Maryland Should Prevent Flood Loss on Public and Private Land

David Flores
Katlyn Schmitt

Feb. 16, 2021

When it comes to addressing climate-related flooding, Maryland has made progress.

In 2014, it created a "Coast Smart Council" at the state's Department of Natural Resources. Councilmembers, representing government, academia, business, advocacy, and other sectors, work together to develop science-backed resources and rules that govern development of state-funded projects in coastal and flood-prone areas.

Meanwhile, state agencies and local jurisdictions work under the council's auspices and with the benefit of resources. such as local government studies and plans to address climate-related flooding. They also have a new interactive mapping tool — the Climate Ready Action Boundary — to help local governments and the public explore flood-prone boundaries in Maryland. Those who use the tool can make informed decisions about development in areas vulnerable to flooding or sea level rise. Any state development built within the flood-prone boundary must be designed with flood-resilient features.

But these actions don't come close to addressing the impact of flooding in Maryland — in part because they only apply to public projects. Indeed, nearly all (an estimated 96 percent) of the state's coastal land is private and, as such, exempt from "coast smart" regulations.

Without proactive rules in place to prevent the harms of new development, the state will continue to dole out taxpayer dollars related to emergency response and recovery. And business owners and homeowners will continue to bear the brunt of the damage.

Fortunately, Maryland lawmakers are taking steps to remedy this problem.

Del. Mary Lehman (D) and Sen. Sarah Elfreth (D) have introduced legislation (House Bill 512 and Senate Bill 528) that would increase the state's resilience to modern-day storm-related flooding and sea level rise by ensuring fiscally wise investments when developers want to build or rebuild in vulnerable coastal areas. Specifically, it would apply "coast smart" siting and design criteria to certain private construction and reconstruction projects as of July of next year.

The Maryland House Environment and Transportation Committee held a hearing on the matter on Feb. 3, and the Maryland Senate Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs committee held a hearing on February 10. While the bill's prospects are currently unclear, legislators at both hearings seemed receptive to the need for it.

Long-standing precedent

The precedent for these proposed reforms reaches back to the 1980s, when Maryland established the Chesapeake Bay Critical Area Commission. Also housed in Maryland's Department of Natural Resources, this commission designates and regulates — in cooperation with local governments — development in coastal and other sensitive natural resource areas that are integral to the health of the bay and Maryland's waterways.

Local governments are tackling flood risks and private development as well.

Most jurisdictions already have a number of the coast-smart siting and design criteria in place for private development or have similar criteria that could be easily updated. Every county on the Eastern Shore and other vulnerable areas like Baltimore City and Baltimore, Anne Arundel, and Howard counties have floodplain management rules for private construction projects that are similar or related to coast-smart criteria.

Baltimore City, for example, requires developers to build at least two feet above both the 500-year flood zone in the tidal floodplain and the 100-year flood zone in the nontidal floodplain. This standard requires buildings' lowest floors to be at or above these design flood elevations. Other coastal counties require the lowest floor of a structure to be one foot above the 100-year floodplain, while still others prohibit all development in federally designated flood plains.

But Maryland needs to do more to protect the public from flooding, which, due to climate change, is increasingly harming local waterways, drinking water, and the Chesapeake Bay. Since 2000, the average number of days with high-tide flooding in coastal cities in towns around Maryland has increased by more than 75 percent, and low-income communities and communities of color are most at risk.

Meanwhile, hurricanes are becoming more intense, sea levels are rising, and the amount of precipitation is increasing — all of which threaten to exacerbate the problem.

Maryland has a duty to protect the health and safety of its people on public and private property. To protect Marylanders and prevent millions, if not billions, in future costs and damages, we must control pollution and prevent harm from flooding now.

House Bill 512 and Senate Bill 528 are not only timely and cost-effective but also prudent in the absence of federal action. We have the federal and state resources and scientific evidence we need to protect Maryland from flooding, and Maryland has an interest in tailoring its reforms to address the particular impacts and needs of our region.

These bills, if passed, will usher in future climate-smart development in Maryland, reduce future damage to property and infrastructure, and address our modern-day problems of coastal flooding and sea level rise.

CPR is following these bills as they move through the Maryland state legislature this session, which concludes on April 12. For updates, check back here, subscribe to our blog digests, and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn.

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