat context. In her 2000 article David and Goliath: Reformulating the Definition of “The Public Interest” and the Future of Land Swaps After the Interstate 90 Land Exchange, Susan Jane M. Brown noted that federal land exchanges date at least as far back as the 1788 ratification of the Constitution, and perhaps to the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, in what has been termed the “Disposition Era.” During this time, Congress exercised its rights under Article IV, Section 3 of the Constitution to “dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States,” resulting in the sale or giving away of over a billion acres of public land to private owners. Writes Brown, “The result today is a patchwork of ownership: a single watershed can contain private, state, and federal interests, all with competing uses.”  Since intermingled ownership can create planning issues, land swaps emerged as a potential (though theoretical) solution, per Brown: “In theory, they reduce inholdings (privately-held lands located within public lands such as national forests, national parks, and wilderness areas), protect sensitive habitat, increase the efficiency of management, and increase public recreational opportunities. Usually, the public receives more land through exchanges than it gives up.” (Internal citations omitted.) In order to spur more land swaps, the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 authorized the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service to exchange federal land for private land when certain conditions were met. In practice, this tended to look like private interests using the process to acquire undervalued public land for things like timber cultivation, with public outcry ensuing.

In the managed retreat context, land swaps solve a variety of economic issues that are unaddressed by other mechanisms. For one thing, the exchange of land means that governments aren’t necessarily spending taxpayer money to remove private parties from flood zones, making them an attractive alternative to regulatory takings or buyout programs. Further, as Georgetown Climate notes, removing private dwellings from at-risk areas also avoids the future cost of maintenance, disaster relief, and other services when a disaster strikes.

Land swaps also offer a flexibility that buyouts don’t, allowing governments to address the varied needs of different communities. In 2011, after major floods rocked the village of Grantham in Queensland, Australia, the town’s council oversaw the purchase of nearby farmland that was located on higher ground, building a housing development in which to relocate residents who lived in the floodplain. Planner Jamie Simmonds, who supervised the Grantham relocation, noted in 2022 that land swaps, when compared to buybacks, “offered residents a greater incentive to stay within the existing community instead of moving away.” That intangible benefit may nevertheless be an important factor when it comes to getting communities to sign on en masse, a critical aspect of community relocation.

It is worth highlighting how land swap programs can incentivize relocation for community members. After Superstorm Sandy rocked New York City in 2012, the U.S. Housing and Urban Development agency, along with New York’s Build It Back project, funded a program in the Edgemere neighborhood of Queens—a community with, according to Georgetown Climate’s case study on the project, “widespread [storm] damage and regular tidal floods, coupled with longstanding public ownership of vacant land in the neighborhood.” Launched in 2015, the Resilient Edgemere Community Planning Initiative was a “a collaboration between city agencies, community members, elected officials, and local organizations” to determine which of 65 different resiliency programs would land in the sweet spot of community buy-in, population retention, climate resiliency, and economic incentive. One program was a pilot land swap, titled Edgemere Rebuild-Relocation, which sought to “provide buyout and relocation assistance to residents within a “Hazard Mitigation Zone” (HMZ), an area of Edgemere at risk of destructive wave action during storms.” After an 18-month community engagement program that heard an exhaustive list of the pros and cons of the Plan, it was determined that “Edgemere residents within an HMZ were eligible to receive a newly built, elevated home on safer ground. In exchange, residents would transfer the title of their damaged, original homes to the city.” The local input was critical to ensure that the supposed benefits of land swaps were actualized, including protecting the neighborhood from flooding, creating resilient housing while “maintain[ing] a low density feel,” and improving transportation and amenities. When the New York City Council officially passed the plan in July 2022, it included a Community Land Trust to ensure that residents were heard as the program moved into its implementation phases. While the published Plan does not actually use the term “land swap,” it certainly describes it: “Build it Back will move eligible and willing residents further inland onto property currently owned by the City. Through its acquisition program, Build it Back will also restrict housing development on property it acquires in Edgemere’s HMZ by placing deed restrictions on the lots. HPD will lead the process for an urban renewal amendment to reallocate sites planned for housing to open space uses, within the HMZ.”

Of course, there are drawbacks with land swaps as well. The most glaring is that, despite the sheer amount of New York land owned by the federal, state, and local governments, not all of it is zoned for housing. There is a need to address the regulatory schemes that might prevent land swaps from occurring before implementing them, so as not to put the cart before the horse. This may sound obvious, but just getting the Edgemere community rezoned to make way for the rest of the plan held up the project by ten years. Second, and more importantly, environmental equity and justice must be prioritized for any land swap initiative, lest some of the same issues that plague buyouts doom land swaps as well. While there is the built-in potential for more equity with land swaps, in large part because the governments overseeing them insist on gathering community input, things like affordable housing and access to public transit must be part and parcel of any land swap planning regime. Finally, land swaps require significant forethought, mainly because the housing into which relocated communities will move has to actually exist. That is far more easily said than done, especially in a city like New York, where so many residents currently live in floodplains.

For the above reasons, land swaps won’t be immediately implementable in every at-risk NYC neighborhood. Resilient Edgemere was a community-driven project, ensuring that the specific needs of the given community were addressed from the jump. While launching land swap programs before they become necessary (that is, in anticipation of a flooding disaster rather than in reaction to one) can help ensure that these needs are addressed, distance from disasters can also create less buy-in. After all, asking someone to relocate along with all of their neighbors is a big ask. One alternative, then, is a leaseback program, in which a “government compensates a property owner for purchase of the land and then leases the property back to the former owner, now the lessee, who pays rent (either monetary or in-kind) to the government as lessor.”  Something in between a land swap and a buyout, leasebacks can increase participation among otherwise reticent community members for large-scale buyouts or land swaps by kicking the can down the road a few years. While leasebacks are not desirable for communities at imminent risk of critical flooding, in combination with other regimes they can help facilitate consistent land ownership and use, which makes future razing for wetlands much simpler when the time comes. Leasebacks can also act as a stopgap, ensuring that the government owns the underlying land without instantly displacing residents and creating a massive housing crisis.

Just because a resilient land use strategy works in one NYC neighborhood does not mean it will ultimately work elsewhere, even within the same borough. Land swaps offer flexibility and opportunities for community input that are often lacking in other approaches, making them seem especially desirable for flood-prone New York communities. Nevertheless, as with most resiliency and mitigation strategies, the answer will likely be found in a mix of approaches, from buyouts to leasebacks to land swaps, to frameworks not discussed in these posts. Rather than waiting to find a silver bullet that will work in any land use scenario, finding commonalities in equity, safety, and ease of implementation should be top-of-mind.

Author: Carolyn Drell, PELR Junior Associate