Monday, October 6, 2014

The Remarkable case of Sidney, New York

Sidney is in retreat. Situated next to the Susquehanna River in the Catskill Mountains of New York, the village was built on a floodplain on the south side of the river. In 2006, Sidney was hit by a record-breaking storm that dropped 14 inches of rain over the upper Susquehanna Basin. The village suffered major damage to multiple structures in its extensive flood prone areas, including the main street business district and adjacent residential neighborhoods.  The community, of course, focused on rebuilding because the flood was thought to be a one in one hundred year event and that it would not likely happen again. Just five years later, Tropical Storm Lee hit the village, causing widespread structural damage in the floodplain. Things in this community then changed.

After the 2011 flood, businesses, residents and officials realized that it would not be sustainable for Sidney’s economy to rebuild in flood prone areas.  A key indicator for local leaders was that Amphenol Aerospace, employer of over a thousand residents, which lost $20 million due to Lee, was making plans to leave.  They mobilized and soon found Amphenol a site at a higher elevation for a new plant.  The rest of the community followed suit.

Sidney’s planned retreat began when the village received a grant from the Department of State’s Smart Growth, Environmental Protection Fund initiative as part of New York State’s post-Irene/Lee Long Term Community Recovery Program. The village received further support from the New York Rising Community Reconstruction Program to help fund the planning and relocation of not only the downtown business district but also residential buildings to higher elevations within the community.

Sidney’s mayor,  Andy Matviak, reported to us that, following the 2006 flood,  real estate prices did not decline and casualty insurance coverage remained available. This changed, he said, after Tropical Storm Lee devastated the Village in 2011. According to local brokers, home prices fell drastically after Lee and many buildings became impossible to sell. Casualty insurance became unavailable. The demand for real estate in the flood-prone areas completely disappeared. These private market realities, indicators that a “land use climate change bubble” had formed, signaled Sidney that retreat was the most viable action, rather than rebuilding.

Climate change is a planetary phenomenon whose environmental implications are far-reaching; reliable scientific studies of its existence and consequences abound. Reports like this one on Sidney are different; they focus on what is happening locally and presently, while speculation continues about long-term global consequences. In numerous communities in every region of the country, property values are declining because of repeated flooding, threats of storm surges, sustained high temperatures, constant fear of wildfires, lack of water in residential, commercial, and agricultural areas, and concerns with mudslides in vulnerable areas. Cumulatively, these changes are causing an economic bubble associated with land use that mirrors the effect of the infamous housing bubble of 2008, but is potentially much more harmful to the nation.  Our research is uncovering many bubbles like Sidney’s and the evidence indicates that many more are appearing. (See my article, Land Use and Climate Change Bubbles: Resilience, Retreat, and Due Diligence, William and Mary Environmental Law and Policy Review, (Forthcoming, Fall, 2014)

There is hope for this bottom up strategy.  Work on disaster recovery can be motivational and, if rebuilding adjusts to current realities, can trigger an immediate and affirmative response to climate change.  The well-known results in Greensburg, Kansas demonstrate how devastation can lead to reinvention and how a community can be transformed. According to a USA Today’s article on April 15th, 2013, “Sixyears after the tornado, Greensburg is the world's leading community in LEED-certified buildings per capita. The town is home to a half-dozen LEED-platinum certified buildings, including the new City Hall and the new 48,500-square-foot Kiowa County Memorial Hospital. Renewable energy powers the entire community, and the streetlights are all LED.” Greensburg’s citizens reinvented their future through land use planning: the mechanism they chose to reimagine and memorialize their collective vision.

Calling local citizens to engage in this positive work differs markedly from advocacy for silver-bullet climate mitigation efforts that are based on scientific-consensus and appeals for federal government intervention.  However right such advocacy is, it risks driving certain constituencies away, indeed alienating them altogether. Paul Krugman put it this way, “Along come some scientists declaring that unrestricted pursuit of self-interest will destroy the world, and that government intervention is the only answer. It doesn’t matter how market-friendly you make the proposed intervention; this is a direct challenge to the libertarian worldview. And the natural reaction is denial — angry denial. Read or watch any extended debate over climate policy and you’ll be struck by the venom, the sheer rage, of the denialists.’ New York Times Opinion, 6/9/14.

In describing the progress made in creating a Compact regarding climate action in Southeast Florida, Professor Dan Kahn of Yale Law School notes that the Compact negotiations put a “ a different question from the one put in the national climate change debate. The latter forces Southeast Floridians, like everyone else, to express ‘who they are, whose side they are on.’ In contrast, the decision-making of the Compact is effectively, and insistently, testing what they know about how to live in a region that faces a serious climate problem.” See Kahan, Dan, Climate Science Communication and the Measurement Problem, Advances Pol. Psych (forthcoming 2014)

It is possible that the continued appearance and collapse of land use climate change bubbles will become a semaphore for signaling where not to build that will affect local land use decision making, moving the emphasis from costly rebuilding to more positive planning and development strategies.  In Sidney, New York, higher ground was found and a positive movement is underway.  Similarly, in Greensburg, Kansas, a new concept for the community was borne out of the disaster that nearly destroyed it.

John R. Nolon

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