Submitted by John R. Nolon, Professor of Law, Pace Law School, Counsel to the Land Use Law Center, and Adjunct Professor of Land Use Law and Policy at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.
In February, I posted a blog on Pace Law School’s GreenLaw site defining a land use climate change bubble. I noted that real estate prices in many parts of the country are beginning to fall due to the real and perceived effects of climate change on land use. What is happening, I posited, is an indication that a variety of climate bubbles are forming in vulnerable areas and that the evidence is visible on the land; let’s call this a nation-wide profusion of “reverse land use climate change bubbles.”
In the June 21st edition of the New York Times Sunday Review Section, Henry M. Paulson Jr., Secretary of the Treasury during the housing bubble era, wrote, “We’re making the same mistake today with climate change. We’re staring down a climate bubble that poses enormous risks to both our environment and economy. The warning signs are clear and growing more urgent as the risks go unchecked.”
Since my first blog four months ago, we have been tracking signs of forming or collapsing land use climate change bubbles in vulnerable areas. Here is our first report from the ground level, beginning with an overview.
While climate change is a planetary phenomenon whose environmental implications are far-reaching, short-term and real effects are increasingly visible locally and presently, while speculation continues about long-term global consequences. In numerous communities, property values are declining because of repeated flooding, continued threats of storm surges, constant fear of wildfires, lack of water in residential, commercial, and agricultural areas, sustained high temperatures, and real concerns with large-scale mudslides. Cumulatively, these changes are causing reverse land use climate change bubbles that, in the aggregate, are akin to yet are potentially even more harmful to the nation than the infamous housing bubble of 2008. The probability of these bubbles collapsing is increasing — in some places at breakneck speed.
This profusion of land use climate bubbles should cut through the ideological and scientific debates and hit home, literally, with convincing evidence that, whatever its cause, many communities have a problem to solve. Piercing thick and cantankerous ideological debates and parsing scientific arguments are not comfortable exercises for many Americans, but problem solving is. As these bubbles collapse, community leaders across the country will become engaged in addressing the problem of adapting to climate change and, perhaps, begin to put pressure on state and federal policy makers to mitigate it.
While we were investigating real estate value declines in a variety of vulnerable areas throughout the country, we found an advanced case in point: Sidney, New York. In this village a land use climate bubble has already collapsed.
Sidney is located in the Catskill Mountains on a floodplain next to the Susquehanna River. It suffered major damage to multiple structures in its extensive flood prone areas in 2006 and then was hit by Tropical Strom Lee in 2011. After this second devastating disaster, business owners, residents, and elected officials and began to question whether there was a future for Sidney’s downtown business area in its historical location adjacent to the Susquehanna. They eventually realized that, for the community to be resilient against future flooding, it needed to move the most vulnerable area of Sidney out of the flood zone and onto higher ground. With support from the New York Rising Community Reconstruction Program, Sidney received funding to conduct land use planning, which has focused on the creation of a new neighborhood where at-risk properties can be relocated safely.
The Mayor of Sidney, Andy Matviak, told us last week that, after Lee, many property owners “left their homes in these flood prone areas and moved to land at higher elevations that are not at risk of flooding.” John Redente, grant administrator in Sidney added that, “After 2011, in the flood prone area, home prices have gone way down. There has been zero new construction in the twice-flooded areas of Sidney.” Elsewhere at higher elevations in the village, prices of houses have gone up, because of the increased demand caused by all the homes that were destroyed by the floods. Mr. Redente added that “federal programs have been used to purchase some of these flooded homes and helped redevelop new homes at higher elevations for those who were affected.”
The Backyard Bubble Project
As I have been discussing our land use climate change bubble investigations with professors and stakeholders in other parts of the country, several of them have mentioned evidence of local vulnerable areas in their own backyards where a bubble is forming; let’s call these “backyard bubbles.” If you are aware of a reverse land use climate bubble forming or collapsing in your backyard, here’s what you can do:
1. Send us a description of the area involved and what is happening that is causing concern about a potentially permanent decline in property values; and
2. Provide some evidence of disinvestment in the vulnerable area obtained from local leaders, real estate brokers, insurance providers, or real estate appraisers indicating that prices are trending downward.
Your reports can be sent to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.