The rate of sea-level rise may be accelerating locally, according to some researchers, but planning for it has not sped up in Mathews County.
Two years ago, the county adopted what officials called "bare minimum" requirements in its flood plain management ordinance. In July, the Board of Supervisors adopted its updated portion of the Middle Peninsula All Hazards Mitigation Plan, removing any reference in the plan to a scenario that predicts an additional six feet of sea-level rise in the next 100 years.
"At this point in time, it's not a huge issue," said Supervisor G.C. Morrow. "Erosion is what needs to be studied much harder. If we don't protect and replenish our barrier beaches, it will just get worse. In our county, that is the biggest thing we need to think about as far as planning for the future. Combating erosion will help fight against eventual sea-level rise."
Researchers with Longwood University's Institute of Archaeology studied Mathews County's rate of shoreline erosion earlier this year. Results from the study showed that the shoreline is losing an average of about half a foot of land every year.
Craig Rose, an archaeologist with the institute, called Mathews the "most threatened" of all of the Middle Peninsula and Northern Neck areas they studied. Jutting out into the Chesapeake Bay, Mathews is vulnerable to a high level of wind, water and weather.
"Day-to-day wave action is having as much, if not a greater effect than storms, but storms often get the most attention," said Brian Bates, the institute's executive director. "Mathews is a fairly low-lying county. A foot of sea level change makes a big difference on what is underwater."
There are no deep drop-offs at Mathews County's shore, only a gradual progression, Rose said. It makes for shallow beaches that visitors and residents enjoy, but it also leads to easier water flow farther inland and a higher potential for flooding.
In addition, there is less "armor" around Mathews, Bates said – less rip-rap or bulkheads at the coastline. It's all pretty undeveloped, which leaves properties open to a slow and steady erosion. Saltwater floods the inland portions of the properties repeatedly, killing trees, removing vegetation and eroding the land a little at a time.
That could only get worse, researchers say, when combined with potential higher tides. According to the Virginia Institute of Marine Science in Gloucester Point, local sea-level rise is estimated at 1.18 to 2.80 feet per century.
Carl Hershner, director of the center for coastal resource management at VIMS, said sea-level rise has sped up and is moving at a rate faster than land subsidence. He said realistically the region could see tides that are about two and a half feet higher in the next 30 to 60 years.
That change, according to VIMS, will cause roads and properties that have not seen significant flooding in past storms to begin to flood. It will also begin to increase the risk, damage, and cost to maintain or fix resources like roadways and other infrastructure, including fire and rescue vehicles.
Over time, residents will look to local government officials to "fix" the problem, according to Lewis Lawrence, executive director of the Middle Peninsula Planning District Commission. "There needs to be policies on how to deal with all of this," he said.
Property owners in areas like Mathews, Lawrence said, are starting to evaluate the risk of developing and investing in waterfront property. In recent years, an increasing number of property owners have opted to donate their land to the Middle Peninsula Chesapeake Bay Public Access Authority.
The public access authority was created by the General Assembly in 2003 and works to preserve and manage access to the water. It holds several parcels of land in public trust in Mathews, Gloucester, King and Queen, and Essex counties.
Eight parcels valued at around $700,000 have been donated in Mathews. Five were donated in 2015 alone. The authority has received a total of 14 parcels of donated land, which means more than half are in Mathews.
"We will see that trend continue," Lawrence said. "Coastal communities like Mathews continue to age, we live in a highly regulated environment and we are going to continue to experience recurrent flooding. If our communities cannot find a way to manage this there will continue to be a shift in the value system. People will continue to make other decisions."
According to VIMS, smart planning means officials will need to be proactive and reactive and account for sea-level rise when considering future plans.
Mathews County does not participate in the Community System Rating project by the Federal Emergency Management Administration. The rating system is a National Flood Insurance Program that measures and rates localities' flood plain management efforts. The program offers discounts on flood insurance for residents based on that rating.
According to Jamie Wilks, the county's building official, the Board of Supervisors would have to decide to apply for a CRS designation. That would involve updating the flood plain management ordinance. "We would have to go to higher standards," he said.
About 30 percent of the county's property is in a flood zone, Wilks said, according to the NFIP flood maps.
Residents of neighboring Gloucester County, which does participate in the CRS program, were notified recently that their flood insurance discount was rising from 15 percent to 20 percent.
Since 2010, Mathews County has received nearly $6 million as a part of the FEMA Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, according to County Planner Thomas Jenkins. Most of the funding has been spent to elevate homes damaged during storms. The county has also acquired several properties prone to recurrent flooding.
The county is applying for another mitigation grant totaling $1.35 million.
Morrow said he believes the county should "watch and see what happens instead of jumping to conclusions." Plans, he said, have to be "appropriate for Mathews."
"Right now we know we have no choice but to fix our beaches," Morrow said. "Storms have become dramatically different but not worse. Sea-level rise may affect us in the future; getting our shores sturdy will combat those future problems. If it does happen, we want to be ready for it."
Hubbard can be reached by phone at 757-298-5834.
This occasional series looks at the current state of sea-level rise in Peninsula-area communities and how their governments are responding.