AS WATERS RISE, coastal residents are increasingly facing a difficult choice: try to relocate in a difficult housing market and take losses on their homes, or get comfortable with a future where there may be multiple feet of water in their living rooms. 

“Eventually people are going to move, either of their own volition or because we facilitate it, and there has to be somewhere for them to go,” said Deanna Moran, vice president of healthy and resilient communities at the Conservation Law Foundation. 

Enter “managed retreat” – a process of moving infrastructure, people, and property out of vulnerable coastal areas through policies that could include options like voluntary buyouts, relocating roads, and changing zoning districts. Massachusetts, which expects almost two feet of sea level rise by 2050, may have a lot of seaside ground to cover.

The state boasts about 1,520 miles of coastline, spanning salt marshes, beaches, rocky shores, and dunes along the borders of 73 cities and towns. After years of resistance to the idea of moving back from their shorelines, recent studies find, those municipalities are starting to reconsider. 

“More and more people are embracing it and it is just becoming more of a standard option and actually being implemented, though somewhat sporadically,” said Richard Murray, deputy director and vice president for science and engineering at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. “But when those of us who were first talking about it mentioned it, it was not well received at all.” 

Murray started writing about managed retreat about a decade ago, when climate change skepticism was far more common than it is today, even in liberal coastal Massachusetts. At the time, he said, it was easy to shrug off fears of sea level rise as “oh, that’s just Al Gore.” But tides have shifted.

“Back then, there was disagreement and a lack of understanding of the science or a lack of understanding of the scale of the problem,” Murray said. “Now everybody gets it. I mean, you’ve got Hawaii frickin’ burnin’ up, you’ve got tornados in Weymouth. I mean, people can see it. So that’s really really huge.”

Massachusetts residents overwhelmingly think climate change will be a very (48 percent) or somewhat (29 percent) serious problem to the state if left unchecked, according to a poll last year sponsored by the Barr Foundation and conducted by the MassINC Polling Group, which shares a parent company with CommonWealth. Majorities say that climate impacts, including heat waves, coastal flooding, and more powerful storms, are already or very likely to hit the state in the next five years. 

While some communities are considering managed retreat to mitigate flooding and sea level rise impacts, few are actually pursuing it, according to a report released this summer from the Urban Harbors Institute at the University of Massachusetts Boston. 

“We were just trying to test the waters and see whether or not there was an appetite for a conversation about managed retreat,” report author and director of the institute Kristin Uiterwyk said at a national conference about managed retreat in June, “so we were pleasantly surprised that there was.”

Cities and towns that have considered managed retreat said several barriers stand in the way – most notably the lack of sites for relocation, along with the cost of both purchasing land and dealing with the building already on that land by demolishing or moving it. But there is still a decent amount of confusion about just what managed retreat would involve, the survey found, and resistance from vocal minorities worried about their private property rights and the impact on local character.

Responses to an Urban Harbors Institute survey, from the “Perspectives on Managed Retreat in Massachusetts Coastal Communities” report.

“This is an evolving part of the climate resilience field,” said Joe Christo, managing director at Boston Harbor Now’s Stone Living Lab. “The terminology is inconsistent. Definitions are kind of inconsistent, too. But I think that ‘managed retreat’ and ‘strategic retreat’ are kind of synonyms and involve being proactive and thoughtful and, when done right, it involves the community from day one.”

Critically, Christo notes, even managed retreat needs to be considered alongside other climate mitigation techniques like rebuilding natural coastline and ensuring that new development to meet the crushing housing shortage is being built with resiliency in mind.

Columbia University’s annual Managed Retreat Conference, where Uiterwyk spoke, took place just as the UMass and Boston Harbor Now report dropped. In a panel specifically considering managed retreat in coastal New England, planners and climate officials for the small coastal town of Hull sketched out the coming seaborne threat and their mitigation strategy.

Most of the homes on Hull’s “highly developed peninsula” were built around 1900, said Chris Krahforst, the town’s director of climate adaptation and conservation, and between 60 and 70 percent of the community lives within a floodplain if there is just 1.2 feet of sea level rise in the next quarter century.

As Hull considered just how serious flood events on the peninsula already are and just how vulnerable their infrastructure is to long-term sea level rise, Krahforst said the town had to grapple with its threatened assets – like its sewer pump station – and long-term quality of life impacts on residents. 

Part of the solution for areas like the Hampton Circle neighborhood is melding managed retreat planning with natural mitigation, Hull planners said. In the short term, repairing existing sea barriers, constructing new barriers, and creating shorelines with more plants and better natural drainage can help deal with the expected sea level rise by 2030. 

“Part of building trust and starting the conversation around retreat is really to show action today, that the town is making these first steps before really asking private property owners to make even larger steps in moving,” said Bella Purdy, a climate resilience planner with Weston & Sampson, which is advising Hull. “But we’re also trying to think about what this area might look like in 2070.”

Engineers and planners are proposing transforming the low-lying area near the Hull peninsula’s tip “back to nature” before then, because the flood maps in the next 50 years look increasingly grim. Conversations around the proposal, which would impact dozens of homes and involve a system of buyouts and home elevations, have been “very contentious,” Purdy said, but the town is trying to keep residents on board with the idea of “co-designing for the future” starting now.

Emotions understandably ran high in the community meetings, planners said, and “trust is fragile.” They recommended municipalities broach these interactions with transparency and sensitivity through a variety of methods – balancing online feedback methods with in-person or virtual face-to-face conversations.

Homeowners in Hampton Circle focus groups told planners that they continuously reassess whether their homes will be safe from climate impacts, worry that buyouts will be for dramatically less than their homes’ prior value, and feel strongly that immediate action needs to be taken to at least slow the sea’s creep.

Hull planners present a proposal for Hampton Circle, which would involve a “back-to-nature” approach for low-lying areas in the next 50 years. (Image from Columbia University’s 2023 managed retreat conference)

Managed retreat is an inherently communal choice, experts say. There is little point to just one person deciding to take a buyout and move, leaving one parcel available for resiliency improvements. 

One of the national models for managed retreat coastal buyout programs, New Jersey’s Blue Acres, started in 1995 and prioritizes buying and demolishing blocks of continuous homes rather than “checkerboard” buyouts.

Massachusetts is taking some steps away from the ocean, with pools of funding available through the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs. Hull’s climate action roadmap for the Hampton Circle area received $198,624 in municipal vulnerability preparedness program money, while $217,451 was awarded to a Plum Island management analysis in Newbury and Newburyport.

On Cape Cod, Orleans is well into its erosion mitigation plan at Nauset Beach, in which the town “proactively acquired nearby property in preparation for managed retreat of public facilities away from the shoreline.” Since the project started, Orleans has removed parking and constructed new dunes to allow for the natural migration of the beach, partially funded by the state Office of Coastal Zone Management’s coastal resilience grant program.

These individual projects are tantamount to swimming upstream without more regional coordination, conservation advocates said. One of the barriers identified by the UMass Boston report and several experts is a lack of regional planning. Because migration away from the coast tends to move inland rather than from flood-prone coastal town to flood-prone coastal town, advocates say planning should involve more than just similarly situated neighboring towns that might not have the infrastructure to support a sudden influx of residents.

But even neighboring towns have shared interests in coordinated responses to sea level rise, said Murray of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. “If you look at my area – Cohasset, Scituate, Marshfield – the fact that those are three towns is just an accident of humanity and maybe cow pasture lines 200 years ago,” the Scituate resident said. “They’re all facing the same thing until we start getting regional,” which would allow pooled resources and more efficient relocation planning.

“If there’s going to be a movement toward managed retreat it has to be from the state,” said Moran, of the Conservation Law Foundation. “No city or town is going to want to go out on a limb and start pushing for that alone.” 

In a statement, energy and environmental affairs spokesperson Maria Hardiman highlighted the viable grant programs helping localities explore managed retreat among other options. “We also believe that additional resources are needed to coordinate regionally, and look forward to collaborating with cities and towns on upcoming initiatives to protect our coastal communities from the impacts of climate change,” she said. 

The most critical regional coordination question is the buyout system itself, Moran said. States like California and Florida are struggling with resistance from insurance companies to back homes in flood and fire risk areas. Massachusetts has escaped some of the worst of it so far, but Moran worries that a “climate-induced foreclosure crisis” could be looming if the state doesn’t begin planning for managed retreat along with natural flood mitigation measures. 

“I think we’re going to be on the brink of some of these houses being destroyed or damaged and not having enough money to bail people out,” she said. “People may be forced to abandon their property, and if they’re a low- or moderate-income homeowner, it’s very easy to see them being upside down on a mortgage.”

A bill proposing a commission to study a voluntary buyout program for flood risk properties was considered this spring, as was a bill that would establish a flood risk prevention program including a voluntary buyout fund. 

The buyout programs themselves, even if the state could get homeowners on board, come with enormous price tags. New Jersey’s popular program has needed consistent reinvestment and demand for its buyouts often outmatch its funding since it expanded statewide, state officials said last year, spending over $200 million in coastal buyouts from 2013 to 2021. 

If Massachusetts were to offer coastal residents “fair market value” for their land, as other states do and the flood risk prevention bill would guarantee, the hundreds of thousands of dollars going to coastal planning efforts in individual municipalities would be almost comically dwarfed.

Every local official and resiliency advocate is clear on one thing – the ocean will come to us.

Insurers and government entities will likely become increasingly clear about their limitations, Murray said. So it’s best to start having the conversation and hashing out voluntary buyout structures while everyone’s feet are still dry.

“With managed retreat, you could have those policies saying, ‘Look, we’re not going to just keep rebuilding, FEMA is not going to keep repaying you. … We’re not going to be providing a rebuild of your sewer system when it breaks,’” he said, describing an admittedly bleak vision if the process is put off too long. “We’re not going to be risking the lives of our first responders when you’re sitting there and you got five foot waves in your living room because you didn’t move.”