Planning for Change in Chatham County, Georgia
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 (MPC). 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 MPC sees itself as a driver for sustainability and resilience for all sectors in Chatham County. As a result of a 2010 climate change planning workshop, community meetings, and surveys, the MPC released an updated comprehensive plan in 2016 to guide development decisions and promote resilience. An update (Plan2040) is in development, using guidance and lessons learned from the 2016 plan.
Chatham County is located along the Atlantic Coast in Georgia. The county encompasses the metropolitan city of Savannah and is home to approximately 291,000 residents. In March 2010, county officials convened a workshop with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Coastal Services Center (now the Office of Coastal Management) 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. Chatham County local officials, staff, and concerned citizens attended the 2010 workshop and discussed the threats and vulnerabilities associated with climate change on 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 (e.g., mixed land uses, open spaces), green infrastructure, and flood and hazard mitigation to help make the area more resilient to climate change. The workshop resulted in a basic initial assessment of what the community wants the county to be doing to address adaptation and resilience needs. Community input from workshops, meetings, and surveys was used to inform the development of the comprehensive plan update.
The 2017 comprehensive plan examined 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. 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. However, recent changes in elected officials and staff have increased the acceptance of this issue in planning. The county has incorporated sea level rise throughout the comprehensive plan more as a flooding issue, since flooding had historically been a problem 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.
The MPC has undertaken a number of programs with partners to achieve these objectives. The MPC has partnered with the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) to build and install sea level rise sensors in all jurisdictions of Chatham County. They have installed over 50 sensors, which provide live feedback on the status of sea levels, rivers, and connected waterways. Data has been utilized in GIS mapping to illustrate flood and tide levels and trends over time. This has been particularly useful in tracking the impacts of storms or hurricanes on inland Chatham communities. Another initiative is finding, identifying, and mapping septic systems throughout the county. In partnership with the University of Georgia, the MPC is collecting data and educating homeowners on why identifying septic systems is important and how the community can benefit from it. In order to build resilience over the next 10–15 years, the MPC must consider how climate impacts, such as flooding, will affect the viability of septic systems and water treatment facilities. The results from these initiatives will be used in future land use planning.
Outcomes and Conclusions
Recently, each jurisdiction within Chatham County has updated 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.
Planning is underway for the comprehensive plan update (Plan2040). The MPC is using data to inform decision-making and looking to other cities (e.g., Atlanta, Orlando, Raleigh-Durham) for guidance on what has and has not worked in the planning and implementation process. In addition, there has been a strong push in Chatham County to increase the representation of all community groups (e.g., low-income, non-English speaking, unhoused) in the planning process. The MPC prioritizes and uses community feedback and aims to continue to be a proactive player in discussions around resilience and sustainability in their community. Open space and land preservation will remain the top foci of the plan, working with the state special purpose local option sales tax to use open space as multi-use areas that can be flooded if needed.
A key component of the success of the MPC in resilience planning is the partnerships with local entities, such as the University of Georgia, Georgia Tech, and Chatham County Emergency Management Agency. It is often difficult to achieve consensus on issues in local governments; partners working alongside officials and practitioners can minimize this challenge and facilitate real action. Comprehensive plans can be strong enforcement tools in guiding policy and action. To keep planning and enforcement fluid and based on community needs as well as appropriate adaptation measures, the MPC is continuously researching and developing action steps and recommendations to help communities prepare for future events.
Score, A., & Gregg, R.M. (2021). Planning for Change in Chatham County, Georgia [Case study on a project of Chatham County]. Version 2.0. Product of EcoAdapt’s State of Adaptation Program. Retrieved from CAKE: http://www.cakex.org/case-studies/planning-change-chatham-county-georgia (Last updated October 2021)
Project DocumentsChatham County-Savannah Comprehensive Plan- Report of Accomplishments 2011-2016.pdf
Director, The Advance Planning and Special Projects Department
Chatham County-Savannah Metropolitan Planning Commission