Planning for Hazards: Land Use Solutions for Colorado

by Logan Sand, Recovery and Resilience Planner, Colorado Department of Local Affairs

Many of us have felt the impact of natural hazard events such as flooding, wildfires, expansive soils, and drought in our communities. In the last five years, Colorado wildfires and floods have severely impacted communities, generating over $4 billion in damages. In 2013, more than 1,850 homes were destroyed, and an estimated 28,363 dwellings were damaged in a single federally-declared flood alone.[1] As planners, these hazards can collide with the development or execution of long-range plans or with the approval of development permits.

Over the next 25 years, Colorado is forecast to add close to 2.5 million new residents, or nearly 100,000 persons, per year.[2]  This rapid population growth plus the occurrence of natural hazards heighten the need for strategic land use patterns that can help reduce community risk and help strengthen new development and place it out of harm’s way to the greatest extent possible.

With input from federal, state, and local government partners, the Colorado Department of Local Affairs used federal Community Development Block Grant – Disaster Recovery (CDBG – DR) Resilience Planning grant funding to research, develop and publish a tool to assist municipalities. The result: the Planning for Hazards: Land Use Solutions for Colorado guide and website were launched in March 2016.

Tailored to land use planners,  the guide provides detailed information about assessing a community’s risk level to hazards and describes how to implement numerous land use planning tools and strategies in a manner that reduces risk. While the guide’s examples and data sources are largely Colorado-specific, the description of tools and sample land use code language provide a good starting point for any municipality or county in the West or across the country.

The Way it Works

The Planning for Hazards guide is designed to provide a detailed format and methodology to conduct a Hazard Identification and Risk Assessment (HIRA), which is used to establish why and how land use planning can address hazards. The community can use the guide’s description of over 20 planning tools to facilitate the implementation, adoption, and/or update of effective land use strategies to mitigate risks to potential hazards.

Communities may choose to implement land use planning tools and strategies that reduce risk and mitigate hazards by:

  1. Addressing hazards in plans or policies
  2. Strengthening incentives
  3. Protecting sensitive areas
  4. Improving site development standards
  5. Improving buildings and infrastructure
  6. Enhancing administration and procedures

The guide is structured to assist communities in taking action. For example, if a community decides to develop or modify its stream buffer or setback regulations to better mitigate flood risk, the community would locate the section that outlines how this particular strategy works, how to implement it, profiles of other locations where this work has been done, the advantages and challenges of the project, as well as model code language and commentary that can be tailored to the community. The guide clearly moves through each step of the process from beginning to end.

The www.planningforhazards.com website was created to make the guide available online.  A user needs only to click on the hazard “Flood” to see a description, its relation to other hazards, how to assess risk to this specific hazard, and available data resources. Most importantly, the user will have access to the various applicable planning strategies and tools that are available for mitigating this hazard through the land use processes.

Successful implementation includes learning from communities that have already tested specific tools and strategies. Therefore, the guide and website offer model policies and regulations for several planning tools. Each model includes key elements of the policies or regulations, drawing on various best practices from around Colorado and beyond. The site also features video clips from planners describing the various planning processes, challenges, and general experiences of implementing land use solutions.

Land Use Solutions to Wildfires and Flooding

Colorado has experienced many severe flooding and wildfire events. Nearly every community in the state is in a high-risk, special flood hazard area. Similarly, as of 2015, Colorado had nearly 100,000 homes that were either at high or very high risk of wildfire – translating into $28 billion of residential assets exposed to potential future wildfire damage.[3] Several land use strategies highlighted in the guide are designed to help prevent future damage from wildfires and flooding.

A stormwater ordinance is one effective land use planning tool that can be designed to mitigate flood risk. A stormwater ordinance allows communities to establish low-impact development (LID) and stormwater best management practices (BMPs) for new development within their code. For wildfires, a wildland-urban interface (WUI) code is specifically designed to mitigate the risks from wildfire to life and property, which will vary according to the scope that a community is willing to adopt and enforce. Other land use planning strategies, such as overlay zoning, can address multiple hazard risks like floods, wildfire, and steep slopes.

A local government or municipality may determine that land acquisition or the development of a conservation easement may be the most effective way to protect sensitive areas from flood and wildfire risks. Alternatively, establishing development agreements or granting density bonuses to reward risk-reducing development activity may be the right solution to incentivize growth from occurring in hazard-prone areas. These are just several applicable land use solutions detailed in the guide applying to flood and wildfire hazards.

See What the Guide Offers You!

The guide and website are intended to support land use planners and allied professions as they mitigate hazard risk with smart and safe land use planning. The Colorado Department of Local Affairs is now working on a companion series of work sessions-in-a-box that can assist any community in walking through the steps of hazard identification and risk assessment, and appropriate land use strategy identification, development, and implementation. Please visit planningforhazards.com for more information, or to explore how land use strategies and tools can help your community reduce risk.


Logan Bio Pic.jpg

Logan Sand is a Recovery and Resilience Planner for the Colorado Department of Local Affairs, Division of Local Government. Logan provides technical assistance and guidance on recovery, resilience, and land use issues to Colorado communities.  Prior to this position, Logan worked with the Sustainability Program at the Colorado Department of Transportation as well as with the Urban Solutions Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. Logan has a Master’s of Urban and Regional Planning degree from the University of Colorado Denver.


ENDNOTES

  1. Colorado Action Plan for Disaster Recovery. 2014. Page 4. colorado.gov/pacific/dola/action-plans-quarterly-reports
  2. Colorado State Demography Office.
  3. Botts, et al. 2015. CoreLogic Wildfire Hazard Risk Report.
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