Incentive Programs

Incentive programs are a great tool for promoting voluntary BMP implementation. These programs can be shaped in a variety of ways, including (but not limited to) the following:

  • Providing the public with technical information and advice that’s easy to understand
  • Recognizing voluntary efforts
  • Conducting audits or assessments and providing recommended actions
  • Offering utility fee credits or partial payments for the installation of various practices

Federal and state governments have found that offering incentives in the form of partial payments to install practices is very effective. For example, the Virginia Agricultural Cost-Share Program is a successful incentive program which leverages resources offered by the federal and state governments to help local Soil and Water Conservation Districts encourage farmers to install practices on their farms that protect water quality, while helping farmers pay the costs of those practices. Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania all have similar programs that leverage federal and state funds and are administered at the state level. For the purposes of the Chesapeake RiverWise Communities program, this chapter will discuss a variety of options for incentive programs that focus on reducing stormwater pollution on suburban-urban residential properties.

Riverwise Garden sign

Section 4.1: Types of Incentives

This section will cover three main incentive types that can be effectively used in RiverWise communities programs: (1) Financial, (2) Recognition, and (3) Technical Assistance (see Appendix 4A for a list of programs in the Chesapeake Bay watershed). Financial-based programs provide cost-share or credits for implementing BMPs. Recognition-based programs often include providing flags, signs or placards to homeowners identifying their property as environmentally friendly, holding garden/block parties, and awarding discounts at local retailers.

Technical assistance incentives include providing residential watershed assessments, landscape design pallets, and other resources. When developing an incentive program, it is most important to know your target audience and what they need or what will provide the greatest benefit to them, in order to motivate them to take action.

Financial Incentives

A cost-share program covers some of the costs of installing certain BMPs while, in most cases, the beneficiary property owner is responsible for the remaining costs. There are several different cost-share structures that can be used to implement a RiverWise Incentive Program, as outlined in Table 4.1 of the manual.

Recognition Incentives

Recognizing homeowners for doing their part to restore and protect local waterways is another great incentive. Forms of recognition can be “member cards”, yard flags, and decals. Recognition can also be a way to promote the program and BMP implementation to neighbors and the rest of the community. As part of the recognition, one could provide discounts to local nurseries to encourage continued implementation of practices. Many nurseries will provide discounts on plants and even plant “palettes” if a customer provides information verifying that they are a participant. As you may increase sales by directing traffic to the nursery, they may offer wholesale or discounted prices to program participants.

Technical Assistance

Some property owners may have the financial resources to implement a practice but do not have the technical expertise, so the process may seem overwhelming to them. Provision of technical assistance can be an incentive for these homeowners to bridge the gap and install BMPs. This type of assistance can come in the form of RiverWise Assessments (see Chapter 3), a service that provides valuable information and can improve the homeowner’s environmental awareness and lead to cost savings. Workshops focused on BMP design and installation and native plant selection are also valuable tools for homeowners. Design and/or construction assistance may be enough to gain a project commitment. Other homeowners may only need help in designing a landscaping feature and choosing a plant palette, so providing the homeowner with a BayScape plan and options for choosing appropriate plants can help as well.

Section 4.2: Components of an Incentive Program

Set Program Goals

Before you begin marketing your incentive program, you must determine what the goals of your program are, and what resources are available to help reach these goals. Clearly-defined program goals will result in clearly-defined project selection criteria. If you know that you want to control stormwater volume, but limited financial resources, it will be more cost efficient to focus on runoff reduction practices (e.g., rainwater harvesting, bioretention/rain gardens, etc.), than removing impervious pavement and installing pervious paving systems; paving systems are not only expensive to install, but would require additional demolition funds, resulting in higher maintenance costs.

Identifying BMP Locations – Watershed Protection Assessment (See Chapter 3)

For most financial incentive programs, a watershed protection assessment should be completed before enrollment. The assessment educates the homeowners, gives them an understanding of the various practices and where they may be located, and familiarizes them with your program. It will also provide recommendations regarding which BMPs are appropriate for their property. Chapter 3 provides complete guidance regarding assessment protocols.


Staying organized regarding homeowner enrollment and progress throughout the project is vital to the success of the program. Many components of enrollment will be covered within this section but, as technology changes, so should your approach. In Chapter 1 (Engaging Communities), we discuss what form of marketing works well for specific types of people. Getting to know the community where you are working will help you choose the right tools to reach them.

Enrollment Forms

To enroll in the incentive program, whether it’s a financial incentive or recognition program, you should get the homeowner to submit two forms to your organization to show a commitment to installing and maintaining the BMPs on the property. These forms include:

  1. Enrollment Form: For a financial incentive program, the enrollment form would include a list of the practices the program approves and payment information regarding enrollment fees. Consider charging a “buy-in” fee (or deductible) for the homeowner to install the stormwater BMPs on the property.For a recognition program, property owners should provide documentation of their BMP implementation (structural or behavioral BMPs). The necessary documentation (photos, site sketch, plans, etc.) is specified by the organization managing the recognition program.
  2. Partnership/maintenance agreement: To ensure cooperation of the property owner and continued functionality of the structural BMP, a partnership and maintenance intent agreement must be signed by the property owner and submitted to your organization. A maintenance agreement is a contract between the property owner and your organization that spells out the responsibilities of all of the parties involved.

Maintenance Agreements

Maintenance of the installed practices is essential for long lasting, functional BMPs. If the BMP is not maintained, there is a strong likelihood that the BMP will fail to function, which can harm local water quality as well as cause other problems for the homeowner. For this reason, you should have the homeowner submit a signed maintenance agreement for the practices involved before any funds are allocated to the project (see enrollment forms). You should also provide a maintenance schedule and associated resource list that clearly explains the property owner’s responsibilities. Maintenance agreements are the insurance policy for your water quality investment.

Plan Submission and Review

A plan and an estimated budget prepared by the homeowner or contractor should be submitted for review by the organization before project funding is awarded. The plan should show the BMP specifications and its location. Recommendations of practices covered under the financial incentive program should be provided during the assessment, so the plan preparers can take advantage of incentive opportunities.


Some incentive programs may require professional or certified contractors to install BMPs, while other programs may offer to finance the cost of materials but not labor. Other financial incentives reward homeowners who install BMPs themselves. Some combination of these methods may be the winning formula but, in the end, the program requirements should be based on the complexity of the projects, funding available for contractors, installation demands of specific BMP types, and the abilities of the targeted audience. Your financial incentive program will determine which groups are ultimately responsible for installation.

Inspection and Verification

Whether a homeowner is installing a rain garden for the first time or it is the fiftieth installation by a contractor, it is important to check on the project as it is being installed. Confirm that financial incentives have been used appropriately. While installing stormwater BMPs is not overly technical, they do need to be installed according to plans and specifications. One mistake can lead to a failing BMP, resulting in additional costs for the property owner and the program organization, not to mention an unsatisfied homeowner and a tarnished reputation for the program. Once the plan has been approved, a qualified staff member or organization representative should inspect the project during and after installation. Requesting advanced notice of project installation at the time of plan approval is a good way to determine when to schedule inspections. Once the final inspection has determined everything was done properly, recognition incentives can be distributed as promised.

Section 4.3: Tips and Lessons Learned

Program Education

The keys to a high functioning program are education, communication, and understanding. Both the homeowner and the contractor must know exactly what the financial incentive will cover and understand the environmental purpose of the project and the overall program. Preparing written guidelines will help educate program participants and provide records for future reference. A strong financial incentive structure and open communication with participants will help streamline funding administration. Inform homeowners about exactly how much they will contribute to installation costs, before they agree to participate. Please see the RiverWise Financial Incentive Program Guidance provided in Appendix 4C.

Contractor Tips

Installing the stormwater BMPs on a residential property can be very labor and time intensive. A trained contractor has the skills and equipment to design and install the practice correctly and efficiently; however, the cost of the project can go up dramatically, compared with the cost of homeowners installing the practice(s) themselves. We list out some best practices and tips for working with contractors in the manual.

Contractor Assignment

If necessary, your organization my assign specific properties and projects to different contractors. This can facilitate scheduling and the flow of the program during an installation-heavy period. If using this approach, project costs must be standardized between contractors so the homeowners are confident they are receiving a fair and equitable price from whichever contractor is providing services to them. It is up to your organization to determine costs after inquiring amongst all contractors involved.

Project Scheduling

Most of the practices used on residential properties have planting materials as a design component of the BMP. The successful long-term function of practices is directly related to the condition of plants. For this reason it is best to schedule your project implementation and assessments seasonally. Although it is possible in the southern end of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed to plant in winter, plants have a better chance of survival if planting occurs in fall and early spring. Fall planting gives plants time to establish deeper root systems before the heat of their first summer, limiting stress on the plant. Fall plantings may not provide instantaneous aesthetic value, but they will have a high rate of survival. Spring is also a great time to plant because folks are in the mood to garden and many plants are flowering, showing the homeowner and neighborhood the beauty of the BMP. Avoid summer planting since plants are most stressed by drought and heat at that time of year. If your project is funded by a grant, schedule your installation during seasons that will help plants survive and thrive. Regardless of when plants are installed, it is necessary to water and care for them during the first full year. Be sure homeowners understand the care and watering needed to ensure the survival of their new plants.