This road on Vinalhaven floods more than a dozen times a year (shown here during a high tide on Feb. 21, 2019). (Photo: Andrew Dorr/Town of Vinalhaven)
This road on Vinalhaven floods more than a dozen times a year (shown here during a high tide on Feb. 21, 2019). (Photo: Andrew Dorr/Town of Vinalhaven)
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Downtown Vinalhaven sits on a mix of quarried rocks subject to erosion and vulnerable to inundation. When a selectman raised concerns in 2015 about “the inevitability of sea-level rise,” the board acknowledged, “We have to start talking about this; we have to form a committee,” recalls Vinalhaven Town Manager Andrew Dorr.

Dorr turned for help to the school, where students working on a climate curriculum began preliminary research and modeled inundation using a gingerbread town. After they presented findings to the board of selectmen, the town sought a grant to obtain an engineering assessment of its harbor area. That report confirmed the potential for more frequent and destructive flooding in coming decades — a plight Vinalhaven shares with many of the 144 communities in Maine’s coastal zone.

Global sea levels are rising at an accelerating rate, driven primarily by increased melting of ice in Greenland and Antarctica and the thermal expansion that occurs as ocean waters warm.

Just how much waters in the Gulf of Maine will rise — and how quickly — depends in part on global greenhouse gas emissions. Those reached a record high last year (with U.S. emissions up more than 3 percent), and scientists keep revising upward the sea-level rise projected in coming decades. “It seems like every time you turn around, it’s going up more quickly,” says Bob Faunce, a planner with Lincoln County Regional Planning Commission (until his retirement last week).

Five years ago, the highest sea-level scenario possible by 2100 was around 6 feet. Now, based on updated scenarios from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, it exceeds 10 feet. Marine geologist Peter Slovinsky, with Maine Geological Survey, typically suggests that communities plan on a minimum increase of 2 feet by 2100 and consider preparing for 4 to 6 feet, noting that those figures include no added storm surge.

Assessing the Problem

Only a handful of communities within coastal Knox, Lincoln and Waldo counties have municipal planners, so the work of assessing potential sea-level rise impacts often falls to volunteers — from conservation commissions and waterfront committees to ad hoc “we have to start talking about this” groups like Vinalhaven’s.

Lack of dedicated staff and resources can slow the work of gauging a community’s vulnerability. Ruta Dzenis, who administers municipal planning grants for Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, acknowledges that “there is limited capacity at the local level even to manage grants.”

The communities welcome planning support. “It’s the rare person who doesn’t accept that sea level is rising,” Faunce says. But he adds that it’s important to understand what people’s concerns and fears are. Property owners may be anxious about direct storm impacts, but they can also worry about what inundation mapping might do to their insurance, property value or interactions with governmental agencies.

Towns in Lincoln County can obtain sea-level rise planning assistance free of charge from the Regional Planning Commission since the county consistently funds its RPC and manages some of its administrative work. Knox and Waldo county municipalities currently have no regional planners on call. “The Mid-Coast Regional Planning Commission is moribund right now,” Faunce says.

Mid-Coast RPC’s former executive director, Jamie Francomano, resigned at the end of 2018 due to the financial insolvency of the independent nonprofit organization. According to Mid-Coast RPC executive board member Jeffrey Northgraves, its board is proposing that Knox County manage Mid-Coast RPC as an arm of county government, similar to the model successfully used in Lincoln County.

Knox County municipalities do have access to GIS mapping support through the Knox County Emergency Management Agency, and Dorr says that EMA Director Ray Sisk has been “really supportive” of Vinalhaven’s work to assess flooding vulnerability. The island has a road that floods repeatedly on perigean spring (king) tides, posing a challenge for residents and for emergency responders.

Laying the Groundwork

The “sunny day” or nuisance flooding caused by king tides signals where vulnerabilities lie. Damariscotta has what its town manager, Matthew Lutkus, calls a “huge pond effect” in the middle of a municipal parking lot between its downtown and the tidal river. When storms coincide with king tides, as happened in January 2018, the “pond” can swell in size and reach a depth of 1 to 2 feet.

Damariscotta began considering flood resiliency even before Vinalhaven and became what Maine Coastal Program Planner Matthew Nixon calls a “shining example” of taking a strategic approach. During work in 2012 to update its comprehensive plan, the town invited a speaker to address storm-surge impacts at a community forum.

That event “set the groundwork for moving ahead,” Lutkus says, with the high turnout alone a “major endorsement [for taking action] even without a formal vote.” The town formed a waterfront committee and subsequently received a coastal community planning grant (to determine means to minimize downtown flooding in significant storms) and a shore and harbor planning grant (to help define engineering and design options for the parking lot area).

Both grants were funded by NOAA through the Maine Coastal Program. Since 2012, MCP has awarded coastal communities more than $500,000 in federal funds for storm-hazard resiliency (with typical awards ranging from $20,000 to $30,000). Each grant requires a cash match, Dzenis notes, but municipalities can contribute that in-kind.

The Damariscotta studies outlined two options, Lutkus says: Each private business downtown could undertake floodproofing measures independently, or the town could take a communal approach — building a sea wall on the harbor side of its parking lot and making drainage improvements, which might remove some downtown structures from the flood zone (potentially producing insurance savings).

The community chose the collective approach and raised more than $1 million in private contributions, enough to cover improvements to the parking lot and a new drainage system. However, an additional $1.4 million was needed to elevate the parking lot and construct a sea wall.

Coming Up Short

Federal funding for projects like this ended in the 1990s, Lutkus says. One of the biggest impediments, he says, is the Federal Emergency Management Administration, which won’t fund projects without a history of flood damage. Towns like Damariscotta that try to take preventive action are not eligible, he says.

“There’s really not a lot of resources and no single go-to library of grant opportunities out there,” acknowledges EMA Director Sisk, although some related state funding sources, like stream crossing grants or Small Harbor Improvement Program grants, can sometimes apply. “It’s up to folks to figure it out as best they can,” he says.

Rep. Michael Devin (D-Newcastle) has proposed a $50 million bond fund to help address sea-level-rise hazards. Faunce describes that as a “nice first start” but far from adequate given “the kinds of numbers you’re dealing with” — often, at least $1-2 million for each major infrastructure project. “Every non-local dollar I have spent since 2012 has been federal,” Faunce says. “For a state with 3,000-plus miles of shoreline, not having a nickel in the game is not good.”

Many towns that have identified their vulnerabilities, says Susie Arnold, marine scientist at the Island Institute, “haven’t been able to persuade their citizenry to pay additional money for adaptive measures.” And even when towns can secure philanthropic gifts from seasonal residents, Faunce says, donors tend to prefer visible projects with immediate payback, rather than ones that “protect the community against something in the future.”

For Damariscotta, says Lutkus, “it’s been very frustrating not being able to leverage the money it raised; if there was a stone I left unturned [in the quest for funds], I’d be surprised.” This summer, the community will invest more than $1 million on drainage and surface improvements to the parking lot, elevating it up to 12 inches in places, but without completing the 3-foot elevation or sea wall recommended in planning studies. It is, Arnold acknowledges, “kind of a tragic story.”

Arnold hopes that the economics of inaction will start becoming clear to more people soon. The Island Institute is working with a team of consultants to assess economic risks of sea-level rise in rural coastal regions and to calculate the overall costs a failure to act could have on Maine’s coastal economy. Arnold anticipates that calculating potential revenue losses or shifts in the tax burden as inundated properties come off tax rolls might motivate more communities to consider preventive action.

A bill proposed by Rep. Lydia Blume (D-York) in the current legislative session would create a new Coastal Risks and Hazards Commission to recommend state actions to address risks associated with sea-level rise. If the bill is adopted, the commission would submit its first report in 2022.

Looking Holistically

Vinalhaven, like Damariscotta, has “checked off every box on what a community should do” in planning, says Slovinsky, the marine geologist. Thanks to its active sea-level rise committee, Dorr says, it was among the first towns to use the state’s new Flood Resilience Checklist in a facilitated workshop that he says “helped get people out of their silos.” Documenting broad public participation, says planner Jamie Francomano, can be valuable, as prospective funders want evidence of community consensus.

Far and away the most “fun” planning exercise, Dorr says, was a three-day session spent with visiting architects, engineers and planners from around the country, part of a Design and Resilience Team (DART) co-sponsored by the American Institute of Architects and the New England Municipal Sustainability Network. The DART team viewed Vinalhaven’s sea-level-rise challenges in the context of a downtown master plan that included business development and workforce housing. “Looking at it more holistically,” Dorr says, “left us with fantastic concepts” and offered ways to consider — over time — embracing and channeling water.

The DART team takes an expansive view, notes team leader Wayne Feiden, a director of planning and sustainability in Northampton, Massachusetts, asking, “How do we thrive in light of climate [change] instead of just survive?” The process only works, he says, when a community is ready to get engaged.

Over the last year, Belfast has demonstrated its willingness to get engaged. A new committee charged with anticipating climate change issues started by considering sea-level rise. The committee’s vice chairman, Jonathan Beal, says the group wants to use citizen scientists to establish a clear understanding of local tidal movements — the closest tidal gauge now is Bar Harbor — and to closely track changing meteorological and ocean conditions. The city is getting valuable guidance, he says, from the University of Maine, Gulf of Maine Research Institute and Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries. It also plans to engage high school students in research and educational projects like marking the projected storm surge line throughout the community (see the HighWaterLine listing under Resources at right).

With storms becoming more frequent and intense — Belfast experienced damage at five waterfront settings early in 2018, Beal says — the committee is eager to learn more about the evolving use of living shorelines, which are ecological means of stabilizing eroding areas. “We want to be part of that exploration,” he says.

Feiden says communities increasingly recognize that state and local decisions are being made every day, “and they’re all opportunities.” Nicholas Battista, senior policy officer at the Island Institute, agrees, seeing sea-level-rise planning as “incredibly worthwhile because it helps towns make smarter investments.” He commends the “real leadership” shown by towns like Vinalhaven, Damariscotta and Belfast in readying themselves for action when more funds become available.

Battista hopes that day is not far off, saying, “From where I sit, it’s wicked exciting to see their work leading into one of the governor’s top priorities and getting high-level attention.” He is increasingly confident that “communities will have the support they need over the long term.”

EMA Director Sisk shares Battista’s optimism that the new administration in Augusta “will really grab this and promote forward thinking” — the kind that extends decades into the future. Taking sea-level rise into account, he says, “is one of those visionary things.”

Resources

Maine Geological Survey Sea-level Rise Interactive Map (www.maine.gov/dacf/mgs/hazards/slr_ss/index.shtml)

Descriptions of Maine’s Flood Resilience Checklist, Coastal Community Planning Grants and Municipal Climate Adaptation Guidance are online (www.maine.gov/dacf/municipalplanning/technical/climate.shtml), along with case studies of past Maine Coastal Program planning grants (www.maine.gov/dacf/municipalplanning/casestudies/ccg-case-studies.shtml)

Knox County Emergency Management Agency provides support to municipalities with GIS mapping to assess flooding vulnerability and with documenting storm-related infrastructure damage: 207-594-5155

Lincoln County Regional Planning Commission has past coastal planning studies on its website (lcrpc.org)

The Island Institute’s “Shore Up Maine” program (www.islandinstitute.org/program/climate-impacts) provides technical assistance grants and a factsheet on “Sea Level Rise and Coastal Flooding.” Its economic analysis—due out by fall 2019— will include a report, a symposium and a tool towns can use to estimate their financial risk.

Vinalhaven’s DART Team report is online at www.townofvinalhaven.org/downtown-revitalization-committee/pages/vinalhaven-downtown-dart-project

Belfast Climate Commission’s first report is online at www.cityofbelfast.org/DocumentCenter/View/2331

HighWaterLine (highwaterline.org) engages communities in public art and data projects to help visualize sea-level-rise impacts