Following the recent award of $1.5 million to the Middle Peninsula region to fight flooding issues – the first grant of its kind ever awarded in Virginia to help private property owners deal with water issues – $23 million is how much additional funding the Middle Peninsula Planning District Commission (MPPDC) has helped bring in to develop programs for the region it serves since 2020.
“We’ve had more multi-million dollar grants in the last 24 months than we have had in the last 50 years of the agency,” said Lewie Lawrence, MPPDC’s Executive Director. “These funds are a direct expenditure into the community impacting employment, quality of life, and the over all tax base of the Middle Peninsula. The momentum has built and the snowball is rolling.”
Officially speaking, MPPDC is one of 23 regional planning commissions in Virginia charged with promoting the orderly and efficient development of the physical, social and economic elements of the district by planning, and encouraging and assisting localities to plan for the future.
The MPPDC is comprised of six counties – Essex, Gloucester, King and Queen, King William, Mathews, and Middlesex – and three incorporated towns – Tappahannock, Urbanna, and West Point.
“What that boils down to, in reality,” Lawrence said, “is we work to ensure the health, safety and welfare of the residents and businesses in this area.”
Sometimes that work means helping a town or county bring in a large transportation grant.
Other times it’s advancing septic tank repairs and projects for residents; implementing solutions to address shoaling in the creeks and rivers that make up a great deal of the economic vitality of the region – like Aberdeen Creek in Gloucester, Hole in the Wall and Davis Creek in Mathews and Broad Creek in Middlesex – ensuring the region has a Federal Emergency Management Agency compliant hazard mitigation plan in place so residents can access federal assistance; or developing recreational programming that attracts tourists and bolsters the economy.
Most of the time, though, it means understanding what’s happening today, addressing it in real time, and looking to the future to ensure the region has programs in place and is positioned to address any challenges or opportunities that may come.
That’s where water comes in.
“The majority of our success in helping bring state and federal funding to the region can be tracked back to the Commission’s challenge and leadership provided by then-Chairman Tom Swartzwelder to not let our people drown on our watch,” Lawrence said.
They meant it literally, and figuratively.
As a rural, coastal region, pre-pandemic local government revenues had dropped dramatically as a result of properties losing value due to environmental and regulatory stressors.
“When the real estate bubble popped in 2008, while also losing property value as a result of recurrent flooding, rural coastal regions and local governments were struggling to generate the necessary revenue to fund essential governmental programs,” Lawrence said. “It forced us to think differently on how to fund the work of the Commission and we moved into operating with an entrepreneurial mindset. We knew we couldn’t rely internally on local funding to do the people’s work.”
At the same time, Lawrence said, the Middle Peninsula Chesapeake Bay Public Access Authority was getting off the ground. With a mission to set aside high priority coastal nature sites for all people to access for recreational activities, the Authority began expanding its portfolio of publicly accessible waterfront properties.
“This really changed the face of the public’s ability to gain access to waterways and recreate on waterfront lands,” Lawrence said. “Up until then, there were no other waterfront, public access sites on the Middle Peninsula other than public boat ramps.”
“Dozens and dozens and dozens” of sites came into the Authority’s portfolio largely because, Lawrence said, “property owners were frustrated by flood insurance rates going through the roof, a series of storms that impacted properties with flooding, and they couldn’t sell because the real estate bubble had popped. They used donating their property as an exit strategy.”
And the MPPDC used the Authority’s portfolio – valued today at over $5 million – as their entrance to accessing state and federal funding programs.
“Out of the greatest threat – flooding in our coastal region – came the biggest opportunity,” Lawrence said. “More specifically, managing the water in our region. Up until that point in time, people considered flooding a liability and that water was bad. We started viewing water as an asset. By changing the way we looked at the problem, and working with partners like the Virginia Coastal Zone Management Program, Virginia Coastal Policy Center and Virginia Sea Grant, we created more opportunities and solutions.”
The goal became developing the Middle Peninsula into the safest and most resilient region to live and work on the East Coast.
“They way we knew we could get there was to design and develop specific programs to create jobs, solutions and funding streams using water as the foundation,” Lawrence said. “We’re talking about programs that connect property owners to contractors to help them mitigate flooding issues, or protecting shorelines of waterfront businesses, or repairing septic systems. All of that money from those programs flows through the local economy.”
Del. Keith Hodges, R-98 came up with ideas on how to use legislation that resulted in the MPPDC being able to develop innovative programs and solutions.
The body of rural coastal legislative work included the Rural Coastal Enhancement Authority; funding for living shorelines, granting tax-exempt status for living shorelines, and new techniques to install them; and addressing the most pressing water management issue, dredging and funding the region’s waterways through the Virginia Waterways Maintenance Fund. The fund was created as a bi-partisan solution for rural coastal Virginia.
“Making all of these new programs and legislation work cohesively is complicated,” Lawrence said. “We call it fragmented, disjointed incrementalism. But over time the little fragments added up to big change, and big dollars for our region. This $23 million is the outcome of the entrepreneurial, disjointed incremental approach we are using with all of our different pieces of the puzzle.”