Moving to Higher Ground: Protecting and Relocating Communities in Response to Climate Change
36 Pages Posted: 23 Jan 2018
Date Written: October 22, 2017
As many dramatic recent flooding events illustrate, the risks posed by global climate change continue to mount. Rather than attempt to prove a causal connection between any of these tragic events and climate change, this article focuses on what many scholars and public policy advocates now realize is an inevitable response: retreat — especially moving households and entire communities to higher ground.
This article answers four interrelated questions that relate to the challenge of protecting or relocating communities threatened by sea-level rise and climate change in the specific context of takings claims and government land acquisition programs. These questions are visualized as forming a chronological decision tree which government officials, legislators and, inevitably, courts will face.
First, the article addresses whether property owners can assert a valid takings claim based on a governmental decision not to build hard infrastructure that would protect land, homes and businesses from sea-level rise and flooding? The article’s answer is no; takings liability does not exist in this situation. Next, the article asks whether governmental actors — federal, state or local — are likely to use the power of eminent domain to relocate property owners and entire communities to higher ground? Again, the answer is no; the political unpopularity of eminent domain will usually take this option off the table.
If governments do not use eminent domain to relocate communities but do want to use public resources to create voluntary property acquisition programs designed to facilitate the movement of households and, indeed communities, to higher ground, what strategies have proved to be most successful? To answer this question, the article reviews a handful of recent experiments and distills several lessons from this experience.
Finally, the article tackles a residual question that follows from the previous three. If a government sponsored buy-out program succeeds in inspiring a large percentage of property owners in a community to sell their property and actually move to higher ground (or if large numbers of property owners leave on their own volition for other reasons), what obligations, if any, does the government still owe to those who remain behind, especially when it comes to maintaining infrastructure and government services? Would a county, a state, the federal government, or even a public utility be able to withdraw infrastructure support and services and leave the remainder of the community to fend for itself in the face of ever-rising waters and more ferocious storms? To answer this question the article describes several recent cases and scholarly claims that purport to open the door to potential “passive takings” liability for governmental inaction in these circumstances. The article concludes by noting the irony that although governments generally do not face liability for failing to build hard infrastructure to protect communities from the risks of climate change at the outset, if their relocation and buy-out programs partially — but not entirely — succeed, they might face takings liability at the end of the day.
Keywords: Response to Climate Change, Relocating Communities, Takings, Eminent Domain, Expropriation, Buy-Out Programs, Retreat, Climate Change Adaptation, Property Law, Land Use, Passive Takings
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