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There are no laws in Virginia that directly relate to public beach access. However, legislation such as the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act, Primary Sand Dunes and Beaches Act and the Wetlands Act enable public access sites for water dependent uses (e.g., installation of boat ramps).
Virginia is one of five "mean low water" coastal ocean states in the U.S. The ability to walk along the beach is often restricted because the property line in most cases extends to mean low water.
The state does not distinguish between "vertical access" and "lateral access."
The 2011 Coastal Needs Assessment, produced by the Virginia Coastal Program, indicates that there have been no recent changes to public access policies, but there have been changes to some land acquisition programs to address a strong demand for coastal access throughout Virginia's Coastal Zone.
The Chesapeake Bay Program maintains GIS data of various public access sites for the Chesapeake Bay Public Access Guide. The Chesapeake Bay, Susquehanna River and Tidal Tributaries Public Access Guide is available by calling the Chesapeake Bay Program Office @ 1-800-YOURBAY. The guide provides a map and information on over 600 major public access sites in the Bay area and enables the user to find sites offering opportunities for boating, fishing, wildlife observation and beach use. Note that this guide does not include open ocean beaches in Virginia Beach or the Eastern Shore.
Through the Natural Heritage Program, the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) has created an online GIS mapping application for displaying conservation lands in Virginia. The database includes most federal and state lands, regional and interstate lands such as water and park authorities, parks and undeveloped or partially-developed lands owned by localities, lands owned by non-profit conservation organizations, and conservation easements.
Virginia utilizes several measures to minimize the environmental impacts of coastal access, including prohibiting access across dunes (elevated walkways), utilizing designated accessways, restricting driving/ORV use (unless otherwise designated), educational signage, protecting nesting areas, and avoiding/minimizing impacts to wetlands.
The Virginia DCR Website is a good source of information on beach access in Virginia. Virginia statutes and rules regarding conservation and recreation can be accessed via this site. Information on recreational planning, including a link to the 2007 Virginia Outdoors Plan (detailed below), is available on the DCR Website.
In the City of Virginia Beach, regulations and policies guiding public access are in City Code Chapter 6, Beaches, Boats and Waterways and the 2002 Beach Management Plan.
It is the policy of Virginia Beach to preserve beach access. The public's use of the beach there is a long tradition, and the city has been legally establishing that right over the years at Sandbridge, at the Oceanfront, and most recently, at Cape Henry. In December 2008 it was announced that the city was preparing to file suit staking the public's claim to access sandy beaches along the Chesapeake Bay. At issue is the Army Corps of Engineers' Lynnhaven Inlet dredging project planned for 2009. Sand cleared from the inlet is to be piped onto two miles of beach between First Landing State Park and the Lesner Bridge. But some beachfront property owners don't want to grant even temporary construction access for the project, let alone permanent public recreation easements required to obtain federal funding for the project. If necessary, the city is prepared to use eminent domain to acquire the easements and pay for them.
UPDATE: On March 7, 2009 it was reported by the Virginian-Pilot that the city had gone to court to condemn portions of the Cape Henry beaches for the sand replenishment project. In documents filed in Circuit Court against six condominium associations and landowners, the city claims that the public has a right to use the beach for recreation. The city also wants access to the land for beach nourishment projects.
UPDATE: The "beach fill only if you give us access" game of chicken took a new turn in May/June 2009 when Virginia Beach officials reduced the scope of the Cape Henry beaches replenishment project by a fifth in order to get approval from the Virginia Marine Resources Commission. The latest plan is to place sand only between Jade Street and east to First Landing State Park.
UPDATE: In July 2009 the Virginia Beach Circuit Court ruled to allow the city to condemn some land along the Chesapeake Bay for the replenishment project and for public recreation and construction easements. The Virginia Marine Resources Commission then voted unanimously to expand the city’s initial sand replenishment permit from Jade Street west to the Lesner Bridge. The work is scheduled to start in August 2009 and last into November 2009.
UPDATE: An article in the Virginian-Pilot on August 5, 2011 referenced a ruling confirming that the Cape Henry beaches have been public for years and the city doesn't have to pay adjacent property owners after condemning the shoreline. The ruling, made by Virginia Beach Circuit Court Judge A. Bonwill Shockley, gave Virginia Beach officials a major victory in the long-running dispute over who owns the sandy shores along the Chesapeake Bay.
UPDATE: An article in the Virginian-Pilot on October 9, 2013 stated that the Lynnhaven Dunes Condominium Association was continuing their legal battles with the city, this time going to court to see how much the rights to the beach in front of their property are worth. The condo association valued them at $1.5 million, according to court documents. The city says they're worth nothing.
There are restrictions on surfing in Virginia Beach from Memorial Day to Labor Day. These regulations prohibit surfing during certain hours (generally late morning to late afternoon on specified days of the week) at several different beaches.
Only approximately 1 percent of the shoreline in Virginia is publicly owned, according to Pogue P. and Lee V., 1999, "Providing Public Access to the Shore: The Role of Coastal Zone Management Programs," Coastal Management 27:219-237. Coastal property ownership is often a confusing and contentious issue in Virginia. Even in locations where a relatively high percentage of the coastline is publicly owned, such as in Virginia Beach (46% of the coastline is publicly owned), there are pockets of contested ownership, as detailed in the 2002 Virginia Beach Management Plan.
Pogue and Lee identify 388 coastal zone shoreline public access sites in Virginia. This corresponds to about one public access site for every 8.5 miles of shoreline. The state estimates there is about one public access point for every 5 miles of shoreline.
Conditions are considerably better in Virginia Beach than in the remainder of the state. The City of Virginia Beach (17 miles of city-controlled coastline) lists 200 beach access points in their 2002 Beach Management Plan. This is an average of 450 feet between access points. The city also maintains three public parking areas adjacent to the beach. Although there are many beach ownership issues in Virginia Beach, ownership disputes have not typically restricted public access. The federal and state government control 20 miles of Virginia Beach coastline.
Nearly all of the "Eastern Shore" open ocean coastline in Accomack and Northampton Counties is land that is protected or managed in its natural state. Starting at the Maryland/Virginia border on the southern end of Assateague Island is Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge (see map). South of that, all or part of 14 barrier islands encompassing 45,000 acres between the Virginia/Maryland border of the Eastern Shore and the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay make up the Virginia Coast Reserve. Some of the larger islands (from north to south) are Metomkin, Cedar, Parramore, Hog, Cobb, and Smith. The archipelago, which is owned by The Nature Conservancy, is the longest stretch of natural beach left on the Atlantic Coast. Boaters may visit the islands for low impact day use such as bird-watching and beachcombing.
The Virginia Coastal Zone Management Program developed the 100 mile long Virginia Seaside Water Trail as a series of day-use paddling routes. The Seaside Water Trail runs between the Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge at Cape Charles and Chincoteague Island. Additional trail segments go through Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge and connect to Assateague National Seashore and the Assateague Canoe Trail. The Seaside Water Trail branches off at Chincoteague Island and ends at the Village of Greenbackville near the Virginia/Maryland state line.
Virginia Beach Parks and Recreation has a variety of waterway access sites.
The federal government's Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge is open to the public, as is False Cape State Park, but access to Fort Story Army Base was restricted after the September 2001 terrorist attacks and is now closed to nonmilitary bikers and joggers (and presumably, swimmers and surfers). The decision came after the Navy began reviewing policies when it took over the facility from the Army in October 2009.
Virginia's coastal zone has 11 state parks, 13 natural areas, 33 miles of public beaches (about 8.5 miles are ocean beaches), 111 public boat ramps, 155 fishing sites, 79 trails, 9 state wildlife management areas, and 6 state forests. There are close to 80,000 acres of local park, recreation and open space lands offering myriad recreational options. There are also 11 National Park sites and 13 federal wildlife refuges. Of the more than 10,000 miles of tidal shoreline, less than one percent is in public ownership for public use. The 2006 Virginia Outdoors Survey identifies public access to state waters for boating, fishing, swimming, and beach use as the outdoor recreation opportunity most needed in Virginia. Lack of information was cited as the number one reason preventing residents from using Virginia State Parks.
During the period from October 2005 through September 2006, 22 new public access sties were added in the coastal area. Two State Park sites have been acquired:
The planning process for these sites has just begun and it will be several years before the sites are developed.
Coastal access data is collected and stored by the Department of Conservation and Recreation Natural Heritage Program. The data are typically updated every four years. DCR's Division of Planning and Recreation Resources evaluates the quantity and quality of coastal access and performs updates every five years. GIS maps are available. Contact DCR for more information.
Enabled by legislation passed during the 2002 Virginia General Assembly session, the Middle Peninsula Chesapeake Bay Public Access Authority officially began on June 13, 2003 upon the signing of the Operating Agreement by the member jurisdictions: the Counties of Essex, Gloucester, King and Queen, King William, and Mathews; and the Towns of Tappahannock and West Point.
The Authority members recognize that shorelines are high priority natural areas and that, as population density increases, it is critical that they set aside recreational access sites for all types of recreational activities, such as birding, hunting, fishing, boating, picnicking and sight seeing. These activities are important to our economy and to the citizens of the Commonwealth.
The Authority's duties include the following:
Virginia Outdoors Plan
The Virginia Outdoors Plan is the state’s comprehensive plan for land conservation, outdoor recreation and open-space planning. The document helps all levels of government and the private sector meet needs pertaining to those matters. The plan is required for Virginia to participate in the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund program. In addition, it provides guidance for the protection of lands through the Virginia Land Conservation Foundation. The 2013 edition is the 10th to be produced and the first to be completely paperless. It features a custom-built online mapping tool called VOP Mapper.
The plan’s foundation is the Virginia Outdoors Demand Survey. DCR conducts the survey every five years to gauge the level at which Virginians are participating in specific outdoor recreation activities. In 2011, the survey was administered by the University of Virginia’s Center for Survey Research. It was sent to nearly 14,000 adults, and about 3,100 responded. Download an executive summary (PDF) of the 2011 Virginia Outdoors Demand Survey, or read the actual survey (PDF). Search a database of the most popular activities and most-needed facilities.
Public Access Information for City of Virginia Beach
The Trust for Public Land's website noted information on the Virginia Beach Outdoors Plan 2000, a $53.4 million parks and open space funding package intended to allow the city to begin acquiring properties identified in the Virginia Beach Outdoors Plan 2000 Update. Following is a quote from an article on the Website.
"This is a bold and visionary step, and we applaud the Mayor and City Council their plans to make Virginia Beach a state and national leader in funding parks and land conservation," said Debi Osborne, director of the Trust for Public Land's Chesapeake Field Office. "Years from now, the people of Virginia Beach will thank today's leaders for having had the foresight to invest in the city's long-term quality of life."
A significant document is the Beaches and Waterways Advisory Commission April 2002 Beach Management Plan for Virginia Beach. This plan is actually a revision of the 1993 Beach Management Plan, which was acknowledged to have several shortcomings. The current plan has divided Virginia Beach's coastline into eight individual beaches and two inlets, with each beach and inlet analyzed for its strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and needs. Open ocean beaches in Virginia Beach with existing beach access facilities are as follows (from North to South): Cape Henry Beach, North End Beach, Resort Beach, Croatan Beach, and Sandbridge Beach. Detailed descriptions and maps of access points for the beaches are included in the Plan. Several issues encompassed all of the beaches, including beach ownership, beach restoration and replenishment, funding mechanisms, beach maintenance activities, access improvements, signage enhancements, parking, definition of recreational use programs, and additional beach use facilities. The commission has ranked these issues/recommendations, with the resolution of beach ownership issues to permit beach restoration at Chesapeake and Cape Henry Beaches listed at the top. This is due to the severity of the erosion problems at these beaches. Without proper easement agreements, these areas will continue to suffer from the effects of long-term erosion, as the city will not be able to steward the coastline. See discussion in the policy section above for the latest on this issue. The third listed priority recommendation is repair of the weir and aging infrastructure at Rudee Inlet to preserve the stability of Croatan Beach and minimize maintenance dredging requirements.
The Virginia Beach Public Works/Office of Beach Management maintains records of public beach access points. Maps showing beach access points for each beach segment are contained in the April 2002 Beach Management Plan.
Public Access Information Available through the Chesapeake Bay Program
The Chesapeake Bay Program, which is a unique regional partnership that includes Virginia, has published the Chesapeake Bay, Susquehanna River and Tidal Tributaries Public Access Guide (2005). It provides information on over 750 major public access sites in the Bay area, 219 of which are in Virginia. Basic site information, such as county/city location, type of parking, and the availability of boat ramps, fishing, swimming beach, trails, and restrooms, is provided. Note that this guide does not include information on public access sites for the open ocean coastline.
The Virginia Coastal Birding and Wildlife Trail, supported by the Virginia Coastal Program and ISTEA funds, uses existing roadways to link natural areas and wildlife watching sites throughout Virginia's coastal zone, capitalizing on Virginia's unique natural resources to generate eco-tourist dollars for the Commonwealth's coastal communities. Working with other mid-Atlantic states, the Virginia Trail could be a critical link in a larger Mid-Atlantic Coastal Birding Trail. Virginia's Trail is modeled after the Great Texas Birding Trail. Virginia's Department of Game and Inland Fisheries worked with Texas coastal resource managers in development of the trail. As a growing number of nature tourists spend their time and money along the Virginia Trail, communities will want to invest in and conserve the natural resources that are attracting tourism dollars. Public access enhancements along the trail are encouraged. The site selection and planning process has already created new partnerships among government agencies, local industries, land managers, community leaders, bird watchers and conservation organizations.
The Virginia DCR State Parks website provides a description of each site including amenities, maps and natural history information.
The Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation's home page is a source of information on beach access in Virginia.
You can also can search for beach and ocean access locations at this page on the Virginia Tourism Website.
Information on beach attendance for all of Virginia was not readily available. The City of Virginia Beach maintains beach attendance information and data, which is accessible online at http://vbfun.com/pressroom/mediakits/VB2007/pdfs/2007FactSheet.pdf. This Website indicates that there are approximately 2.6 million overnight visitors per year to Virginia Beach.
Information on the economic evaluation of beaches in Virginia was not readily available.
The City of Virginia Beach keeps statistics on the number of overnight visitors and their economic impact on the city and the region. A report by Bureau of Research, College of Business and Public Administration, Old Dominion University (May 2007), stated:
Visitors to Virginia Beach spent an estimated $857 million in 2006. Based on our simulation of the effect of this spending, we estimate that the total economic impact of visitor spending, the sum of the direct, indirect and induced effects described above, is roughly $1.4 billion dollars of output from Virginia Beach industries, 14,900 jobs and $364 million dollars in earnings in Virginia Beach in 2006.
2006 visitor spending was responsible for generating more than 10,800 jobs and $73.2 million in taxes and fees paid to Virginia Beach from those industries having direct contact with visitors. To help attract both new and repeat visitors, as well as to provide additional services to residents, the City of Virginia Beach spent an estimated $64.4 million in tourist related expenditures in 2006. Net revenue was $8.8 million, resulting in a net return on expenditures of 13.7% to the City of Virginia Beach.
In 2011, the tourism industry in Virginia Beach set a record, generating a record $1.2 billion in spending.
The Virginia Tourism Corporation (VTC) tracks the economic impact of domestic travel expenditures on the state of Virginia. Detailed reports of their research can be found here. Findings are reported statewide, by region, and by county. Although the VTC does not track coastal region specific information, all of Virginia’s 29 coastal counties and 15 independent coastal cities (county equivalents) are included in their research. The VTC’s report includes figures on overall travel expenditures, travel-generated employment, travel-generated payroll, and travel-generated tax revenue. Some of the VTC’s findings include the following:
NOAA's Office for Coastal Management (OCM) has written a discussion of the recreational value of beaches, in the context of beach fill projects. In 2009 OCM released Introduction to Economics for Coastal Managers, a basic introduction to economic ideas and methods that can be applied to coastal resource management. The economic concepts provided in this introduction are illustrated through several case studies. Other OCM/Digital Coast publications can be found here.
The following two websites provide information on the economic value of coasts and the ocean throughout the country.
The National Ocean Economics Program (NOEP) provides a full range of the most current economic and socio-economic information available on changes and trends along the U.S. coast and in coastal waters. You can download data on jobs and GDP associated with specific types of coastal activities for each coastal state. You also can download data on commercial fishing and landings. The NOEP made public their fully updated Non-Market Valuation website in September 2008. The largest database in the world of studies documenting the environmental and recreational values of ocean resources, the website now includes 1) an updated methodologies section, 2) frequently asked questions, 3) examples of how Non-Market valuation influences public policy, and 4) an expanded table summarizing valuation estimates from across the United States. NOEP has now released State of the U.S. Ocean and Coastal Economies 2014, which points out that there is an imbalance between the economic importance of coasts and coastal oceans and the federal support for stewardship of these resources. According to the report, coastal states supply over 81 percent of American jobs and contribute $13 trillion to the economy, or 84 percent of GDP. More on this here. The National Ocean Economics Program previously released State of the U.S. Ocean and Coastal Economies - 2009, which presents time-series data compiled over the past 10 years that track economic activities, demographics, natural resource production, non-market values, and federal expenditures in the U.S. coastal zone on land and water. The report states that coastal states account for more than 80 percent of the U.S. economy. The Center for the Blue Economy (CBE) at the Monterey Institute of International Studies now houses the National Ocean Economics Program (NOEP).
The website of Restore America's Estuaries has a report The Economic Value of Coasts and Estuaries. According to the report, U.S. coasts and estuaries that have been protected and managed in a sustainable way are worth billions. Beaches, coastal communities, ports, and fragile bays are economic engines that drive and support large sectors of the national economy. The report focuses on aspects of coasts and estuaries that are most dependent on ecologically healthy conditions. The authors also examined a growing body of research that reveals the economic consequences of environmental change in coastal and estuary ecosystems.
A report A Review and Summary of Human Use Mapping in the Marine and Coastal Zone was published in December 2010. This report was prepared by ERG for NOAA's Coastal Services Center. The report evaluated different methods and approaches to measure human uses of the coastal and marine environment. The uses were divided into 1) military and industrial uses, 2) consumptive uses (e.g., fishing) and 3) non-consumptive activities (e.g., swimming, surfing, kayaking).
The economic value of beaches can increase or decrease due to a number of factors, including beach width; the presence or absence of amenities such as parking, restrooms or lifeguard services; the suitability of the beach for activities such as surfing or swimming; and the presence or absence of pollution and beach litter. In June 2014 a report Assessing the Economic Benefits of Reductions in Marine Debris: A Pilot Study of Beach Recreation in Orange County, California was prepared by Industrial Economics, Inc. for NOAA's Marine Debris Division. It found that having debris on the beach and good water quality are the leading factors in deciding which beach residents visit. Reducing marine debris by even 25 percent at beaches in and near Orange County, California, could save residents approximately $32 million during the summer by not having to travel long distances to other beaches. Beach characteristics were collected for 31 popular Southern California public beaches from San Onofre Beach to Zuma Beach. Orange County residents were also surveyed on their recreation habits, including how many day trips they took to the beach from June - August 2013, where they went, how much it cost them, and which beach characteristics are important to them. The results provided in an estimate if how much Orange County residents would potentially benefit, including how often they visit beaches and how much they would save in travel costs, over a summer season by reducing marine debris at some or all of these 31 beaches. The study focused on Orange County because of the number and variety of beaches, their importance to permanent residents, ease of access, and likelihood that marine debris would be present. Researchers believe that, given the results, the study could be modified for assessing similar coastal communities in the United States.
For additional general discussion of the economic impacts of beaches, please see the article Economic Impact of Beaches.
The 2011 Coastal Needs Assessment is inconclusive regarding whether the numbers of coastal access sites are increasing or decreasing. This is primarily due to a lack of accurate data on the number of such sites, especially in the past.
According to the 2011 Coastal Needs Assessment, Virginia has a wealth of coastal resources and an overwhelming demand for access to those resources. There are more than 5,300 miles of shoreline and 2,400 square miles of tidal bays on the Virginia coast. The 2006 Virginia Outdoors Survey found that four of the top ten most popular outdoor recreational sites are water related: swimming (4th), sunbathing (6th), fishing (7th), and boating (10th). However, less than 1% of the shoreline is publicly owned, resulting in overcrowded beaches and overused boat ramps. This fact is evident in the Virginia Outdoors Survey finding that more than 50% of Virginians are most concerned about increasing the number of water access points, which the Survey identifies as Virginia’s greatest outdoor recreational need. There is insufficient funding to acquire or enhance access sites.
The 2001 Assessment identified the Chesapeake Bay Agreement (2000), which called for a 30% increase in public access opportunities in the Bay region by 2010. In order to meet this goal, Virginia will need to develop 66 new or expanded sites. The 2007 Virginia Outdoors Plan indicated that 36 public water access sites had been added since 2000.
Some of the impediments to providing new public access sites follow:
Virginia passed a $119 million Virginia Parks and Natural Areas Bond in November 2002 to acquire property and enhance public access in the state, including areas on the Atlantic Coast. Information is specifically available on improvements to the Atlantic coast access areas. As the funding amounts have been changing for projects, you will have to contact DCR for more specific information on improvements to the Atlantic coastal access areas.
Based on findings from the 2000 Chesapeake Bay Agreement, as outlined by the Virginia Outdoors Plan (VOP), there clearly is not enough coastal access, beach parking or public transportation to/along the coast to meet existing demand, let alone projected future demand. Excerpts from the VOP include:
A wide variety of information on public environmental education and outreach can be found on the Department of Conservation and Recreation's website.
Maps, signs and brochures are used to educate the public about beach access.
Division of Planning and Recreation Resources
Environmental Programs Planner
Virginia Department of Conservation & Recreation
203 Governor Street, Suite 326
Richmond, VA 23219
(804) 786-0887 office
(804) 371-7899 fax
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