Possible Points: 1,450 points.

Learn from the experiences of a community that was successful in earning credit for this CRS element! Check out the Success Story for South Elgin, IL.

Purpose of Element: The purpose of this element is to reward communities that maintain and/or protect the floodplain as open space. In order to be classified as open space, the CRS program requires that the land must be "free from buildings, filling, paving or other encroachment to flood flows." Preservation also has a specific definition under the CRS program; this term refers to land that has "a signed statement from a public or creditable private owner or regulations that prohibit buildings, filling, or other encroachments on flood flows." As a result, a community must neither pass a specific ordinance, nor keep land entirely undeveloped in order to qualify for credit. For example, a public park with a recreational trail system and playground is considered an acceptable development that could be placed on land that is preserved as open space. In addition, properties acquired through FEMA’s mitigation grant programs (HMGP, PDM, or FMA) or HUD’s CDBG program must have a permanent deed restriction placed on them which preserves them as open space into perpetuity. Finally, preserving the floodplain as open space is can be an effective method of reducing flood losses (Highfield and Brody, 2012). As a result, this CRS element has the third highest credit earning potential associated with it. For more information on this CRS element see pages 420-1 - 420-11 of the CRS Coordinator’s Manual.

Impact Adjustment: Yes. Credit is determined based on the ratio of area preserved as open space within the regulatory floodplain to the Special Flood Hazard Area (SFHA). Because a community’s regulatory floodplain may sometimes be larger than the SFHA, it is possible to have a ratio of more than 1. The maximum ratio of open space preservation area to the SFHA that will be used in CRS calculations is 1.5. The combined impact adjustments for Activity 420 and Activity 430 cannot exceed 1.5.

Potential to Double Count Credit: Yes. If land receiving credit has been acquired and structures have been cleared, credit can be earned under OSP and under Activity 520. In addition, areas that qualify for OSP credit may also qualify for credit under element 422.b. Deed Restrictions, 422.c. Natural Functions Open Space, 422.d. Special Flood-Related Hazards Open Space, 422.e. Coastal Erosion Open Space, and 422.h. Natural Shoreline Protection.

Degree of Difficulty - Documentation: Low. Obtaining credit for this element requires a community to simply document where its open spaces are within the floodplain and what elements credit is being requested for, provide basic background information on the parcels of land being credited, and demonstrate that these parcels will be preserved as open space. These tasks can be completed easily with the help of a GIS professional and through a review of the community’s records and/or ordinances.

Degree of Difficulty - Implementation: Medium. Communities that are looking to increase their credit for this element may be challenged, especially in urban areas since open space can be hard to come by. Communities that are fully built-out will need to buy homes, vacant lots, or commercial properties and restore them to open space if they want to receive additional credit. This type of redevelopment can be an expensive endeavor, but the long-term benefits associated with restoring the floodplain to open space could outweigh the costs. Communities that are looking to convert developed areas to open space should target repetitive loss areas as they are flooded frequently. For communities that are completely built-out, land trusts, non-governmental organizations, and other local, state, and federal government agencies could be critical partners because they can contribute technical and financial assistance for land acquisition and restoration.

Of course, the most cost effective way to ensure that land in the floodplain is preserved as open space is to protect it before it is developed using regulatory instruments like zoning ordinances, riparian setback requirements and/or conservation easements. This is because the cost to convert previously developed lands to open spaces is high. While not all communities are able to pursue this strategy, many rural areas or communities that are not currently built-out could benefit from this approach. While increasing the amount of open space within a community inherently increases the costs associated with maintaining public lands, the benefits to homeowners within, upstream, and downstream of the community far outweigh these costs.

Flowering field protected as open space. Image courtesy of South Elgin, IL.
Flowering field protected as open space. Image courtesy of South Elgin, IL.

Tips for Success:

  1. Find creative ways to take credit for private lands that are being preserved as open space. For example, Centennial County, CO developed a process for certifying that privately held lands in their communities will be preserved as open space, thus allowing them to count these areas for Open Space Preservation credit. Specifically, prior to each cycle visit they send letters to these private park owners asking them to verify that their land is still being preserved as open space. A returned signed copy of the letter serves as the documentation needed for CRS credit.
  2. Be patient and purposeful! It may take decades to acquire, restore, and protect developed lands in the floodplain. Lands that flood frequently should be prioritized for preservation in order to maximize the benefits reaped by the community.

Co-Benefits Associated with this Element: When floodplains are maintained as open space, they provide many ecosystems services; most relevant to the CRS program is that floodplains store and convey floodwaters. Protection of open space in the floodplain prevents damage to structures because it essentially ensures that the land is kept free of development, limiting adverse impacts as a result. That said, the protection of open space in the floodplain has several co-benefits that are good for the environment, as well as public health. For example, lands credited under this element are typically maintained as public parks that people can visit in order to reconnect with nature and their community and enhance their physical and mental health (Kondo et al., 2015). In addition, parks and open spaces in urban areas can help to mitigate the impacts of the urban heat island effect (Kondo et al., 2015). As a result, floodplains are vital resources for communities, that when properly protected, help to enhance resilience.