Adam Wolff
Adam Wolff is the Director of Planning and Building for the Town of Corte Madera in Marin County, California, where he oversees land use and housing policy, development review, and private construction activities. Prior to returning to the area where he was raised with a family of his own, Adam spent almost 15 years in New York City, where he obtained a Masters in Urban Planning from Columbia University and began his career as a city planner, eventually serving as Deputy Director of New York City’s Manhattan Office of the Department of City Planning.

Adaptation planning in action: The example of Corte Madera, California

Interview with Adam Wolff, Director of Planning and Building, Town of Corte Madera, California
United States of America
29. Sep 2021

Can you tell us why you decided it was important to begin adapting now to address climate change threats in Corte Madera? How is your community already being affected?

I think we’re going to look back at the 2017 Tubbs fire in Sonoma County as an event that marked the beginning of a new relationship with wildfire in the Bay Area. Even those not directly affected by the fires themselves are now seeing direct and indirect seasonal impacts from wildfire, including seriously degraded air quality, pre-emptive power shut-offs, and an increased awareness of our communities‘ vulnerability to similar wildfire events. Day to day living, several months out of the year has been fundamentally altered in the region. When coupled with more accessible information over the last decade coming from Bay Area organizations focused on sea level rise and the extreme vulnerability of bayfront communities in the coming years, it sort of became something that was impossible to ignore. When we first overlayed Corte Madera’s high fire hazard areas with flood and sea level rise inundation risk zones (see image attached), the image really told the story and helped focus the Town’s energies on better understanding of local risks and finding potential local strategies to address them. It was also not lost on us that with approximately half the Town at risk of sea level rise and the other half under threat of wildfire, all within a condensed political geography, Corte Madera might prove to be an ideal place to lead on generating adaptation ideas, local strategies, and feasible implementation measures to address climate change.

Map Corte Madera Fire and Floof Risk
Flood and fire risk zones in Corte Madera. Enlarge the map

Can you tell us more about how you work together with Adaptation International to develop potential resilience actions? How did this partnership develop?

We were fortunate to receive grant funding from the California State Department of Transportation, which allowed us to conduct a national search for the best climate adaptation specialists. Adaptation International (AI) was selected through a competitive process based not only on their experience helping communities develop adaption plans throughout the U.S., but also because it was clear that Sascha (Petersen) and his team were personally invested in understanding the unique challenges facing Corte Madera. Resilience actions were developed through an iterative process beginning with the accumulation of information about the Town and its vulnerabilities, but AI really was critical to helping us develop a framework through which to think about potential adaptation options – short-term, mid-term, and long-term actions, geographic organization of actions, and pathways that lead from one action to another across geographies. They also brought in Blue Point Planning and designed an engagement plan to help us understand our community’s priorities and facilitate a dialogue around various climate adaptation concepts. Toward the end of the process, AI helped Town staff organize our actions by setting up easy to complete evaluation exercises that will help us develop future work plans.

How did community members take part in the Climate Adaptation Assessment? How will they weigh in on specific actions that can be taken next?

Obviously, community engagement and buy-in in any planning process is central to its success and from the beginning. Town staff, along with Adaptation International and Blue Point Planning, provided a range of opportunities for Town residents and businesses to be part of the development of the Climate Adaptation plan, including in-person workshops (at least prior to the pandemic), web-based surveys, and large virtual Town Hall style meetings throughout the Corte Madera community. We were certainly grateful to have a team devoted to prioritizing personal and accessible community engagement and able to deftly pivot through the challenging events of the last 18 months. Additionally, the Town convened a group of regional stakeholders and organizations, such as the Bay Conservation and Development Corporation, who were able to provide advice and supplement community input based on their expert knowledge and experience and/or regulatory role in evaluating potential adapation measures. Ultimately, we learned that we have more work to do in ensuring that all members of our community share a common sense of purpose in beginning to grapple with challenging decisions and address the vulnerabilities we collectively face. For example, sea level rise protection measures were opposed by a vocal group of community members who were the intended beneficiaries of such potential adaptation strategy.

The process of implementing adaptation measures, given the dramatic physical changes that will likely be required and the costs involved, is ultimately one that necessarily requires community members to take ownership of solutions. The Town’s role will be to continue to elevate climate adapation as a policy priority. This is done through continued analysis of the vulnerabilities and risks, and the provision of up-to-date information to our community in an accessible manner, so that when implementation measures are proposed, we will have an informed and engaged community that can help determine appropriate actions within the context of Town-wide adaptation needs and the trade-offs that have to be considered. In this way, the Adaptation plan is a tool intended to retain community cohesion by ensuring that our entire community is addressed, even if certain implementation actions only affect one area of Town.

flooding in Corte Madera in 2015
Corte Madera is at risk of flooding. The image was taken in 2015. © Adam Wolff

What is the role of local businesses and the private sector in your resilience plans?

Local businesses and the private sector are critical stakeholders as they not only face many of the same vulnerabilities of our residents with respect to flooding and wildfire, let alone the consequences of more severe drought, heat, and other climate-related impacts, but their success, and the tax revenue they generate, is directly tied to part of our funding strategy to help pay for infrastructure improvements that will help our entire community become more resilient. In 2018, the Town’s voters approved a 0.75% increase to the local sales tax with this specific purpose – funding to address flooding, sea level rise, wildfire protection, disaster preparedness, infrastructure – in mind. Furthermore, it’s become clear that certain local businesses are critical to the Town’s resiliency when disaster does strike or pre-emptive measures like power shut-offs occur. Helping food stores, fuel stations, pharmacies, hotels, equipment rental businesses become more resilient, will help ensure the Town is more resilient. Our local Chamber of Commerce and other major local business entities were a key part of our stakeholder group in the development of the climate adaptation plan. I think it’s also worth noting that the business community can also be a key partner in helping to drive change that can potentially help reduce the severity of the climate-related impacts that we occur in future years.

This is as much a testament to the demand from our community as it is a statement about business contributions, but we are excited about becoming a Bay Area hub for electric vehicle dealerships and our community sees a symbiotic relationship in the promotion of their businesses and the GHG reductions their vehicles will contribute to. They also recently partnered with a local community organization on a fundraiser that will help support local disaster preparedness efforts and social resiliency.