main banner

Friday, October 26, 2018

Commentary: Vote No on Constitutional Amendment Question 1

Flooding in Accomack County, Va. [Accomack County government]
By Marie Reinsdorf

In keeping with Virginia’s regular habit of amending the Constitution, the Nov. 6 ballot has two amendments up for a Yes or No vote.  

Question 1 states: Should a county, city, or town be authorized to provide a partial tax exemption for real property that is subject to recurrent flooding, if flooding resiliency improvements have been made on the property?

Here is the actual text of the amendment: “The General Assembly may by general law authorize the governing body of any county, city, or town to provide for a partial exemption from local real property taxation, within such restrictions and upon such conditions as may be prescribed, of improved real estate subject to recurrent flooding upon which flooding abatement, mitigation, or resiliency efforts have been undertaken.”

This amendment made its way through the General Assembly on the premise that it’s a county issue. It would give permission to a county to act. No state funding would be provided.

But Virginia micromanages cities and counties. The commonwealth creates and encourages action by counties with its laws.

State Sen. Lynwood Lewis of Accomack County on the Eastern Shore, which is under growing flood risk, proposed the amendment.

Homeowners who could lose their home without an outlay of cash to prevent flooding do need relief. But the language of the amendment is so loose and open, that you might imagine it could encourage:
  • building in sensitive coastal, waterway, and wetland areas;
  • development that further degrades the environment.
  • commercial development in a spot where it’s best to leave the land undisturbed; and
  • vacation homes built on fragile shorelines, a scenario where public subsidies are not appropriate.
If you demolish an old house on a large lot, tear down all the trees so you can build as many houses as zoning will allow, and put in a drainage pond, is that an improvement? Will the buyers get a permanent tax break?

The constitutional amendment could be viewed as a substitute for better measures, such as programs to buy a home or property from an owner so it can be returned to its natural state. Thus, it could hinder progress on finding ways to grow such programs.

It doesn’t apply to outright conservation. Homeowners who place their property under conservation easement or spend hefty sums to improve their landscape for environmental health increase resiliency but don’t get an exemption. Those actions would reduce flooding not only on the owner’s property, but for neighbors, too.

What does “flood-prone” mean. Is it a coastal area or a half acre of wetland in a suburb? Does “real property” refer to a primary home or industrial site? And does “resiliency” mean improving nature’s resiliency or just directing the water away with engineering?

I feel stuck with the nuances of words, including noticing that the language on the ballot question differs slightly from the amendment: “improvements” on the former, “efforts” on the latter.

Fairfax County has taken no position on this and has no plans to implement it. That could change, though.

With these questions, I will vote No on this proposed amendment.

Marie Reinsdorf is a resident of the Falls Church area of Mason District and the editor of the Parks for People blog. 


  1. Carol Turner10/27/18, 8:48 AM

    Thank you so much for explaining this ridiculous proposed constitutional amendment. We need to make them define these terms better. It was like a breathe of fresh air when you said buying property to return it its natural state. That ain't happening in Fairfax County. I will vote no to the Constitutional Amendment.

    For instance, the Christopher Properties developer is proposing to tear down 15 houses on 9 acres just off on Gallows Road near 495 to build an independent living facility with 72 single-family, attached houses, and 4 story building. The county says that will only create 303 new car trips. The townhouse development, Raintree, next to the proposed development already has had floods in their parking lots destroying their cars and getting close to their homes. Tearing down most of the very wooded area and building all these buildings and paving over most of the rest of the land is only going to make this worse. The property under consideration is surrounded by mostly single-family neighborhoods. They can barely get out of their roads now onto Gallows Road. Write Supervisor Penny Gross and tell her no to this ridiculous very intense development and come to the Mason District Land Use Committee (MDLUC) meeting on 11/27 to let our citizen representatives on the MDLUC know we need more thoughtful development and protections from developments like this one. The meeting is at 6507 Columbia Pike at 7:30 pm.

    1. I already voted no on this amendment and agree with most of the sentiments expressed in all the essay and comments. On one point, "It was like a breathe of fresh air when you said buying property to return it its natural state. That ain't happening in Fairfax County." -- I believe this has happened on two plots of land near us, a flood plain, houses bought and torn down, meadow and bushes planted.

  2. Thank you for writing this analysis. I think this could be a tool by developers to get tax benefits for building in floodplains if they mitigate. You can engineer anything for awhile, but in time the water will find its way or cause issues downstream. This proposed amendment is so poorly written and open to interpretation I'm also a no vote on this. I agree there are homeowners who need help and if that is what this amendment said I would gladly vote for it. But it doesn't.

    I agree wholeheartedly with Carol on the proposed Christopher Companies proposed development at Libeau. They've gone from a proposed 62 to 72 dwellings in a matter of months. And with the proposed Exxon Development I can only imagine what the traffic will be like on Gallows in the morning. It is already impossible to turn left without risking your life if you live in Holmes Run Acres.

  3. Yeah, making a left onto Gallows between the beltway and Hummer is exceptionally difficult during rush hour... 303 car trips per day sounds fishy...

  4. agrees with you, and thank you for bringing this to the attention of has received very little coverage by press and media. For reasons you have mostly covered in this piece, we are also urging Virginians to vote “no” on this question because it could create incentives that are unwise, unfair to citizens, and detrimental to the environment.
    Firstly, it is fundamentally unwise for any incentives to be given for building or rebuilding on land with recurrent flooding, especially in a tidal region where relative sea levels are expected to continue rising*, It would be much wiser to expand incentives not to build or rebuild on this land, such as currently provided in Article X, Section 6 (a)(7) of the Constitution of Virginia: “Land subject to a perpetual easement permitting inundation by water as may be exempted (from taxation) in whole or in part by general law.”
    Secondly, an ordinance that offers tax relief for the installation of riprap, bulkheads or other types of hardened shorelines would be unfair to owners of neighboring properties, particularly those who cannot afford to install their own flooding resiliency improvements. Not only will their taxes subsidize the neighbor’s improvements, their property will experience increased flooding and erosion from the inflow reflected by the protected neighboring property**.
    Thirdly, where municipalities offer tax relief, waterfront developers would gain an additional incentive to purchase and build up low-lying properties, further exacerbating flooding of neighboring residents and working waterfronts. Due to low-lying hydric soils, heroic engineering solutions are required to protect such developments resulting in high maintenance costs and a drastic altering of the character of the landscape, according to Bryan D. Watts, Director, and Mitchell A. Byrd, Director Emeritus, of the Center for Conservation Biology in Williamsburg. In a letter opposing a proposed waterfront development in Northumberland County, they stated:  “If we want to maintain the natural systems that form the basis of the Bay's appeal, we need to move away from siting this type of high impact development within sensitive habitats."
    Finally, is very concerned with ecological damage caused by further hardening of the shoreline and inability for environmentally critical wetlands to absorb the additional inflows, even when done one lot at a time. According to the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS), an estimated 1,700 miles of tidal shoreline in Maryland and Virginia have been hardened (about 18% of the total shoreline), with many miles added each year***. Hardened shorelines cause turbulence that scours sediment and deepens the water so it no longer supports underwater grasses or protects small-bodied fish and shellfish from larger predators. They also offer much less support for communities of water birds, according to VIMS. Marshes are the nurseries of the Chesapeake Bay, and the ecology and economy of Virginia’s tidal region relies on the Bay’s health and recovery.
    We acknowledge the Virginia legislature’s good intentions to allow relief to property owners who will continue to suffer damage from increased flooding, and we recognize the effort taken to get this referendum on the ballot. However, we believe this amendment is not a wise, fair, or environmentally sound way to achieve that goal. Let’s all work together to support effective nature-based solutions to this ever-increasing challenge. See our complete piece at for links to references.

  5. I will be voting no on both proposed constitutional amendments.

  6. Marie: Thank you. As someone who came from the Hampton Roads area I can state that residential properties that are routinely flooded already get a reduction in real estate taxes. Unfortunately it comes as a result of reduced assessments as the resale value of the home is seriously diminished.

    1. If this legislation was so specific that it was help for these homeowners I would certainly be for it. The unintended consequences of encouraging development where should never have occurred in the first place should be calculated when the development is approved. The developers of these houses along the coastlines walk away with all the profit for providing beautiful views and everyone else has to pay for their good fortune by paying higher taxes for flood insurance. Floodplains should not be developed. Those coastlines should be restored to provide the buffers from flooding they once did rather than million dollar views.

  7. FINALLY..... something that everyone agrees on in this blog.

  8. WELL it passed with 70% of the vote...... we tried (shrug). COMMENCE building in the Great Dismal Swamp!