Dear Ms. McGee:
Established in 2020 by the General Assembly, the Virginia Community Flood Preparedness Fund (CFPF), as described in §10.1-603.25 of the Code of Virginia, is intended “solely for the purposes of enhancing flood prevention or protection and coastal resilience.” The Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) is charged with administering this fund. DCR is charged, along with the Secretary of Natural Resources and the Special Assistant to the Governor for Coastal Adaptation and Protection, with establishing “guidelines regarding the distribution and prioritization of loans and grants, including loans and grants that support flood prevention or protection studies of statewide or regional significance.” In addition, the legislation directs localities to “use moneys from the Fund primarily for the purpose of implementing flood prevention and protection projects and studies in areas that are subject to recurrent flooding as confirmed by a locality-certified floodplain manager.” DCR published a draft grant manual on April 12, 2021, for public comment.
The Hampton Roads Planning District Commission (HRPDC) appreciates the opportunity to provide comments on the Draft 2021 Grant Manual for the Virginia Community Flood Preparedness Fund. The staff of the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission has reviewed the draft manual and consulted with Hampton Roads local governments. Based on this review, the HRPDC staff requests DCR’s consideration of the following comments and recommendations.
The scoring criteria included in the draft grant manual do not consistently reflect the objectives in the narrative and application requirements. There are no criteria that specifically address how much benefit a project could provide in terms of either “enhancing flood prevention or protection and coastal resilience,” which is the primary purpose of the fund. Similarly, there are no criteria for community scale or for cost effectiveness, even though both are points of emphasis in both the program guidance document and the draft grant manual. Without additional criteria that provide points for effectiveness, the prioritization will be based on types of projects and not how well they address all of the Fund’s goals.
The application process requires the total cost of the project, but the scoring does not include a cost benefit analysis. The draft criteria award significant points to acquisition (50 points) and green infrastructure (45 points) projects. By comparison, traditional, structural flood protection projects, which are most effective in meeting the primary goals of the Fund, would only receive 30 points regardless of the protection, risk reduction, or other benefits provided. The Fund is required to allocate “no less that 25 percent of the moneys disbursed from the Fund each year for projects in low-income geographic areas”. That requirement and the Planning Principle to “Identify and address socioeconomic inequities and work to enhance equity through adaptation and protection efforts” seems to be addressed in the scoring by offering 10 points if a project is in a low-income geographic area and up to 15 points for a very high social vulnerability index score.
DCR should develop a metric or set of metrics to quantify project benefits and costs for flood prevention and protection and coastal resilience. This would allow for a more transparent way to assess proposals relative to each other. The scoring criteria should emphasize the risk reduction that projects will provide by including a scoring mechanism for project benefits, and this component should be weighted more than criteria awarding points for the type of project. The points for project type such as acquisition or green infrastructure could remain as bonus points on top of cost benefit metrics.
The criterion awarding points for stream restoration or stabilization projects should also apply to shoreline and floodplain restoration and stabilization projects. For Hampton Roads localities, shoreline restoration often provides the same important benefits as stream restoration. The scoring criteria should also include a way to account for the degree of “community scale” for a proposed project and award points accordingly.
DCR should coordinate with stakeholders to identify the best ways to support projects in low-income communities as part of the development of the 2022 grant manual. This should include an assessment of the overall need for support in low-income areas and whether the proposed scoring criteria and program structure were adequate to addressing those needs. For example, the prioritization process should help communities develop the staff capacity or planning studies that support long-term project development and implementation.
The draft manual establishes application and eligibility requirements for two categories of projects: 1) capacity building and planning projects and 2) flood prevention and protection projects and studies. However, the studies and other non-construction projects that are grouped into the flood prevention and protection category have more in common with capacity building and planning projects than they do with projects that will involve land acquisition, disturbance, and construction. Combining studies with the capacity building and planning projects would allow for establishment of specific criteria and requirements for each category.
The draft manual also specifically disallows the use of CFPF grants to meet non-federal match requirements for federal grants, such as those from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Given the importance of these funding sources to addressing the high costs of adaptation, not allowing CFPF funds to be used as match appears to be self-defeating. The goals of reducing flood risk, increasing flood prevention and protection, and improving coastal resilience would all be better served by allowing CFPF funds to be used to match federal grants.
DCR should combine flood protection and prevention studies and similar projects with the capacity building and planning category, with the second category consisting of construction and other implementation projects. The grant manual should include specific evaluation and scoring criteria for each category of projects instead of a single system. The ban on the use of CFPF funds as match for other grants should be removed.
The draft manual describes several requirements for local resilience plans and requires the development and adoption of a qualifying resilience plan before a local government is eligible to apply for other project funding. This is problematic for several reasons. First, the grant manual does not include a clear description of how a locality can determine whether a plan meets the required standards or for how a locality’s plan would be considered by DCR. Resilience planning is a substantial undertaking, so more certainty in terms of what is required would be preferable. Second, although the definition of “community resilience plan” references other local plans (such as comprehensive plans, hazard mitigation plans, capital improvement programs, etc.), it is not clear from the draft grant manual whether or how these plans would meet the requirement. Without clear guidance and technical assistance from DCR and other state agencies, localities will not be in a good position to develop qualifying plans of any sort. Third, most localities already must adopt a hazard mitigation plan to be eligible for federal disaster relief. These plans, which include recommended actions and projects, involve a significant amount of work, public engagement, and coordination with state and federal agencies. Requiring a new plan that replicates much of this content would be a duplication of effort and would delay local governments’ eligibility for project funding.
DCR should remove the requirement for a separate resilience plan in this version of the grant manual. Instead, localities should be allowed to reference officially adopted plans, such as capital improvement programs, hazard mitigation plans, floodplain management plans, and comprehensive plans, that recommend projects that address flood protection and prevention. Requiring a dedicated resilience plan should be reconsidered for future grant manuals. As part of this process, DCR should develop an optional template or model local resilience plan for localities to use when developing their own plans.
DCR should also establish a clear process for how plans will be evaluated. This should occur before the grant development window or early enough in the process (at least two months prior to the deadline) to allow sufficient time for department review and for localities to respond to answer questions, provide additional information, or appeal a negative decision. This would allow localities to more effectively prioritize their efforts when developing grant proposals.
Section 10.1-603.25 legislation prioritizes projects and studies for areas that experience recurrent flooding as determined by a “locality-certified floodplain manager;” however, the draft grant manual alters the term so that it is defined as a Certified Floodplain Manager (as determined by the Association of State Floodplain Managers) employed by a locality. This is problematic for several reasons. First, the draft manual’s definition is inconsistent with state code. “Locality-certified” should be understood to mean that the locality is certifying or designating the floodplain manager. The enabling legislation emphasizes the role of locality staff with knowledge of local flood vulnerabilities and patterns. Second, many localities do not have CFMs on staff. According to the Virginia Association of Floodplain Managers, only 67 of Virginia’s 323 cities, counties, and towns have a CFM on staff. Employing a CFM is a significant expense for localities, both in terms of salary and benefits, but also in terms of training, certification, and continuing education. In addition, DCR has offered limited and irregular training opportunities, including 0273 Managing Floodplain Development through the National Flood Insurance Program, for interested local staff to learn about floodplain management or to prepare for the CFM exam. Requiring or encouraging localities to have CFMs on staff should be accompanied by a dedicated statewide training program. Third, even when localities have CFMs on staff, there is no guarantee that they are involved with working on actual flooding issues. Many are responsible for managing local Community Rating System programs or administering local floodplain management programs. If a locality-certified floodplain manager is supposed to certify that a proposed project is in an area that experiences recurrent flooding, then a local engineer or public works official involved in floodplain management should suffice.
The draft manual also appears to envision that a locality-certified floodplain manager will make a determination for each project when an application is being developed. However, many communities invest in significant efforts to comprehensively analyze their flood risks, including efforts to delineate floodplains. These efforts typically include the participation of local engineers and floodplain managers. The grant manual should recognize these efforts in the determination process.
The grant manual should utilize the term from the enabling legislation of a “locality-certified floodplain manager,” understood as a floodplain manager certified or designated by a locality, such as the chief administrative officer, administrator of the locality floodplain management program, or other employee so designated by the locality. In addition, DCR should establish a robust training and education program to improve the qualifications and capacity for local government staff involved in floodplain management. The grant manual should also include a process for allowing projects in flood-prone areas that have been identified through local or regional technical analyses and modeling.
The draft grant manual does not include definitions for “community scale” or “environmental justice community.” These terms should be explicitly defined in the definitions section. In addition, there are two terms for (proposed) required resilience plan: “community resilience plan” and “resilience plan.” These definitions should be consolidated into a single term, which should be used consistently throughout the manual.
The draft grant manual requires applicants to provide two alternatives that were considered in addition to the requested project. This would add significantly to the cost and time required to develop applications and would provide little if any benefit. This requirement should be eliminated.
The draft grant manual does not include estimates of funding by project type or funding allocated for low-income areas. Providing estimates of available funds would provide local governments with important information when they are considering whether to apply for funding in each grant round. DCR should include funding estimates in each grant manual.
Part III.A. of the draft grant manual states that local resilience plans should include the “Virginia Flood Risk Management Standard as adopted pursuant to Executive Order 24.” Executive Order 45, which describes the standard, explicitly applies to state-owned buildings and properties and to state agency actions. It is unclear how this standard would apply to local government decisions. DCR should coordinate with local governments through a stakeholder advisory process to determine how to align state and local policies and standards.
We appreciate DCR’s efforts in developing the grant manual for the Community Flood Preparedness Fund in accordance with §10.1-603.25. The HRPDC staff appreciates your consideration of these comments and suggestions.
Whitney S. Katchmark, P.E.
Principal Water Resources Engineer