Flooding events are widespread and catastrophic. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), 99% of counties in the United States experienced a flood between 1996 and 2019. Anthropogenic climate change is increasing the intensity and frequency of floods during extreme weather events. Human-induced climate change likely increased Hurricane Harvey’s total rainfall by at least 19%. Municipalities can prepare for increasing flood risks by implementing strong adaptation language into their comprehensive plans—guiding future development to occur outside of floodplains.

While not itself regulatory, the comprehensive plan encourages municipalities to have a vision for future development. “Among the most important powers and duties granted by the legislature to a town government is the authority and responsibility to undertake town comprehensive planning and to regulate land use for the purpose of protecting the public health, safety, and general welfare of its citizens.” Consequently, if a local legislature wants to use subsequent zoning regulations to create climate change resilience and adapt to the consequences of flooding, it is expected to say so in the comprehensive plan.

One municipality exemplifying incorporating strong flood plain management language into its comprehensive plan is the Town of Wheatfield in New York. Wheatfield is a historically agricultural town in the western part of New York State. “The town is characterized by poor soils, wetlands, and floodplains.” Its population is increasing, and the Town desires to develop sustainably.

The general objective of the Wheatfield Comprehensive Plan is to “[E]stablish the priorities of the Town and provide guidance and direction in consideration of future land use and planning decisions.” The Town’s Comprehensive Plan also includes separate subsections within the goals and objectives section instructing planners to “Carefully plan for and manage new growth to take advantage of existing assets while minimizing potential negative impacts,” and within that subsection, planners are further instructed to “Address drainage issues and ensure new development does not aggravate this problem.” In addition, there is a subheading within the goals and objectives section advising the Wheatfield planning board to “Protect open space, environmental and recreational assets in the Town;” and specifically to “Protect important stream corridor lands, especially Sawyer Creek, as important drainageways, and greenspace corridors in the Town”; and to “Utilize and implement the existing Greenspace Plan to preserve high priority open spaces, woodlands, and natural resources.” Strong language places a “high priority” on the protection of important carbon sinks and flood buffers, like woodlands, and specifically mentions Sawyer Creek as a valuable drainageway. This provision in the Town’s Comprehensive Plan encourages the town to plan for climate change resilience.

Resilience is the capacity of social, economic, and ecosystems to cope with a hazardous event or trend, like climate change. Resilience allows social, economic, and ecosystem entities to respond to risk in ways that retain their essential function, identity, and structure while maintaining the capacity for adaption, transformation, and learning.

Methods that ensure social resilience preserve a communities’ unique culture and character in the face of challenges. As stated in the Wheatfield Comprehensive Plan: “Some areas of the Town contain significant areas of mature woodland that should be protected, to the greatest extent practicable, to maintain the rural character of the town and preserve areas of open space.” Maintaining the rural character of the town promotes social resilience because it directly ties to preserving Wheatfield’s historic identity. In addition, when communities connect their identity to environmental features, like mature woodlands, it promotes ecosystem resilience as well.

Supporting ecosystem resilience prepares the natural environment to adapt to climate-related challenges while preserving biodiversity and mitigating climate change. Floods damage ecosystems by causing erosion and pollution through collecting and depositing sediment and chemicals. Thus, by addressing drainage issues caused by improper development, especially of important stream corridors and greenways, within the Comprehensive Plan, the Town is promoting adaption and ecosystem resilience by maintaining natural flood buffers and preventing damage to the natural environment. The Plan’s language, instructing planners to protect areas of mature woodland to the greatest extent practicable, also promotes ecosystem resilience. Old-growth mature woodlands provide complex and unique habitats for species. Thus, protecting these areas from destruction preserves biodiversity and resilience. Shielding mature woodlands from deforestation also promotes resilience due to their role in climate change mitigation. As trees age and grow, their ability to absorb carbon generally increases. Therefore, old-growth forests are better at mitigating climate change than younger woodlands.

Economic resilience is a community’s ability to cope with financial risks. Floods are America’s most frequent and expensive natural disasters; increasing development and impervious surfaces increase the frequency and severity of flooding. The Wheatfield Comprehensive Plan incorporates these implications, “Development within floodplains should be carefully designed to avoid causing additional flooding and damage to developed properties.” Thus, guiding future development to consider the implications of development in floodplains and impervious surface runoff, the Wheatfield legislature promotes economic resilience by attempting to prevent improper development from increasing the expensive risk of future floods.

Incorporating strong floodplain management and resilience language into a town’s comprehensive plan is often the first step in planning for the consequences of climate change. Emphasizing climate resilient planning in the comprehensive plan advances land use by encouraging planners to adequately consider the consequences of their own land use decisions and climate change.

This article is part of a series from the Land Use Law Center that explores how local governments can implement Climate Resilient Development (CRD) as defined in the Sixth Assessment Report of the IPCC. CRD requires innovative reform of land use planning and regulation by local governments. The series presents and analyzes numerous local laws and policies capable of adapting to and mitigating climate change to create equitable and sustainable neighborhoods, achieving “sustainable development for all.” 

Author: Laurie Heldman, Rising 3L Land Use Scholar