Coastal Zone Management in Virginia

Typical Chesapeake Bay Dune Profile
Typical Chesapeake Bay Dune Profile
Source: Virginia Institute of Marine Science, Chesapeake Bay Shoreline Evolution Reports - Accomack County (Figure 6)

Virginia and the Federal government agree that the coastal zone deserves special protection, but the two levels of government have different definitions of what is the coastal zone.

State law uses geologic criteria to define where sand dunes are protected - "to the line of woody vegetation (usually the effective limit of stormwaves)" or "the nearest impermeable man-made structure." The state's Chesapeake Preservation Act defines a 100-foot buffer of land along the shoreline with limited development rights. Parcel boundaries of private ownership are not a factor in either definition, though property boundaries might have been be used when landowners built the nearest impermeable man-made structure.

In contrast, the Federal Coastal Barrier Resources System ended up being specific parcels of land. For the Federal system, boundaries were based on land ownership as well as natural features.

lights at night reveal how the coastline of the Eastern Shore is undeveloped
lights at night reveal how the coastline of the Eastern Shore is undeveloped
Source: National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Earth Observatory

The Virginia General Assembly passed the Coastal Primary Sand Dune Protection Act of 1980 to protect natural sand dunes. It established standards for use of coastal primary sand dunes, as well as the legal definition for beach and sand dune:1

No permanent alteration of or construction upon any coastal primary sand dune shall take place which would (i) impair the natural functions of the dune, (ii) physically alter the contour of the dune, or (iii) destroy vegetation growing thereon unless the wetlands board or the Commission, whichever is applicable, determines that there will be no significant adverse ecological impact, or that the granting of a permit is clearly necessary and consistent with the public interest, considering all material factors...

"Beach" means the shoreline zone comprised of unconsolidated sandy material upon which there is a mutual interaction of the forces of erosion, sediment transport and deposition that extends from the low water line landward to where there is a marked change in either material composition or physiographic form such as a dune, bluff, or marsh, or where no such change can be identified, to the line of woody vegetation (usually the effective limit of stormwaves), or the nearest impermeable man-made structure, such as a bulkhead, revetment, or paved road.

"Coastal primary sand dune" or "dune" means a mound of unconsolidated sandy soil which is contiguous to mean high water, whose landward and lateral limits are marked by a change in grade from ten percent or greater to less than ten percent, and upon which is growing any of the following species: American beach grass (Ammophila breviligulata); beach heather (Hudsonia tomentosa); dune bean (Strophostyles spp.); dusty miller (Artemisia stelleriana); saltmeadow hay (Spartina patens); seabeach sandwort (Honckenya peploides); sea oats (Uniola paniculata); sea rocket (Cakile edentula); seaside goldenrod (Solidago sempervirens); Japanese sedge or Asiatic sand sedge (Carex kobomugi); Virginia pine (Pinus virginiana); broom sedge (Andropogon virginicus); and short dune grass (Panicum amarum)...

Many Tidewater counties have established Wetland Boards to review proposed land use changes or construction in wetlands and on shorelines. The Virginia Marine Resources Commission also has authority to review projects:2

No construction or any other activity which has the potential for encroaching on or otherwise damaging coastal primary sand dunes or state-owned beaches shall occur without review and approval by the Marine Resources Commission (commission) or a local wetland board, or both.
To be a protected dune, it must:3

  1. be a mound of unconsolidated sandy soil contiguous to mean high water
  2. have landward and lateral limits are marked by a change in grade from >10% to <10%
  3. support specific plant species or communities

jurisdiction for Virginia Marine Resources Commission to review beach projects
jurisdiction for Virginia Marine Resources Commission to review beach projects
jurisdiction for Virginia Marine Resources Commission to review beach/dune projects
Source: Virginia Institute of Marine Science, Sand Dune and Beaches in Virginia: Science and Management (Fall 2009, Special Issue of Rivers and Coast)

The Virginia Marine Resources Commission enforces the law, but local Wetlands Boards hear proposals first. In the city of Norfolk, the local Wetlands Board was sympathetic to the concerns of residents living along the Chesapeake Bay waterfront at Ocean View in Norfolk, after dunes migrated in front of their homes and blocked the view. Homeowners claimed the sand moved after the city removed fencing along the beach, and requested authorization to lower the dunes and reshape them so the dunes would be wider.

The homeowners lived in a portion of Ocean View that was not located in a 100-year flood zone. Unfortunately for them, however, the city was proposing an $18 million project to widen a 7-mile stretch of the beach at Ocean View by 60 feet, in order to reduce the risk from flooding during a hurricane. Protecting the dunes was part of the city's plan, which included convincing the Corps of Engineers to contribute over $10 million.

After the Wetlands Board approved the request to modify the dunes, the local Wetlands Watch environmental group appealed the decision to the Virginia Marine Resources Commission. That state agency could override the local Wetlands Board, with its authority to enforce the Coastal Primary Sand Dune Protection Act.4

in 2013-14, dune modification was proposed by landowners in Ocean View who were located outside the 100-year flood zone
in 2013-14, dune modification was proposed by landowners in Ocean View who were located outside the 100-year flood zone
Source: City of Norfolk, Flood Insurance Rate Map

Barrier Islands

Coastal Barrier Resources System

Eastern Shore

Ground Water in Virginia

Life and Death of Chesapeake Bay Islands

Living Shorelines and Structural Shoreline Practices

Shoreline Mileage and Ownership

Virginia and Submerged Lands

Links

References

1. Title 28.2, Chapter 14 - Coastal Primary Sand Dunes and Beaches, Code of Virginia, "Section 28.2-1408. Standards for use of coastal primary sand dunes," http://leg1.state.va.us/cgi-bin/legp504.exe?000+cod+28.2-1408 and "Section 28.2-1403. Certain counties, cities and towns authorized to adopt coastal primary sand dune ordinance," http://leg1.state.va.us/cgi-bin/legp504.exe?000+cod+28.2-1403 (last checked August 27, 2012)
2. "Coastal Primary Sand Dune / Reaches Guidelines: Barrier Island Policy," (4 VAC 20-440-10 et seq.) Virginia Marine Resource Commission, http://mrc.virginia.gov/regulations/fr440.shtm (last checked August 27, 2012)
3. "The Coastal Primary Sand Dunes and Beaches Act," Virginia Institute of Marine Science, http://web.vims.edu/physical/research/shoreline/protection_act.htm (last checked August 27, 2012)
4. "Decision on Norfolk dunes goes next to state," The Virginian-Pilot, June 24, 2014, http://hamptonroads.com/node/720529; "Ocean View residents to make dune case to Norfolk," The Virginian-Pilot, January 8, 2014, http://hamptonroads.com/2014/01/ocean-view-residents-make-dune-case-norfolk (last checked June 24, 2014)


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