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What’s Smart for Greenville? Preserving and Acquiring Flood Plains

By Jerry Weitz
Guardian op-ed contributor

Flooded housing development in Greenville, NC after Hurricane Floyd in September 1999. Photo credit: FEMA

Flooded housing development in Greenville, NC after Hurricane Floyd in September 1999. Photo credit: FEMA

The City of Greenville has a hazard mitigation plan, adopted initially in 2001, then revised and re-adopted in 2004. An update of the plan was prepared in 2010 and adopted by the Greenville City Council on June 10, 2011. The 2010 plan was managed by the city’s community development department, received technical input from the city’s Environmental Advisory Commission and was prepared with oversight and guidance by a Hazard Mitigation Plan Update Advisory Committee, which met six times in 2009 and 2010.

Hazard mitigation plans are required by the U.S. government in order to qualify for federal disaster aid. Such plans are also a smart idea in any event, especially for a community and region that has experienced such devastating flooding in the past. Many of Greenville’s citizens will remember Hurricane Floyd in 1999 and damages that resulted. Today, over 15 years later, efforts are still going on to respond to the aftermath of severe flooding. Greenville, Pitt County, Edgecombe County, and other local governments are still implementing programs for acquiring properties flooded in 1999. It is much too soon for the community to forget about flooding hazards. Taxpayers and decision makers need to pay attention to what the hazard mitigation (as well as other) plans recommend. Citizens are probably not going to read the 100+ page hazard mitigation plan, but I would like to highlight some of its key conclusions and recommendations.

“The intent of the hazard mitigation plan is to develop, over time, a disaster resistant community” (p. 77).

Future Vulnerability
“Greenville’s future vulnerability will be determined by the land use pattern, and how Greenville continues to grow. It is crucial that this kind of planning encourages the citizens of Greenville to make smart land use decisions that will not increase Greenville’s vulnerability to natural hazards. For instance, it is crucial to discourage a significant density of development within the floodplain” (p.70).

Preserve and Acquire Open Space in Flood Plains
“Preserve open space in floodplain and environmentally sensitive areas. Explore ways that the City of Greenville might acquire additional properties in flood-prone areas” (p. 78). “Ensure that previously flooded or damaged properties are maintained as open space” (p. 79).  “As part of the Zoning, Subdivision and Flood Damage Prevention Ordinances, the City shall establish regulations that require dedicated open space as part of a medium or high-density development” (p. 97).

The plan recognizes the desire of Greenville to permit smart growth, including “infill development.” Infill development refers to the development of vacant sites within already developed areas and usually also means intensification of sites in the urban area that are underdeveloped (i.e., with capacity for more development than what already exists). The plan suggests that infill development be directed to areas with lower risk of flood damage. Specifically, it reads: “Continue supporting infill development in established areas that have a lower risk of being significantly damaged from a flood or other hazard event.”

The plan also suggests that the city “continue recommending rezoning requests to consider using the Conservation Overlay Zoning District to ensure that vulnerable areas will never be developed” (p. 80). The conservation overlay district is established in Greenville’s City Code to “provide for permanent open space and desirable buffers between proposed uses and incompatible adjacent land uses, environmentally sensitive areas or hazardous areas in excess of minimum standards…” (Sec. 9-4-73).

Rezoning: Where the Rubber Meets the Road
Greenville’s hazard mitigation plan, and other plans such as the Horizons community (comprehensive) plan, are supposed to guide land use decisions, such as rezoning requests. The planners who put the hazard mitigation plan together were astute in the following observation: “The real challenge, however, has not and will not be the development of mitigation activities, but will come in the months and years ahead as the people and leaders of the City of Greenville convert the Hazard Mitigation Plan into action” (p. 81). This observation recognizes that the plan is difficult to carry out, but it does not necessarily articulate reasons for such difficulty.

One illustrative example of a real challenge is when the city is confronted (indeed, it will be) with a request for rezoning to put higher density multi-family residential development in a 100-year flood plain on a lot that is half consumed with floodway. For background, the “100-year floodplain” has a 1 percent chance of occurring in any given year, but a flood of that magnitude could occur not at all in that time period or twice or more in any given year. The “floodway” coincides with the extent of the downstream movement of flood waters. Putting development in a floodway risks structures susceptible to being washed downstream. A “500-year” flood has only a 0.2 percent chance of occurring in a given year, yet Greenville has in recent history experienced flooding that exceeded the 500-year flood elevation in at least some parts of the city.

As noted in these excerpts of the hazard mitigation plan, it is not considered wise to allow development in floodplains. The city’s plans are clear that development is highly discouraged in a flood plain in the first place, and the hazard mitigation plan suggests further that it is not wise to put more development in harm’s way (i.e., zoning to intensify infill sites in flood plains). Rather, the better approach per the plan is to place them in the city’s conservation overlay district (described earlier) or acquire the vulnerable lands outright.

Staff Training
The hazard mitigation plan’s implementation directives include “staff training.” It calls for  “planning and engineering staff [to] receive enhanced training to incorporate environmental planning and hazard mitigation as part of ongoing duties” (p. 106).

Planning and engineering staff should begin to cite and advocate for the policies of the hazard mitigation plan in planning staff reports when it makes recommendations for rezoning. More important yet, the recommended staff education program should be directed at having the staff weigh the hazard mitigation (and other) plan policies very heavily when it makes recommendations for rezoning requests and in approving specific development proposals. After all, the plan is very clear that the plan “will be evaluated periodically, and will be used as a guide when making other land use decisions” (p. 109). It is time the hazard mitigation plan gets the respect that it deserves. It is not smart to do otherwise.

Jerry Weitz, Ph.D., FAICP, is a member of the Greenville planning commission, associate professor and director of the urban and regional planning program at East Carolina University, and president of his own consulting firm, Jerry Weitz & Associates, Inc.

The views presented are those of the writer alone and do not necessarily represent those of the Greenville Guardian, its staff or management. 

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One Response

  1. Carol Collins says:

    Thank you Jerry for another timely and informative article.

    As Greenville reviews the Horizon’s Land Use Plan this time around, I hope all city officials (zoning commission, city council, for example) recognize the need to coordinate these two plans and to treat neither Plan as a “rezoning” opportunity for individual interests (as happened during the last review of the Horizons Plan, when changes to the Plan were made that did not meet the guidelines stated in the Plan).

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