Legislation to create Virginia coastal office gaining ground

Legislation that would create a new Cabinet-level position for coastal flooding and adaptation to better coordinate Virginia’s response to sea-level rise is making some headway during the General Assembly session.

The House version, by Del. Christopher P. Stolle, R-Virginia Beach, was reported out of the Committee on General Laws to the Appropriations Committee last week.

The companion Senate version, by Sen. Lynwood W. Lewis Jr., D-Accomack, was referred to the Senate Finance Committee.

The bills would create the secretary of coastal protection and flooding adaptation, an office designed to “be the lead in providing direction, ensuring accountability, and developing a statewide coastal flooding adaptation strategy,” as well as being responsible for identifying sources of funding for coastal protection projects, the legislation says.

“I think that (Hurricane) Matthew was a wake-up for a lot of us. A lot of the damage was done in areas that were not in flood zones,” Stolle said.

“We are at risk. We need a statewide approach to address this issue.”

As of Jan. 10, the National Flood Insurance Program had paid out $46.8 million to 2,263 claimants in Virginia as a result of the October hurricane, according to the Virginia Department of Emergency Management.

A study released in November by the College of William & Mary Law School’s Virginia Coastal Policy Center warned that sea-level rise driven by climate change eventually could cost the Hampton Roads region more than $100 million extra in damage and costs annually if no measures are taken to mitigate the risks of coastal flooding.

The office is estimated to cost the state $478,117 a year, including a $158,966 salary for the secretary, a $117,000 salary for a deputy secretary, and a $40,800 salary for an administrative assistant as well as $47,102 a year in expenses related to telecommunications, rent, supplies and other operating costs.

Lewis acknowledged the bill might be a “heavy lift” in a tight budget year but called it a necessary approach that other states facing coastal threats, including Louisiana and New Jersey, have adopted.

“We need a one-stop shop,” Lewis said.

Creating a Cabinet-level position is about more than just coordinating state-level response, said Col. Paul Olsen, former Norfolk district commander for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and now director of federal, commonwealth and municipal programs and partnerships at Old Dominion University, home to the Center for Sea Level Rise.

“It’s all about federal funding,” Olsen said, noting that states with just one office to interact with the federal government often are more successful than states that spread coastal concerns over various departments.

“They’re getting more than their fair share. We’re getting less. We’re trying to correct that,” Olsen said.