WILLIAMSBURG — A March report from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science reiterated that Norfolk has the highest rate of sea level rise on the East Coast. Meanwhile, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration map shows rainfall intensity has increased in Virginia by 18% since 2006.
Even as these pressures continue, William & Mary has announced it will close the Virginia Coastal Policy Center after its current executive director retires this summer, creating what many people working in the resilience field say will be a void in institutional knowledge on how Virginia can grapple with climate change.
Along with providing guidance on sea level rise and stormwater problems to state agencies, local governments and environmental organizations, the VCPC was able through its ties to William & Mary’s law school to delve into new legal issues related to the unprecedented encroachment of public waters on private lands. Over the past decade, the center produced many of Virginia’s current leaders in the resilience space that are heading regional commissions and working at the forefront of combating climate change.
William & Mary says the closure is part of a new initiative it plans to announce next month.
“We agree with the value that VCPC provided for students and for the Commonwealth of Virginia and beyond,” said William & Mary Law School Dean A. Benjamin Spencer in a written statement. “The Law School and university, including VIMS, are committed to ensuring that we continue to provide that value. We are in fact planning to expand our work.”
The decision to close the center, which had a director and three other faculty members and was funded through state appropriations and grants, was not budgetary, Spencer added.
“We will provide financial support to ensure bridge funding for VIMS or other university partners taking on this work to ensure there is no disruption in the valuable contribution that VCPC was providing,” Spencer said. “Our students will continue to have the opportunity to serve as research assistants in support of projects and research being carried out in this space elsewhere at the university.”
But Skip Stiles, executive director of the environmental nonprofit Wetlands Watch and a William & Mary alumnus, said with the closure, William & Mary is “abandoning” its “role as the state leader in legal policy on coastal climate change adaptation issues.”
“This area of law and policy is one that everyone struggles with because it’s all new. It just doesn’t make any sense to me,” he said.
The Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, which has worked with VCPC on the Virginia Coastal Resilience Master Plan, said despite the center’s closure, “collaboration will continue” with other organizations.
“The Commonwealth has robust, longstanding relationships with academic and resiliency-focused institutions across the state,” DCR spokesperson Rebecca Jones said in a statement in response to several questions.
Founded in 2013, the VCPC quickly became known for its guidance, whether to the state government, local governments or the environmental groups working to find solutions to Virginia’s shifting coastlines or flooding hollers.
Chesapeake Bay Commission Executive Director Anna Killius, a member of the first graduating class from the center (then a clinic), pointed to VCPC’s work helping the commission identify its legislative priorities for the 2022 session, from clarifying the role of the state’s chief resilience officer to creating the Resilient Virginia Revolving Fund and putting the state’s coastal resilience plan into code.
“They really identified really discrete ways that we could push resilience forward,” Killius said. “We were really successful in getting those resilience efforts moved through the General Assembly because we had sound research to rely on.”
The VCPC provided guidance on updates to the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act, a state law requiring Virginia to take a range of concrete steps to prevent pollutants from entering the Bay, Stiles said. In 2020, the center’s guidance led to Virginia including the future impacts of climate change in its cleanup plan, a first in the nation.
The center’s Resilience Adaptation Feasibility Tool has been distributed to localities around the state, helping them determine how to include resiliency in their services. And the VCPC convened a workgroup of subject experts, including Department of Environmental Quality Director Mike Rolband, that in 2018 created Virginia’s tiered system of stormwater regulations that apply different requirements to rural communities and urban centers.
“That’s the knowledge that we’re talking about,” said Lewie Lawrence, executive director of the Middle Peninsula Planning District Commission. “That body to hold that institutional knowledge.”
Future leaders for future issues
People working in the resilience field say the center coupled a deep understanding of science with a nuanced understanding of law.
In particular, the center worked in coordination with William & Mary’s Virginia Institute of Marine Science, taking students into the field to study while also working directly with policymakers.
“Without the clinical program, you as a law student, as someone who is working hard to understand issues that could impact your career, won’t have the context. You won’t have the ability to work with people who are actually doing the hard work of climate change adaptation, of coastal policy analysis,” said Mary-Carson Stiff, deputy director of Wetlands Watch and another member of VPCP’s first graduating class. “There’s just no place in a law school where you’re learning how all these different things intersect with one another and work either in conflict or in tandem. No one’s teaching that class except for the Coastal Policy Center.”
Killius, who at the center studied the National Flood Insurance Program and how better floodplain management could lead to lower premiums, would go on to work on coastal policy for former U.S. Rep. Carol Shea-Porter, D-New Hampshire, and U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Maryland.
“The lessons I learned from looking at a national program, taking in that information and applying it to local communities to see what we could change about our floodplain management … that is something I continue to do,” Killius said. “Look at national policy, apply it locally and find solutions.”
The Southern Environmental Law Center also took note of VCPC’s ability to pair hands-on learning with the legal scholarship. Morgan Butler, a senior attorney who oversees resilience projects at the SELC, said interns who had been at the center came to their office ready to make significant contributions.
“Of course, they’re comfortable with the law, but they also bring a fluency with the science, which is tremendously helpful, and they also just have an understanding of what it means to make policy and the various different steps,” Butler said. “The center just really provides a useful set of skills, a broad focus on how to advocate for and achieve effective change. That’s been a real contribution to the legal field.”
Spencer, the law school dean, said the decision to close the center following the retirement of Professor Elizabeth Andrews, the center’s director, was not easy.
“She has been such a guiding force in coastal policy advising and education, and her role as director has been absolutely vital,” Spencer said. “When Professor Andrews informed me about plans to retire this summer, it was a difficult decision – and one I did not make lightly – to determine the Law School could no longer operate the center.”
Spencer said despite VCPC’s closure, its work will continue through a centralized, university-wide approach to coastal resilience research, scholarship, education and advisory work.
While he did not provide full details of the new centralized hub, he noted its creation aligns with the university’s water initiative outlined in the William & Mary Vision 2026 strategic plan to make the school more sustainable. And, he added, it will involve the hiring of a tenure-stream faculty member who is an expert in environmental law, something the school lacks, and new course offerings this fall in water law, climate change, oil and gas law and regulation of toxic substances and hazardous waste.
“With the leadership of W&M’s Virginia Institute of Marine Science, the university is moving forward with plans to strengthen its position and role as a leader in these areas,” Spencer said.
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