Environment Virginia Hosts VCPC Session

Anne Swanson, Executive Director of Chesapeake Bay Commission (left), introduces panelists at the Virginia Coastal Policy Clinic session at Environment Virginia Symposium in Lexington, VA, on April 2, 2015. ©Janet Krenn/VASG
Anne Swanson, Executive Director of Chesapeake Bay Commission (left), introduces panelists at the Virginia Coastal Policy Clinic session at Environment Virginia Symposium in Lexington, VA, on April 2, 2015. ©Janet Krenn/VASG

By Janet Krenn, Staff Writer

When a Suffolk developer cleared 2,000 feet of undeveloped shoreline inside a buffer protected under the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act, Elizabeth Taraski says, “It was as if the Act didn’t exist.”

Taraski is Executive Director of Nansemond River Preservation Alliance, a nonprofit organization dedicated to education and preserving the Nansemond River, a tributary of the James. The alliance approached the Virginia Coastal Policy Center (VCPC) for help in investigating surrounding localities’ enforcement of the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act.

“We needed someone with expertise and time to devote to the analysis,” she says.

On April 2, Taraski was one of three former VCPC clients who presented on a panel about the VCPC at the 26th Annual Environment Virginia Symposium in Lexington.

The VCPC is part of the Virginia Sea Grant extension program and a center at William & Mary Law School. It provides legal analysis about big questions facing Virginia’s coasts and oceans, but on the regional and local level.

“Our niche tends to be at the 1,000-foot level,” VCPC Director Roy Hoagland told attendees at the panel session,“ and my goal is to keep it there.”

Since the VCPC began accepting clients in 2012, over 30 local governments, nonprofits, and state agencies have brought their concerns to the center, including questions about governmental authority and responsibility for maintenance of public ditches; policy conditions and legal limits over wetlands protection; and ways to deal with changes in federal flood insurance costs.

In the case of the Nansemond River Preservation Alliance, VCPC students conducted legal research and interviewed a number of department managers from other localities. Taraski says the alliance volunteers were eager to understand how to prevent future violations of the Act, because “there’s confusion with departments, regulations, codes, and about who should be doing what.”

VCPC students authored a report called “When the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act Fails: A Suffolk Case Study.” The alliance shared the report with the mayor and city council members and has noticed that city department managers seem to be seeking out community organizations for input.

Taraski notes that the report might not be the direct cause of this change, since the composition of the city council has also changed in the meantime. But she says the report “increased the credibility of what we were talking about.”

Recently, the VCPC has been taking a role in helping local, state, and federal agencies coordinate their responses to sea level rise in Hampton Roads. When explaining how VCPC got involved, Hoagland says the message he received was: “We need someone that has reputable legal skills, that isn’t representing any interest in particular, and that can help craft the policy options that can yield a positive outcome.”

The project aims to figure out how multiple levels of government can work together on planning and response and to develop a template strategy that the federal government could utilize in other regions of the US.  Currently, the VCPC is providing the leadership for the “Legal Working Group.” The working group is identifying legal issues, considering the interests of various players, and developing a “legal primer” to provide guidance to the many participants in the project.

All of the projects that the VCPC takes on are led by William & Mary law students. From Hoagland’s perspective, this arrangement meets the needs of the clients while giving the students experience in the coastal policy arena.

“They work on a real-life problem needing a real solution—this is not just a case study,” says Hoagland.

From Taraski’s perspective, the academic backing of the VCPC is also a plus. “[VCPC] is providing in-depth, impartial analysis that lends a lot of credibility,” she says.“It’s not just a nonprofit. It’s aligned with a law school.”

VCPC is funded by Virginia Sea Grant and Virginia Environmental Endowment. It welcomes potential clients and partners interested in addressing a coastal or ocean policy issue. Potential clients and partners can contact VCPC at rahoagland@wm.edu.

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