This environmental lab at the Elizabeth River Project in Norfolk, Va., is deliberately built to overwhelm


NORFOLK, Va. — As coastal towns grapple with mounting threats from rising waters, a nonprofit’s expensive new headquarters offers a response that’s both provocative and prescient.

The headquarters of the $8.1 million Elizabeth River project, located in a floodplain destined to be submerged in coming decades as tides rise and storms intensify, was designed to present strategies for staying in danger longer.

Eventually, he will surrender to the inevitable: the environmental group has agreed to demolish the building and abandon the site.

“It’s meant to show you how to work, play and live with this sea level rise,” said Marjorie Mayfield Jackson, who co-founded the Elizabeth River Project 25 years ago to restore the waterway. “And once it stops working, we take the building down and give it back to nature, give it back to the river.”

Polls show that more than half of Americans believe they are harmed by climate change. That number jumps in places already feeling its effects like Norfolk, where a poll shows three-quarters of the population are worried about the risk. However, worrying about the problem is one thing, facing reality is another.

The new experience of building a kind of theme park of resilience for owners and developers, destined for destruction, aims to help people face this reality.

“This whole hallway is endangered, but culturally vital,” said Sam Bowling, the Work Program Architects architect who led the design. “All of these people live and work and have their favorite bars along Colley Avenue. They don’t want to leave. They are aware of the risks.

Construction of a small creek will be completed next year, Mayfield Jackson said. A 6,500 square foot laboratory will be raised 11 feet above a reborn avenue with restaurants, a brasserie and small businesses. Strategies to reduce the building’s environmental impact are out-of-the-box solutions so they can be replicated by owners and developers. A solar panel will generate electricity. A green roof and rain garden will collect water for use in the toilets. A south-facing green wall will reduce the need for cooling in summer and heating in winter, backed up by insulation that exceeds local energy-saving requirements.

The laboratory’s reduced environmental impact will be certified by EarthCraft, a program that designers consider more accessible and affordable for homeowners than the well-known LEED certification.

“We want to show others that maybe there is a better way to live and work in urban coastal areas, despite rising seas,” Bowling added.

The site marks the first time a private U.S. landowner has agreed to a slippery conservation easement, according to the land conservation trust representative working with the nonprofit, who recognizes that the rising waters will invade the earth. When certain trigger points, such as repeated flooding, are reached, the land is returned to nature forever.

AR Siders, an assistant professor at the Biden School of Public Policy and Administration and a fellow at the University of Delaware’s Disaster Research Center who studies adaptation to climate change, said policies like these could make it easier for people to move away. people from endangered areas.

She points to the collapse of Outer Banks homes on an eroding shoreline that spread debris 15 miles on the beach this spring after a storm. “Wouldn’t it be better to have a plan to dismantle these houses and take them away before they cause debris on miles of beach?” she asked.

A rolling easement, she added, makes the seemingly unpredictable predictable. For a city, easements mean that it reaps the tax benefits of permission to build in a vulnerable area, but understands that this comes with an expiration date.

Norfolk officials say the site shows ways to comply with the city’s updated zoning ordinance, which rewards new points of development for resilience to climate effects. On site, restored wetlands including native grasses and an oyster reef will mitigate flooding and prevent erosion. Permeable paving and rain gardens will absorb and store rainwater, keeping it out of the city’s overwhelmed stormwater system.

“We supported that,” said Kyle Spencer, Norfolk’s acting director of resilience. “We would like to see ourselves as this kind of living laboratory to solve these really complicated and difficult problems that cities like ours are facing.”

Mary-Carson Stiff, a board member of the Living River Trust, a nonprofit conservation effort that will enforce the easement, said it offers a potential solution to the coming conflict between rising waters and the private property rights in towns like Norfolk, where parts of the waterfront will become uninhabitable.

Rolling easements are used in a few states, but only by government agencies. In Texas, they protect access to public beaches. As the average low tide naturally shifts, the public right of access also shifts. In Maine, they protect the dunes by banning levees and requiring their removal as the shoreline shifts.

The idea was first championed in the 1990s by James Titus, a sea level rise expert at the Environmental Protection Agency who clashed with agency officials about his repeated calls to resolve the issue.

When waters threaten, private property becomes public under the doctrine of public trust – the legal principle that the government owns natural resources like rivers and shorelines.

“There is no legal framework to deal with the large-scale change in ownership of a coastline as sea levels rise,” Stiff said. “I see the rolling easement as the instrument to meet what will be an incredible legal challenge in the future.”

By agreeing to slippery easements, owners gain tax benefits from the federal government and some states, Stiff said. For now, state and local governments are facing costly takeovers and potential court battles.

In 2009, a hurricane damaged cottages along the beach in Nags Head, North Carolina, and the city ordered their permanent removal, saying they sat on public land and declaring them a public nuisance. The owners filed a complaint. After years in court, Nags Head lost and settled for $1.5 million.

Why haven’t easements become common since Titus first started talking about them more than two decades ago?

Jesse Reiblich, who was recently a postgraduate law fellow at William & Mary and reviewed easements while a fellow at Stanford University’s Center for Ocean Solutions, said it would take “landowners realize they are fighting a losing battle. This has not yet happened on a large scale.

Decades from now, rising sea levels or frequent flooding will prompt the Elizabeth River Project to demolish its headquarters. What can be recycled will be recycled, connections to utilities like water, sewer and electricity will be removed, and nature will once again rule the earth.

For Mayfield Jackson, it suits a stream slowly recovering from the devastation of industrialization.

“We don’t just show how to do it right for humans and businesses,” she said. said, “but also to safeguard the river.”

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