Introduction to Regulating in Coastal Areas

Coastal communities seeking to address challenges arising from storms, flooding, sea level rise, and climate change have a variety of tools at their disposal. One of the more powerful tools is the regulation of coastal land uses.

Land Use

States have the legislative power to regulate land use through the police power, which allows a state to enact regulations to protect the health, safety and general welfare of the community.

  • A state will then delegate some of this power to county and local governments, which means that the extent of a local government’s power to regulate land will depend on the state where the town is located.
  • Most local governments regulate the use of land pursuant to a master or comprehensive plan and enact zoning and building codes that regulate what uses are allowed on a piece of property, the density of the use, the size of the building, how the building must be constructed, etc.

Creating Safer and More Resilient Coastal Communities

Because of the unique characteristics of coastal areas, land use regulations and other development controls may be necessary to protect:

  • Coastal Benefits: The coast provides public services like recreation and fishing, valuable protection from storm surges and erosion, unique habitats for wildlife and economic revenue from tourism and commercial fishing.
  • Stressed Resources: Increases in population and development have stressed some coastal areas, which may prompt a local government to regulate its shoreline more heavily than its inland areas. Some coastal areas are being stressed by storms and associated flooding, sea level rise, subsidence, and climate change, prompting regulation of both shoreline and inland areas.

A local government may choose to protect its coastal resources to:

  • Allow areas to be more resilient to storms;
  • Preserve the habitat value of the beach;
  • Protect wetlands;
  • Guarantee public access to the coast; and
  • Ensure that the coast can adequately protect the community against coastal storms.

A local government may choose to protect the community’s residents, property and natural resources through different means, including:

  • Set-back lines;
  • Strict building codes;
  • Beach nourishment;
  • Rolling easements;
  • Bulk heading; and
  • Living shoreline restrictions.

A local government may also structure its regulations in order to comply with federal regulatory programs, like floodplain regulations and the Coastal Zone Management Act (CZMA).