Overview & Program Statistics
Local floodplains are meant to flood during heavy rains. It's mother nature's way of slowing down water to reduce damage caused by raging rivers. Floodplains also filter storm water pollutants by temporarily storing flood water. However, many communities including Charlotte-Mecklenburg, have developed within the floodplain. The development has put homes, business, vehicles, and other property in areas meant to flood.
Buying and removing buildings in the floodplain is one of the most cost-effective ways to reduce long-term flood damage and create many other community benefits. Floodplain acquisitions provide the community recreational and open space assets. Over time, the local building stock shifts from older buildings in vulnerable areas, to newer code compliant buildings in more sustainable locations within Mecklenburg County.
Since 1999, Storm Water Services has purchased nearly 400 flood-prone houses, apartment buildings and businesses that were in floodplains throughout Charlotte-Mecklenburg. Nearly 700 families and business units 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.
Floodplain buyouts have all been voluntary. Owners are not forced to sell. Historically, about 85% of owners who go through the appraisal/offer process, participate in the buyout.
The first 12 years of the program were funded exclusively through Federal grants with local matching funding. Currently, the annual investment in buyouts is $4M and most buyouts are funded completely with local money. The program also coordinates acquisitions with other public entities to achieve multi-objective goals. Since 1999, the buyout program has invested $67 million in removing buildings from the floodplain (43% federal, 2% state, 48% local, 7% other).
See a list of properties purchased through this program.
How Properties are Chosen for Buyouts
The most important criteria are a property’s overall flood risk and the cost effectiveness of a buyout. The “flood risk” of an individual property includes two main factors 1) the likelihood of various floods occurring on that property and 2) the damage (and financial impacts) that will occur. When determining cost effectiveness, Storm Water Services estimates the long term benefits of buying the flood-prone property and compares it to the total cost to buy that property.
Some of the overall benefits can include:
- Less tax money spent on emergency rescues
- Less tax money spent on disaster relief
- Less tax money spent to replenish the National Flood Insurance Program
- Restoring the natural floodplain to enhance water quality and the ecosystem
- Safer housing stock
- Increased opportunities for recreation and interacting with nature, such as creek-side greenways
The method for scoring, ranking and prioritizing properties is explained in Storm Water Services’ Risk Assessment, Risk Reduction (RA/RR) Plan. The original RA/RR plan was approved in 2012 by the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners.
Each property has a flood risk and priority score, as well as risk reduction recommendations. These tools are used to prioritize and group properties that become project areas. Each of the 5,000 individual properties in Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s regulated floodplains are included in the plan.
Each year, property specific data within the plan is updated. An annual Implementation Guide is endorsed by the Storm Water Advisory Committee (SWAC) to identify and prioritize specific properties for flood mitigation efforts including possible buyouts or other techniques to reduce structural flood damage.
How Floodplain Buyouts are Funded
Floodplain buyouts are funded primarily with a combination of local dollars and federal grant money. There are three main funding initiatives within the flood mitigation programs related to buyouts.
- FEMA Mitigation Grant buyouts (1999-present): FEMA makes annual mitigation grants available to communities across the country. Various grant programs fund 75% to 100% of the buyout costs. To qualify, the property had to meet eligibility and priority criteria set by the federal and/or state governments. Fewer properties now meet the federal and state criteria. In addition, buyouts must be deemed cost-effective using FEMA’s criteria. FEMA grants are typically nationally competitive.
- Local Risk-Based buyouts (2012-present): Storm Water Services funds all costs associated with these acquisitions and can therefore prioritize based on local risks and needs. These floodplain buyouts are funded entirely with money from local storm water fees or other local partners.
- Quick Buys (2003-present): Storm Water Services established a “rainy day fund” to set aside funds to purchase damaged or distressed properties before substantial repairs are made. After a destructive flood, the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners can allocate rainy day funds to establish a Quick Buy program to purchase qualifying buildings with significant flood damage.
2011: 21 houses purchased
2008: 37 houses purchased
2003: 9 houses purchased
What Happens to Buyout Properties
To provide maximum benefits to the community, floodplain buyouts can’t end with a purchase and demolition. Storm Water Services aims to ensure most properties become a community asset as well as a functioning floodplain. The floodplain is restored to a natural (pervious) state to store and filter excess rainfall. Sometimes, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police or Charlotte Fire Department crews conduct training exercises at buildings that have been acquired through the Floodplain Buyout Program.
In many cases there is an ultimate vision on the use of the property. However, due to the voluntary nature of the program, that vision may not be fully formed until all acquisitions are complete and community input gathered. The properties remain maintained in an interim state until then. In cases where buyouts are fully complete, streets and utilities can be abandoned to further restore the floodplain.
Some of the final uses of the buyout properties include:
- Greenway trails/paths
- Community gardens
- Reforested natural areas
- Stream and floodplain restoration
- Storm water wetlands and retention
- Informal recreational areas
How was the Buyout Program Started?
The driver to start (and maintain) a buyout program was not a huge flood with federal funding following close behind. It was comprehensive, strategic approach to reduce flood losses after a couple medium size floods. Buyouts came out of one of six strategies to overhaul the floodplain management program and is a great “dance partner” with future conditions floodplain maps.
How is new development regulated to ensure it does not become a future buyout property?
This is accomplished by routinely maintaining floodplain maps and adopting higher standards, specifically future conditions floodplain mapping and water quality buffers in and near regulated floodplains. In addition, new development upstream is regulated to minimize the amount of new runoff in smaller, more frequent rain events.
Storm Water Services plans to continue buying eligible structures as funding is available.
David Love, P.E.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Storm Water Services