Planning for Change in Chatham County, Georgia
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Chatham County is vulnerable to sea level rise, flooding, and erosion. Increasing the ability of the county to adequately prepare for and recover from the impacts of climate change are important goals of the Chatham County – Savannah Metropolitan Planning Commission. These goals have expanded into ensuring that all areas of the county are preparing for climate change, including public works, fire departments, hospitals, board of educators, and county engineers. The county sees itself as a driver for sustainability for all sectors in Chatham County and is acting as a pilot program for the rest of the state to learn from and follow. As a result of a 2010 climate change planning workshop, the county released an updated comprehensive plan in 2017 to guide development decisions over the next twenty years.
Chatham County is located along the Atlantic Coast in Georgia. In March 2010, county officials convened a workshop with the NOAA Coastal Services Center to discuss climate change threats and develop a roadmap for action. The Roadmap for Adapting to Coastal Risk is a training module developed by NOAA to help cities and counties integrate current and future hazard considerations into local planning and decision making. Local officials, staff, and concerned citizens attended the workshop and discussed the threats and vulnerabilities associated with climate change on Chatham County and coastal Georgia. This included education on the specific threats to coastal Georgia and its shifting climate patterns.
Part of the workshop included discussing existing strategies as well as identifying potential future strategies for four major threats: sea level rise, storm surge inundation, coastal flooding, and erosion:
- Sea level rise. There are no current actions being taken to address sea level rise, although key strategies to pursue include understanding how saltwater intrusion will affect natural systems and human communities and establishing long-range policies to minimize damage in vulnerable coastal areas.
- Storm surge inundation. The county is currently depending on dredging to protect the coastline, although future strategies discussed include developing and maintaining natural infrastructure to buffer the shoreline.
- Coastal flooding. Currently, the county is building more roads and stormwater pumping stations at higher elevations. Potential future strategies include investing in green and open space and public transit.
- Coastal erosion. Currently, development is allowed right on the beaches in the area. A key future strategy is to establish a new sand dune protection line based on sea level rise scenarios and hurricane-related storm surge projections.
Additionally, the county considers its application of smart growth principles (i.e. mixed land uses, open spaces), green infrastructure, and flood and hazard mitigation to help make the area more resilient to climate change. As a result of the workshop, Chatham County started working to develop strategies on how to start addressing them in the county’s Comprehensive Plan.
The county updated its comprehensive plan to examine how to integrate climate-informed principles into growth and development decisions over the next 20 years. The county included sea level rise in the update, but at the local level, sea level rise has been a controversial topic and the county has had to be very careful on how to handle it. The county has incorporated it throughout the comprehensive plan more as a flooding issue, since there are many flooding problems in the area. The plan took quite a long time to update due to issues in prioritizing strategies. The climate adaptation objectives in the plan include:
- Identifying the areas of the county that may be vulnerable to sea level rise;
- Expanding planning horizons for sea level rise adaptation to capture the anticipated impacts based on current models;
- Drafting a regional sea level rise plan; and
- Requiring consideration of climate adaptation and sea level rise in existing and planned public and private infrastructure and land development.
Outcomes and Conclusions
Chatham County is now updating its zoning ordinances and subdivision codes to prioritize low impact development and green infrastructure as part of resilience planning. In addition, all the municipalities in Chatham County have updated their stormwater policies and adopted the Coastal Stormwater Supplement of Georgia’s Stormwater Management Manual. The supplement addresses ways to address flood vulnerabilities in development efforts to protect and maintain the integrity of local aquatic resources. It includes design recommendations to help protect local aquatic resources, reduce flooding through post-construction stormwater management and site planning design, and improve water quality through green infrastructure.
Score, A., & Gregg, R.M. (2017). Planning for Change in Chatham County, Georgia [Case study on a project of Chatham County]. Product of EcoAdapt's State of Adaptation Program. Retrieved from CAKE: http://www.cakex.org/case-studies/planning-change-chatham-county-georgia (Last updated December 2017)
Jackie Jackson Teel