The Takeaway: Learn what a resilience zoning ordinance looks like and how it’s helping this community develop safer and smarter.
The city of Norfolk, Virginia, is like many other coastal communities facing sea level rise. The city chose to take a bold step to completely overhaul their zoning ordinance to reduce impacts and increase their resilience. Learn more about Norfolk’s innovative resilience zoning ordinance.
- Be bold. Create the big ordinance and include all resilience elements. We had one shot and needed to be sure it had all of the resilience elements needed to protect against flooding.
- Stick to your deadline and work within it. If we had decided not to include everything we wanted the first go-around, it would have been hard to get it adopted in a second revision.
- Make sure you engage everyone—even those who will be the detractors. Although it took a lot of work, and there were often disagreements on what the ordinance should contain, we engaged weekly with the development community and initiated these conversations early in the process. This enabled us to make a stronger ordinance.
- Work to build a relationship between your planning commission and city council. We have a city council that really trusts its planning commission.
- Ask for enough money to cover the whole project. We mistakenly asked for only enough money to cover the consultant’s fees. However, we needed money after the ordinance was passed for outreach and to get our staff up to speed on the complex ordinance.
“Be bold, get all that you want to accomplish in the ordinance the first time, set your target date, and meet it.” This is how Jeremy Sharp, zoning administrator for the City of Norfolk Planning Department, explains how they approached creating a zoning ordinance focused on increasing resilience to flooding and sea level rise. The zoning ordinance contains a number of pioneering approaches in response to the long-term challenges posed by sea level rise.
One innovative aspect of the updated ordinance is that all new development within the city is required to meet a resilience quotient. This requirement is measured on a points system covering three separate resilience elements: risk reduction, stormwater management, and energy resilience. This points system ensures that new development will be more resilient and environmentally friendly, while providing flexibility to builders by allowing them to choose which measures to include in the development.
Other innovative elements of the ordinance that enhance community resilience include the following:
Coastal Resilience Overlay (CRO) Zone
All new development and redevelopment within the one-percent annual chance flood zone is required to be elevated three feet above base flood elevation. Homes in this zone can’t have basements, and electrical systems need to be raised one foot above the finished floor elevation. Open space must be maintained, all landscaping must use native and salt-tolerant plants, and paved parking is limited to reduce stormwater runoff.
Upland Resilience Overlay
The upland resilience overlay applies to areas outside the one-percent annual chance flood zone. The purpose of this is to encourage new development in areas of the city that have both a reduced risk of flooding and the potential to support redevelopment that encourages walking and biking paths, parks, and transit-rich neighborhoods.
The upland resilience overlay also provides another layer of flexibility for the private sector. Developers can get a large number of points toward their resilience quotient requirements if they place a conservation easement on a high-risk property (one located in the coastal resilience overlay). This provision hasn’t been used yet, and the city is working with Wetlands Watch, a local non-profit, to identify ways to make this approach more attractive to developers.
Another innovative step Norfolk took was to regulate new development in the 500-year flood zone (an area with a 0.2 percent annual chance of flooding)—requiring the lowest floor, including the basement, to be elevated or flood-proofed to one and a half feet above the highest finished grade immediately adjacent to the structure, or one and a half feet above the 0.2 percent-annual chance flood elevation, as determined in the flood insurance study.
Developing the Zoning Ordinance
The planning team worked closely with local developers and builders, which was another innovative aspect of the ordinance. They initiated the discussion at the local builders’ association meeting and met regularly throughout the process to discuss the ordinance revisions. There was opposition to new requirements, mainly around the concern of increased building costs. However, through conversations, the code now reflects a rational approach to keeping building costs down by setting the minimum first floor elevation height outside the flood hazard zones to 16 inches to coincide with block heights of eight inches.
“City council knew we worked closely with the development and builder community, and although there was a lot of concern from the development community about the ordinance driving costs up, the city council trusted our work and approved the ordinance,” Jeremy says.
The team tried other ways to engage different stakeholders. Some worked, and some didn’t. Stakeholders included a cross-section of residents and subject matter experts, but the planning team struggled to get the same people to show up twice. Jeremy shares that rewriting a zoning ordinance is not a fun, exciting activity that people want to show up for. Zoning codes are complex. What the planning team found helpful was working with stakeholders through standing committee meetings, such as the Watershed Management Task Force (with representatives from multiple city departments and multiple area non-profits). They also used the planning commission and architectural review board extensively to discuss new ideas. According to Jeremy, “These groups are used to thinking in the zoning and planning world, so it made sense to work closely with them.”
The zoning ordinance was adopted in 2018. It took about two and half years to complete, which is pretty typical. When the ordinance was approved, the planning department conducted outreach, such as open houses, virtual meetings, and postcards to discuss what this new ordinance was going to mean to everyone.
Jeremy says that they are seeing about half of new development getting creative and using the resilience quotient system, and the other half choosing more standard approaches listed in the ordinance. The city is receiving many good ideas and seeing approaches tested, which helps them improve the resilience quotient and provide ideas to developers.
“We want people using the ordinance,” Jeremy shares. “Builders and developers will come to me and say we can’t make these numbers work. I say make me a pitch, tell me what you would do differently with regards to resilience, let’s make something that works. I’m flexible, but I want them to understand the purpose of the point system and to get us there.”
The planning team is looking at amendments, such as revising the resilience quotient to try to further codify the flexibility and make the code easier to read. They are also looking to add another layer of resiliency, which would incentivize the preservation of existing trees within new development.