In the booming metro area of Charlotte, strengthening stormwater infrastructure to reduce impacts to buildings and residents is key. When this demand was not being met, Mecklenburg County, the city of Charlotte, and six surrounding towns created a joint Storm Water Services utility to enhance flood resilience across the region. The utility’s fees generate perennial revenue based on impervious area used exclusively for flood infrastructure, water quality improvement, and stormwater management programs. One of the more significant programs proactively works with homeowners on sensible, compassionate buyout plans that reduce potential harm from a future flood event. Having funds available to develop locally initiated buyouts, and to match federal grants when feasible, enables the utility to plan buyouts with residents in a more comprehensive way geographically.
Historically, Charlotte developed significantly before floodplains were mapped. Therefore, some building took place in zones where flooding along creeks was more likely, said Tim Trautman, the flood mitigation program manager for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Storm Water Services (CMSWS).
“We considered various structural approaches to reduce flood damage, but we came to the realization that because of where our floodplains are, it was time to start un-developing.” —Tim Trautman, flood mitigation program manager, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Storm Water Services
Since 1999, Storm Water Services has purchased more than 450 flood-prone homes, apartment buildings, and businesses throughout the Charlotte-Mecklenburg region. The website touts their success: “Over 700 families and businesses have moved to less vulnerable locations outside of local floodplains. 185 acres of public open space has been ‘undeveloped’ to allow the floodplain to function during heavy rain and provide a long-term community asset. Storm Water Services also estimates these buyouts have avoided $25 million in losses and will ultimately avoid over $300 million in future losses.”
The utility’s authority, says Trautman, comes wrapped in compassion, and the decisions his team encourages appeal to long-term health, safety, and quality of life. Successful buyouts, backed with the county’s available cash from stormwater fees, can save property owners from physical and emotional loss. They also save the county from water rescues, overtime hours, shelter opening, temporary housing, and nail-biting unknowns that come from heavy storms. “Charlotte-Mecklenburg floodplains have a lot of urban flash flooding,” Trautman explained. “They require quick action and emergency response.”
In that context, Trautman nonetheless stresses the value of planning buyouts holistically, in accord with other public interests and benefits, such as local parks which usually maintain the purchased properties and planning staff who stitch them into the city’s fabric. Their buyouts do not end with the demolition of buildings. The property is put to greater public use, so the benefits extend beyond flood mitigation. “Even if floods come without much warning,” he adds, “flood buyout programs benefit from steady funding and consistent vision. The most successful programs are really ongoing as programs, backed by a long-term risk reduction plan.” Trautman said his team makes comprehensive plans for coordinating buyouts and flood-prevention projects in a few neighborhoods per year.
Growth brings more capital to the stormwater fee pool but also puts strain on stormwater systems even through Charlotte-Mecklenburg ordinances require substantial stormwater detention and treatment. Assessments of a property’s impervious area is the basis of collection of stormwater fees, which grow into a pool that Trautman’s team can dip into for buyouts. He notes, “Many communities solely rely on federal disaster money, and they sometimes wait one to two years after the event to apply.” Trautman points to CMSWS’s funding stream and specifically a “rainy day fund” as a way to speed up the process. “By contrast, we’ve closed on flood-damaged homes within a couple months of a flood and recently were able to buy a bank-owned distressed property about five weeks after bidding on it.”
That mix of quick turnaround closing and long-range focus matters, because Trautman says prices have climbed with flood risk caused by climate change in just the past five years. Trautman says the footprint of properties that the team can target has grown even though local prices for buildings, flood-prone or otherwise, have tended to climb even through the COVID-19 shutdown. “It’s a seller’s market, for sure,” he says. With ample capital, the utility can think about long-term benefits for the community as well as fair prices for each owner with whom the team negotiates.
Not every owner perceives the future flood risk in the same way. Trautman says roughly 75 percent of sellers respond positively to the idea of escaping flood risk, but every owner has a different perception of a fair price. “Balancing our need to increase community resilience with the need to keep the program voluntary is our number-one challenge,” he reflected. One response to the challenge comes from making sure that planning and buyouts occur in sync, so that relocated homeowners and other neighbors get to enjoy the new open space along the creeks.
Because of the voluntary nature of buyouts, coming up with plans that create public amenities and meet homeowners’ needs on relatively short notice is challenging. “It’s not like planning a highway, which takes years, and the land acquisition is a certainty.” So the team focuses on purchasing parcels over time and as opportunities arise that can add up to corridors—“one was pictured as a future greenway”—that attract stormwater and attract neighbors on the preponderance of days when most people need not think about floods.
The evolution from susceptible house to sustainable open space/park offers many opportunities for the county, Trautman added. His team and staff from partner agencies may also look at how a post-COVID city uses purchased land. Various master planning groups on which Trautman serves may reassess how the county values bike lanes, public space, and wider sidewalks, given the need for and use of these public spaces during the pandemic. With the real estate market “squeezed,” in his words, water-related disasters can stray from owners’ minds. However, his team continues to advance this work. Focusing on developing relationships with flood-prone property owners and strategizing about long-term uses of the properties could create amenities that also manage flooding. “The biggest thing is developing that relationship and trust with people,” says Trautman. “That leads to having them feel good about what government is doing.”
For example, the Doral apartment complex, which included 260 apartments on 19 acres, flooded six times since 1995, with damages topping $8 million. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Storm Water Services purchased the complex for $4.7 million, leveraging a FEMA grant for 75 percent of the project cost and CMSWS fees for the remaining 25 percent. By October 2010, all the units were purchased, and eligible residents were given relocation assistance. Across Briar Creek, CMSWS also purchased all 196 units in the Cavalier Apartments (13 acres) using the same FEMA grant/stormwater fee funding approach. With a combined 28 acres of land along the creek, CMSWS worked with the parks department and other government agencies to restore a large green space, now known as the Chantilly Ecological Sanctuary.
As a result of these buyouts, more than 700 residents have been relocated out of hazardous areas with high flood risk, and much of the land has been restored in various forms of open space, some parks and trails, that also mitigates future flood damage to the area.
Include each parcel in a plan. Successful flood buyouts not only offer a market price but also offer a vision of a more enjoyable city with hardier and easier-to-reach green space. CMSWS collaborates with city agencies on a comprehensive plan every five years, which details linear parks that can emerge from purchased vulnerable properties.
Bring the backing of your jurisdiction. As a county utility, CMSWS carries the value of the assets it purchases. It also brings consistent capital to buyout negotiations each year on the strength of its annual assessments. (If impervious surface decreases and brings assessed valuation down with it, the county would still draw on a dedicated funding source rather than relying on protracted FEMA payments.)
Connect with other agencies whose mission serves the resilient city. While each place evolves its own flood maps, Trautman ascribes some of his agency’s appeal to its coherence with the city’s neighborhoods. Focusing on creating parks, corridors, and—potentially—inclusive public life, the agency can present itself less as a collector of parcels and more as a creator of places.