Dear Ms. McGee:
Thank you for the opportunity to comment on DCR’s Community Flood Preparedness Fund (CFPF) Draft Grant Manual. It would be difficult to overstate the importance of this program, given the effects of climate change that Virginia is experiencing and will experience in the future, and the significant revenues that will be available as a result of the Commonwealth joining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.
As the largest global conservation organization, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) considers climate change and coastal resilience and adaptation to be one of the world’s most urgent challenges and immediate risks to communities, economies and to our mission. Our long-term commitment to conservation and community collaboration and partnerships at the Virginia Coast Reserve (VCR) embodies our global commitment to climate change at a local level, where impacts of sea level rise and coastal flooding are not only threatening the land and seascape but the culture and economy of the Eastern Shore of Virginia. Our efforts to advance specific nature-based solutions to address coastal flooding extend to Virginia Beach where we are partnering with others to implement adaptation strategies identified in the City’s recently completed coastal resilience report.
TNC very much wants to assist the Commonwealth build an effective CFPF program that can serve as a model for other states. With that in mind, we offer the following recommendations for revising the Grant Manual.
Clarify Community Resilience Plan Requirements and Process
While required elements for a Community Resilience Plan are listed in Part III.A, it is not clear how existing plans will be reviewed and approved by DCR, what constitutes a sufficient resilience plan, nor how to go about receiving approval from DCR. Given that a resilience plan approval process does not currently exist, we suggest approval be granted as part of the application review process. Alternatively, if approval of a plan must occur before application, the process for plan approval must be created and implemented by DCR as soon as possible. The draft manual should clarify why DCR’s approval is limited to a three-year timeframe and if approval renewals will be required for projects which could take localities more than three years to complete.
In our comments on the CFPF guidelines, we recommended that the first round of grant funding should focus on ensuring that all localities that do not currently have sufficient plans are able to develop such plans. The agency response document stated that this comment is addressed in the grant manual, but it was not initially clear to us how the comment is addressed. The draft manual does state that the Fund will provide planning grants to help any locality develop a flood resilience plan (Part III.A; second paragraph). If this is meant to convey that applications for development of flood resilience plans will be considered prior to other types of applications, that should be clearly stated.
The draft manual should specify what application materials are required from localities requesting grant funding solely for development of a Community Resilience Plan. The manual should also clarify match requirements (if any) for grants awarded solely for development of a Community Resilience Plan.
Finally, while the manual states that localities may build capacity for planning by securing services or personnel it is unclear if there are grant funding limits for such capacity building.
Rework Match Requirements
While the draft manual provides a definition for "Nature-based solution" in Part I.C, determining the percent of a project that constitutes nature-based/green infrastructure is not as straightforward as the draft grant manual suggests. We think this challenge will make it difficult for applicants to properly determine the amount of match for which they are eligible with the proposed tiered approach. We suggest consolidating the match categories from 4 to 2 categories, using a threshold of 50% nature-based/green infrastructure. The manual should also clarify that the percentage refers to the total cost of the project.
The Department should examine if the match required for low-income, high-risk areas can be reduced across all categories. In particular, DCR should consider whether planning and capacity development projects can be matched 100% by the fund, based on the understanding that low-income, high-risk localities who need help planning and building capacity will have the most limited ability to provide any match.
The Department should clarify that the manual does not restrict using the Fund as match for other programs, but rather seeks to prevent double counting of match dollars. In addition, the prohibition of using DCR for matching funds is confusing. If it is meant to require simply that Flood Fund dollars cannot be used to match Flood Fund dollars, that should be clarified. Allowing the use of the Fund for match opportunities leverages this funding source to its the maximum amount and should be encouraged.
Divide the Fund into Separate Categories
The draft manual includes one scoring sheet intended to cover all types of proposals including implementation of flood prevention and protection projects and studies of statewide and regional significance. Due to the broad scope of these categories, we believe it would be very difficult to evaluate all proposals using the scoring table and criteria as presented in the draft manual. We suggest that DCR establish separate categories so that comparable applications can be scored and ranked together using uniform criteria. We suggest the following three categories for consideration:
We appreciate that the proposed scoring criteria recognize the importance of acquiring land for inundation and retreat. Any such project should involve the use of a permanent conservation or open-space easement held by an organization with experience managing such properties.
Provide More Support for Low-Income, High-Risk Areas
While the draft manual does provide a definition for “Low-income geographic area” in Part I.C., the manual should make it easier for localities to readily determine if proposed projects fall within such areas. For example, the manual could reference existing maps or charts depicting the location of low-income areas. Criteria should be updated with each iteration of the manual.
As discussed in the section above, we recommend that DCR create a separate scoring category specifically for the 25% of the Fund that is statutorily required to fund low-income communities. This will enable localities to compete for grant funding more fairly.
We are concerned that the provisions of the grant manual providing that grant payments will be made on a reimbursement-only basis may deter resource-constrained localities from applying. In particular, the reimbursement model is likely to create problems for planning and capacity building projects, as a locality may need funds upfront to hire staff or send existing staff to trainings. DCR should specify circumstances under which grant payments can be made in advance of expenditures. For such grants, disbursements could be paid up-front if required interim reports show that milestones are being met.
The Nature Conservancy applauds the Commonwealth’s goal to increase the use of nature-based and green infrastructure. We agree that in many situations, the best available science will support the use of these solutions. The draft manual places a priority on green infrastructure both through the use of better matching ratios and in the scoring criteria. However, we also recognize that there are situations where the best available science will point towards using grey infrastructure to reduce the impacts of flooding. For clarity, we suggest the grant manual explicitly state a preference for green infrastructure projects, and fund grey-only infrastructure projects where the best available science has demonstrated that grey infrastructure is the right method to reduce flooding impacts.
We also recommend that DCR reconsider requiring applicants to provide an alternatives analysis in every grant application. While an applicant should outline what taking no action would mean, requiring applicants to analyze an additional alternative to their proposed activity it is unnecessarily burdensome, especially for localities that lack staff and resource capacity.
Additionally, the manual states that subsequent project applications cannot include any portion of a previously funded project. There could be confusion around this statement. For example, if a locality writes a resilience plan and outlines projects, that should not exclude that locality from applying for funds to implement those projects.
Thank you for the opportunity to comment on the Community Flood Preparedness Fund Draft Grant Manual.
Virginia Associate State Director