‘Managed retreat’ from flood-prone areas an option as town grapples with Mother Nature
Residents and visitors alike appreciate Hull for its natural beauty, spectacular sunsets, Nantasket Beach, and many other features, but it’s time to take seriously the current and future potential impacts of climate change and sea level rise, according to Conservation Administrator Chris Krahforst.
“These are the biggest threats facing this community,” he told the Select Board during a Conservation Department presentation on Feb. 2.
Krahforst referred to the 2021 Home Elevation Grant Program administered by the town through a multi-department committee of town staff. Its purpose is to assist eligible residents in raising homes that are located in the 100-year floodplain to help reduce the risk of flooding.
Some funding is available through the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Flood Mitigation Assistance Grant Program. Applying for FMA funding is voluntary. Full details are posted on the Conversation Department’s page on the town’s website.
“This program taps into FEMA funding to elevate utilities and homes. We’re working with residents [who may be interested in participating in the program],” Krahforst said. “Some homes have already been elevated out of harm’s way. We want to encourage more residents to participate, but there needs to be a strong community point person to help them through this complicated process.”
Among the Conservation Department’s responsibilities is determining FEMA flood zones and writing grants and grant administration, including a $600,000 Coastal Zone Management coastal resiliency grant.
“Sea level rise is real. The models predict that the impacts will increase, and we need to plan for the future,” Krahforst said. “A few areas in town are already experiencing frequent flooding beyond the nuisance level, providing real challenges to the residents living there.”
The Conservation Department is looking for a serious commitment from the state “to help us come up with strategies for these areas,” he explained.
Another resource is the Municipal Vulnerability Preparedness grant program, which provides support to Massachusetts communities as they work to build resiliency to climate change.
The Conservation Department’s highest priorities, according to Krahforst, are Nantasket Beach and the dune system, maintaining the seawalls, nourishing the beach for enhanced protection, improving outreach and communication to Hull’s most vulnerable populations, and developing alternative energy sources for the town to address both resilience and the need for climate mitigation.
The Conservation Department is also focusing on removing vulnerable trees that may impact power lines, considering the possibility of elevating low-lying critical roadways — including Nantasket and Atlantic Avenues, Fitzpatrick Way, A Street, Hull Shore Drive, and Hampton Circle, improving the capacity of pipes and drainage pumps and using zoning and low impact development strategies to reduce impervious surfaces, adopting a first responder network for improved overall communication, hazard mitigation planning, and outreach to real estate agents and residents to share flood information.
Another priority is evaluating FEMA flood insurance claims – the number of which he said is extremely high in Hull – and ensuring erosion control measures are in place when necessary.
Next steps include participation in regional and state initiatives for climate change vulnerability and floodplain management, and in climate change mitigation and floodplain management training.
Krahforst said it would be a good idea for the town to consider large-scale beach and dune nourishment planning in cooperation with the Beach Management Committee, and to perform an economic assessment of the “real value of having Hull continue to exist as protection to surrounding communities.”
Select Board member Domenico Sestito remarked that he had never thought of Hull as providing such a barrier before.
The annual drone survey is a 3D tool the Conservation Department uses to determine the elevation and detail of the dunes.
“You can see the footprints in the sand,” Krahforst said. “We’re working on a way to share this information with the community. We need to better communicate with our residents about the things we are doing, the information we have to share, and what they can do as well to help improve our community and reduce our vulnerability.”
Select Board Chair Jennifer Constable told Krahforst, “Your department is right in line with public safety, especially in a community like Hull.”
Krahforst also broached the subject of “managed retreat,” calling this approach “scary.” This term applies to the voluntary relocation of people and homes located in flood-prone areas – those who are increasingly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change – away from vulnerable coastal areas.
He noted that FEMA and the state have talked about managed retreat, “but in hushed tones. We can’t ignore what’s coming down the road and asking ourselves if this is something we need to consider. We’re not planning on initiating a retreat, but it would be helpful to bring in some experts to have this discussion.”
In response to an inquiry from The Hull Times, Krahforst shared his thoughts about managed retreat.
“This is probably the last alternative to employ when engineered solutions or other strategies are exhausted,” he said.
At the same time, Krahforst thinks the town “should have this alternative in mind as we plan ahead for future climate change impacts on Hull. If a house or structure is located near the coast and the ocean decides to move further inland [through catastrophic events such as large or repeating powerful storms] people may not want to try to protect their homes anymore. It may be financially or logistically impossible.”
Krahforst explained that town officials are looking at what that concept may mean for Hull down the road, “say 50 to 100 years from now. It is a conversation we should begin to have, including engaging coastal resiliency experts and hearing what residents may have to say about this issue,” he said. “FEMA offers some assistance to help homeowners make this possibility more palatable through buyout programs.”
Questions to be answered include whether managed retreat might make sense for some areas/homes in Hull, whether there is federal assistance available, where the town should be focusing its efforts “in order to avoid something like this last alternative [managed retreat], and what can be done, not only by the town, but by residents as well,” Krahforst explained.
While he said he doesn’t have the answers to these questions at this time, town officials are hoping to work with the Metropolitan Area Planning Council if the town is successful in securing the Technical Assistance Grant for which the town recently applied.
This would pave the way for public presentations on the topic of climate vulnerability, including introducing the concept of managed retreat, but more importantly, “to present ideas … such that managed retreat may not become a necessity,” according to Krahforst.
Town Manager Philip Lemnios said that living in or near coastal communities such as Hull, Plymouth, and Scituate, “we can see examples of retreat occurring. The issue of public and private property at risk creeps up on communities, and people are just reacting to it instead of recognizing the dynamic environment they’re living in, with erosion and other impacts, and looking at what could potentially happen and how to avoid retreat.”
The town’s goal, Lemnios said, is to accurately assess what the risks are and to talk with the public about it – to ask them to share their ideas about strategies that could be used by the community to help minimize negative impacts as much as possible.
Sea level rise has already occurred.
“We have data that shows that. We also have models that predict what the future impact may be for Hull, with respect to sea level rise,” Krahforst said. “We will begin sharing those efforts, hopefully next fall.”
Referring to the different models available to identify risks, Lemnios said, “There is risk – “there’s no doubt about it. It’s not a matter of if, but when they will occur.”
Lemnios asked Krahforst to help educate the town’s policymakers and the community “to guide us through this very complex discussion.”
Krahforst’s presentation and the discussion surrounding it lasted for an hour, but Constable said it was well worth the time. “When we talk about sea-level rise, I wonder how many people don’t believe it or don’t grasp what’s happening in this community. It’s such a big learning curve.”
She also asked for Krahforst’s assistance in “getting the information out there.”
Lemnios noted that Krahforst works with multiple boards and committees and state and town officials in his role as Conservation Administrator. “Chris is juggling lots of different priorities at the same time,” he said.
That said, the Conservation Department Fiscal 2023 budget request includes funding for a full-time assistant conservation director. Krahforst also requested that the town recruit “strong candidates” when there are openings on the Conservation Commission.
On another note, he talked about a proposal to create a Straits Pond public pedestrian access path in the Eastman Road area. Potential funding sources are Community Preservation Act funds and the MassTrails Program.
Krahforst’s presentation is posted on Conservation Department page at www.town.hull.ma.us.