By Christian Flinn
Citing EPA statistics predicting a $5 trillion impact to U.S. coasts from storm-surge and rising sea-levels over the next century, and with the public backing of over 30 stakeholders across the nation and in Wisconsin, Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) introduced legislation aimed at facilitating waterfront planning and implementation via a proposed specially created grant program. According to the bills’ sponsors, who include senators Angus King (I-ME), Ron Wyden (D-OR), and Gary Peters (D-MI), in addition to Senator Baldwin, the eventual goal of the legislation is for communities to improve their ability to attract private and/or non-profit investment by using these grant programs to create revitalization and resiliency plans that integrate economic, ecosystem, and infrastructure considerations.
The specific actions proposed by the Waterfront Community Revitalization and Resiliency Act are as follows:
- Create a voluntary Resilient Waterfront Community designation within the Department of Commerce that recognizes Waterfront Communities with revitalization and resiliency plans that integrate economic, ecosystem, and infrastructure considerations
- Create a Grant Program to help create the abovementioned plans and advance projects such as:
- Improving waterfront access for recreational purposes
- Upgrading infrastructure to improve coastal resiliency
- Establish a Resilient Waterfront Communities network to support sharing of best practices, highlight deserving communities, and attract new investment
- Establish preferred status in other federal grant and loan programs for Resilient Waterfront Communities in order to facilitate reinvestment in these communities by making the prospect of doing so more attractive
According to the Senator, “many communities lack the resources to make it from vision to reality” with regards to revitalizing a community. Her claim is that “waterfront planning and implementation requires communities to navigate intergovernmental hurdles, work across constituent groups and agencies, and secure financing.” Consequently, the grant program will provide cities and counties with the resources needed for such complex and important planning. The plans themselves, according to Senator Baldwin’s press release, will attract investment in resiliency preparation and Waterfront Communities and provide long-term economic returns.
Revitalization planning must take into account many different considerations. First there is the environment, which includes: ecosystem challenges and projections, unresolved and emerging impacts to the health and safety of the waterfront, and extreme weather and water conditions (i.e. flooding, storm surges, etc.). Second comes infrastructure, as different communities have different needs in terms of piers, docks, and harbor facilities as well as storm water, sanitary sewer, and drinking water systems. Additionally, Waterfront Communities stand to benefit from green infrastructure and opportunities to control nonpoint source runoff. In theory, by creating and implementing plans that take all these factors into account and consequently obtaining Resilient Water Front Community designation, water-dependent industries and investments will identify the projects in question as better, more profitable opportunities.
Some statistics serve to put the importance of financial considerations related to Waterfront Communities in context. In 2012, travel and tourism produced $124 billion in annual tax revenue for all levels of government in the U.S., with beaches estimated to have contributed $25 billion in federal taxes alone, according to the U.S. Travel Association. In 2013, total tourism in New Jersey accounted for $35.9 billion in state GDP, and supported over 320,000 jobs, while sustaining more than 510,000 jobs in total. Additionally, with specific relevance to Waterfront Communities, a study commissioned by the California Department of Boating and Waterways determined that without beaches, California would lose $5.5 billion in Gross State Product, and the U.S. economy would lose $2.4 billion in Gross National Product. Senator Baldwin’s State of Wisconsin benefits from 1.5 million jobs totaling $62 billion in wages, thanks to the Great Lakes.
In addition to the financial value of Waterfront Communities, success in revitalization and resiliency planning is evidenced throughout the U.S. and one program in the State of Florida serves as an example of the intent behind the bill. From 2000-2010, Florida’s State Legislature sought to change and revitalize the ways in which Waterfronts were utilized within the State by establishing the Waterfronts Florida Program (WFP). Created in 1997 by the Florida Coastal Management Program, the WFP was established “to provide technical assistance to communities committed to working waterfront revitalization.” The program itself includes a system of planning and implementation grants, a network of Waterfront revitalization best practices, and a special grant designation known as Florida Waterfronts Communities (FWC) in order to receive increased technical and, in some cases, financial assistance from state and local partnerships. With provisions similar to those contained within the bill introduced by Senator Baldwin, the WFP has made a huge difference physically and financially for many Florida communities.
One example is the city of Apalachicola, which became an FWC in 2003 and has since prioritized “increasing public access to the waterfront, developing tourism, and improving fishing resources.” In addition, the city has used grant funds to update its Comprehensive Plan, incorporating land development code specifically designed for the water front, and improving its disaster planning, with a special focus on Apalachicola historic homes. By focusing on these planning aspects and becoming an FWC, Apalachicola has been able to use grant funding for acquiring waterfront property to establish public spaces and parks, make renovations to docks and piers, and develop design guidelines for the area. One drawback, according to a study performed by the State of Florida, relates to challenges in acquiring financing for projects outside the purview of the implemented plans. For example, the city of Apalachicola has faced difficulty identifying funding for projects such as “derelict vessel removal.” Despite this and other complications, however, Apalachicola and other communities in Florida have leveraged the WFP to achieve many levels of success.
Senator Baldwin’s bill seeks to amplify programs like the WFP and replicate the results found in these communities. Great Lakes Commission Executive Director Tim Eder, Coastal States Organization Executive Director Mary Munson, and Nature Conservancy Wisconsin State Director Mary Jean Hudson expressed their support for the proposed legislation. All are in agreement on the necessity for increased access to resources and funding for Waterfront Communities and acknowledge the potential economic benefits brought about by increased revitalization and resiliency planning in these communities. Moving forward with the bill will likely be delayed at this time due to more pressing issues related to the Congressional budget.
The latest major action on the bill occurred on August 4, 2015 when it was referred to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. We will continue to monitor and provide updates on its movement through the legislative process.
For more information on this article, contact Christian Flinn at Christian.Flinn@warwickconsultants.net.