The Pew Charitable Trusts (Pew) appreciates the opportunity to comment on the Department of Conservation and Recreation’s (DCR) draft grant manual for implementation of the Virginia Community Flood Preparedness Fund (Fund). Pew strongly supported the Fund’s creation pursuant to the Clean Energy and Community Flood Preparedness Act and remains grateful to Gov. Ralph Northam’s leadership in championing its authorization and ongoing implementation.
In Pew’s comment letter dated January 27, 2021 responding to draft Fund guidelines, we emphasized the need for the Fund to address an array of current and future flood risks across the entire Commonwealth. We stated that it would be imperative that Fund guidelines ensure inland and riverine localities outside of Virginia’s Coastal Zone – and therefore not contemplated in the Coastal Master Plan – have equitable opportunities to access the Fund as both an essential mechanism to comprehensively address the Commonwealth’s flood risk, but also to secure long-term and widespread support for the Fund itself. Further we emphasized that DCR should address this apparent disparity either within modified guidelines or within the proposed grant manual.
The draft grant manual appears to offer conflicting information on this point, noting in one section that awards may be used to assist “inland and coastal communities across the Commonwealth,” but limiting the first round of assistance to coastal communities and including conformance with the Coastal Master Plan as a priority. Thus, Pew remains concerned regarding the likelihood that Fund awards will equitably benefit communities both within the Coastal Zone and inland, given local plan requirements and scoring criteria outlined in the draft grant manual. Pew urges DCR to clearly outline within a finalized grant manual how funds will be equitably distributed across the Commonwealth and should commit to a minimum proportion of funds awarded to communities outside of the Coastal Zone.
Pew is encouraged by DCR’s effort to prioritize the use of nature-based solutions (NbS), and we believe there may be value in utilizing some sort of sliding share or gradated cost approach. While the concept of a sliding cost-share scale is innovative, and if it proves successful, could serve as a model for other states to prioritize the role of nature in reducing flood risk, we have concerns that basing the cost share solely on the cost of the nature-based or green infrastructure components as it states in Section II, A 2, may not be appropriate, because in many instances the initial costs of nature-based solutions are demonstrably less than those of so-called gray solutions. We also recognize that in some instances, structural or “gray” solutions may be appropriate, but could be enhanced by incorporation of NbS.
Pew recommends that DCR work to establish alternative approaches regarding how the scale may be calculated. For example, DCR may consider expanded measurements and metrics apart from proportion of project cost ascribed to NbS. Metrics may include, for example, measures for valuing conservation of open space or wetlands, contributions to improved water quality, enhanced wildlife habitat, or recreational benefits. In addition, project evaluators may wish to consider the geographic area or population benefitting from nature-based project components, other co-benefits anticipated from use of NbS, or long-term cost savings associated with post-development operations and maintenance needs. Regardless, clarifications applied to NbS calculations should be intended to minimize metrics favoring hardened gray infrastructure where feasible and to assure that all project applicants consider how the use of natural systems can be incorporated into flood projects.
Further, the grant manual specifies, “Loans or grant funds awarded from the Fund may NOT be utilized as match funds. Monies used to match other federal and non-federal funding streams are NOT allowed as match for this grant program.” At a minimum, this verbiage is problematic as written, as it implies a locality utilizing its own general fund resources to meet a federal match requirement cannot then use funds from the same source to meet match requirements associated with the Fund. Assuming this is not DCR’s intended outcome, a finalized grant manual should clarify match restrictions associated with Fund awards, as well as specify eligible sources of funds applicants may use to meet Fund match requirements.
Moreover, Pew disagrees with the grant manual’s apparent prohibition against using Fund awards to meet federal match requirements. Leveraging the Fund as match for federal programs, such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program or the Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities program, would increase total funding invested in resilience across the Commonwealth. Additionally, predominantly low-income communities are likely to have greater difficulty meeting both federal match requirements as well as those associated with the Fund. At a minimum, low-income communities should be allowed to use Fund resources as a federal match to maximize the ability of these communities to compete for federal resources. A finalized grant manual should remove the restriction on using Fund awards to meet federal match requirements for all applicants.
Developing transparent and clearly defined scoring criteria is essential for the Fund’s long-term success. As DCR refines scoring criteria for a finalized grant manual, it should clearly state the maximum number of points that will be awarded, as well as what the minimum threshold score will be for an application to be considered eligible. Moreover, draft scoring criteria appears to be overly weighted to projects – specifically acquisitions – over plans, studies, and capacity building. A stream restoration project should not be considered comparable to a proposal to revise ordinances or develop a comprehensive community flood resilience plan. This suggests that it may be useful to develop additional scoring criteria by project type to allow for more appropriate comparative analysis of project benefits.
The draft grant manual additionally stipulates an applicant must have a “completed resilience plan” to be eligible for project funding and repeatedly refers to the plans as local or locality-specific. While Pew strongly supports the value of planning and the track within the fund to provide for “planning” grants, we would recommend some adjustments on these points within the draft manual.
First, we believe there may be a misplaced emphasis on a required local nature to these plans. As Virginia’s own experience with efforts to protect the Chesapeake Bay and this Administration’s commitment to a Commonwealth-wide coastal resilience plan illustrate, scale and context can be critically important in issues of water management. For flood protection, we see great value in plans that are developed with an appreciation of this scale and context – which in many cases go well beyond the boundaries of a single local jurisdiction. Therefore, we would hope that the manual would encourage collaboration across localities, particularly those localities that sit within a shared watershed. We fully agree that jurisdictions should consider the flood protection needs of their entire communities, but to the extent that they can do so in concert with their upstream and downstream neighbors, they may find flood protection solutions that work across jurisdictions. We recommend both allowing for and encouraging multi-jurisdiction plans.
Second, we remain concerned that the localities that do not yet have acceptable plans could be unreasonably delayed or prevented from accessing needed funds. To rectify this, Pew believes DCR should dedicate a proportion of funds in each cycle for planning awards and should be proactive in working with communities without a resilience plan to encourage those communities to develop such plans.
Finally, we would again encourage the DCR to offer more clarity regarding the plan requirements. Pew urges DCR to address these issues in a finalized grant manual and further encourages DCR to offer recommendations and best practices for communities who are in the process of or who are yet to develop a resilience plan. In doing so, DCR should require applicants to engage in community education and outreach during plan development, as specified in resilience plan criteria. Alternatively, if an approved resilience plan was completed prior to the Fund’s establishment, DCR should require applicants demonstrate meaningful community engagement during a proposed project’s design process.
The Fund’s draft grant manual stipulates all awarded activities must be completed within 36 months following the issuance of a signed agreement. While the draft grant manual does allow for extension requests, circumstances under which an extension would be granted are not stated, instead deferring to DCR’s discretion. At a minimum, this extension process is ambiguous and subjective. However, Pew also believes the 36-month completion schedule is itself onerous and should be revised. Realistically, a 36-month timeline for project scoping and conceptual design, final design and completion of construction documents, environmental clearance and permitting, contractor procurement and contracting, and construction activities is difficult to achieve even under ideal circumstances. Such a timeline is impossible to meet if a project encounters delays related to environmental or archaeological findings requiring site remediation or preservation, or an abundance of weather-induced ‘no work’ days.
Instead of a 36-month completion deadline, DCR should consider a 36-month deadline to break ground, and a 60-month deadline for closeout, with a possible 12-month extension. This longer timeframe would provide additional flexibility to account for unexpected development and construction delays.
To conclude, once finalized, the Fund’s grant manual should be reliable and consistent – a durable product with long-term applicability. This will afford applicants security as they develop long-term plans in consideration of funding cycles across an elongated time horizon. Significant revisions to the grant manual from year to year may discourage communities from the types of strategic long-term resilience planning and project development efforts the Clean Energy and Community Flood Preparedness Act and Community Flood Preparedness Fund are intended to incentivize. Therefore, Pew urges DCR to be deliberate and measured in finalizing the Fund’s grant manual.
We appreciate the opportunity to provide these comments and look forward to future stakeholder discussions as DCR finalizes the grant manual and further engages in Fund activities. We are available to answer any questions or engage in future dialogue as requested.
Officer, flood-prepared communities
The Pew Charitable Trusts