State of the Beach/State Reports/MD/Erosion Response

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Maryland Ratings
Indicator Type Information Status
Beach Access88
Water Quality77
Beach Erosion8-
Erosion Response-6
Beach Fill6-
Shoreline Structures8 4
Beach Ecology2-
Surfing Areas25
Coastal Development{{{19}}}{{{20}}}
Sea Level Rise{{{21}}}{{{22}}}


Erosion response is a measure of how well a state's policies and procedures limit the extent of shoreline armoring, unsafe coastal development, and costly beach nourishment projects, and conduct preemptive planning for sea level rise. Evaluation of this indicator brings attention to the states that are taking proactive roles in natural beach preservation and hazard avoidance. Through the formulation (if not already in place), implementation, and strict adherence of the specific criteria within the indicator, states can overcome two fundamental obstacles to alternative erosion response practices outlined by the Oceans Studies Board (2007):

  1. A lack of knowledge and experience among decision-makers regarding alternative options for shoreline erosion response, the relative level of erosion mitigation afforded by the alternative approaches and their expected life time, and the nature of the associated impacts and benefits.
  2. The current legal and regulatory framework itself, which discriminates against innovative solutions because of the complex and lengthy permitting process that almost always considers these options on a case-by-case basis.

For example, are statewide oceanfront construction setbacks used to site new development, and are these based on the latest erosion rates? When existing development is damaged during a storm, does a state prohibit reconstruction or provide incentives for relocation? Before permitting shoreline stabilization does a state require: that there is demonstrated need via geo-technical reports with content standards; that alternatives to armoring including managed retreat/relocation are fully explored; and that potential adverse impacts and cumulative effects are taken into account? Does the state conduct sea level rise vulnerability assessments and develop adaptation plans to mitigate impacts? If a state can answer 'yes' to most of these questions, then its rank is high. If the answers are mostly 'no' then its rank is low.

Also see the "Policies" discussion of the Shoreline Structures section of this report for more information on Maryland's erosion response.

Possible quantitative measures for this indicator include the number of new structures located within setback areas, number of damaged structures reconstructed in identified erosion zones, number of instances where alternatives to 'hard' shore protection were employed, the number of shoreline structures permitted under 'emergency' provisions, and the number of permits for shoreline structures reviewed, approved or denied. We have found that such information is rarely available.

Policies and Guidance

Laws or regulations potentially applicable to erosion policy and response projects include the Clean Water Act and Code of Maryland Regulations, Title 26, Subtitle 17.

The Maryland General Assembly enacted the Chesapeake Bay Protection Act in 1984. This Act recognizes that the land immediately surrounding the Bay has the greatest potential to impact the Bay. The Act created a 27-member Chesapeake Bay Critical Area Commission.

The Act established a 100-foot, naturally vegetated, forested buffer landward from the Mean High Water Line of tidal waters or from the edge of tidal wetlands and tributary streams. The buffer mainly acts as a water filter to remove toxins and reduce the amount of sediment entering the Bay. The Act allows no disturbance to the Buffer area without a permit. Non-structural measures, such as vegetative stabilization should be used to control shoreline erosion over structural methods. It is likely for structural methods to be issued a permit where annual erosion rates are over 2 feet/yr. The Act classifies the critical area into Resource Conservation Areas (RCAs), Limited Development Areas (LDAs), and Intensely Developed Areas (IDAs) based on the uses on Dec 1, 1985. These classifications make building new shoreline developments more difficult. However, land owners can apply for growth allocation permits to change an area designated as RCA or LDA to an area designated as IDA.

The Criteria set forth in conjunction with the Critical Area Act require that any development or redevelopment within the Intensely Developed Areas (IDA) be accompanied by practices to reduce water quality impacts associated with stormwater runoff. The Act further specifies that these practices must be capable of reducing stormwater pollutant loads from a development site to a level at least 10% below the load generated by the same site prior to development. This requirement is commonly referred to as the “10% Rule.”

A 2003 study of the Critical Area Act by the Abel Foundation suggests that the Act has been a success in the designated resource protection areas, due in large part to the 1 unit per 20-acre requirements, but has been less successful in the limited development areas.

Maryland's Critical Area Act came under attack in February 2008 in a report prepared by Environment Maryland. The report cited seven examples of high-profile violations of either the letter or the spirit of the 1984 law, which was designed to protect Maryland's shoreline from development. In response, Governor Martin O'Malley called for the General Assembly to strengthen the state's prohibitions on building in critical areas near the shoreline.

In 2008, two key pieces of sea level rise adaptation policy were adopted by the state, including the Living Shorelines Protection Act to address shore erosion issues, and the strengthening of provisions in the Chesapeake and Atlantic Coastal Bays Critical Area Protection Program Act, which among other things amended jurisdictional boundaries due to sea level rise and increased a vegetated buffer requirement from 100 to 200 feet for new development. A Mid-Atlantic Living Shorelines Summit is scheduled for December 10 & 11, 2013.

Anne Arundel County has considered taking action to crack down on property owners who build on sensitive waterfront land without permission. The County Council considered a proposal from County Executive John R. Leopold to require those who violate the Critical Area law to sign a legal document admitting guilt before seeking retroactive approvals for work that's already been done. And if the property owner refuses to sign the document, called a consent order, the county would move to demolish the offending structure. A public hearing on this policy was conducted on Aug. 4, 2008.

Bernd-Cohen and Gordon (1999) note that Maryland has a 75-foot setback from "normal high water" for new construction (fences and boardwalks not included). As mentioned above, through the Maryland State Critical Area Act there is a provision for a 100-foot, naturally vegetated, forested buffer landward from the mean high water line of tidal waters or from the edge of tidal waters and tributary streams. No disturbance in the buffer is permitted unless an applicant can meet the strict provisions for a variance. This provision essentially prohibits new construction within 100 feet of the mean high water line.

There are some cases where counties have gone beyond state statutes. Calvert County’s bluff retreat setbacks are an example.

FEMA regulations on floodplains specify that if flood damage is greater than 50% then FEMA funds can't be used to rebuild a structure.

There are no real estate disclosure laws for homes in high erosion areas.[1]

Maryland's CoastSmart Communities Online Resource Center website has been developed to assist businesses, communities and local governments access available products and services to address the current risks associated with coastal hazards and the potential increased impacts of those hazards in the future due to climate change. Here you will find web-based planning tools, storm surge inundation and sea level rise maps, training programs, staff resources, and access to local grants. The development of the products and services has been, and continues to be shaped by input from local communities and other stakeholders.

A Sea Level Rise Response Strategy for the State of Maryland was produced in 2000. A Climate Action Plan was produced in 2008.

The Worcester County Sea Level Rise Inundation Model was a cooperative project between the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and Worcester County. The project was designed to support a number of the State’s sea level rise and coastal hazard planning goals. To develop the model, USGS created a highly detailed LIDAR topographic elevation model of Worcester County. The model was then used to analyze the impact of rising sea level and storm flooding on the County’s coastline and low-lying inland areas. Sea level rise inundation scenarios were produced to depict long-term and low magnitude changes in the position of Mean Sea Level and Mean High Water resulting from the ongoing rate of relative sea level rise for the area (3.0 mm/yr) and increased rates of rise suggested by climate change projections. The models were ultimately adapted to predict storm surge inundation of the area from Category 1 – 4 hurricanes. The Technical Report (November 2006) provides the methodology for the project and contains recommendations for future use of the model in State and local sea level rise planning efforts.

In 2006 the Maryland Coastal Program, in cooperation with Towson University Center for Geographic Information Sciences (CGIS) and Maryland Geological Survey (MGS), released a valuable new Web resource, Maryland Shorelines Online (MSO). MSO was an Interactive Web Portal for "Understanding, Assessing and Managing Coastal Hazards, Shoreline Change and Coastal Flooding." MSO provided a one-stop access for diverse stakeholders to help them understand, assess and manage coastal hazards, shoreline change, and coastal flooding. MSO featured a new Geographical Information Systems-based mapping tool that allows users, who may not have previously had access to such tools, to learn more about Maryland's coast and make informed decisions. MSO has now morphed into Maryland's Coastal Atlas, which features even more extensive resources.

In February 2004, the Coastal Bays Policy Committee comprised of the Secretaries of the Departments of Natural Resources, Planning, Environment, and Agriculture; Mayor of Ocean City; Worcester County Commissioners; Environmental Protection Agency Regional Administrator; Superintendent of Assateague National Seashore; and citizens, directed the formation of a Task Force to develop recommendations within six months on the most effective, efficient and economical means to integrate new hazard planning technologies into existing planning processes.

A fact sheet on Coastal Hazards was completed in 2004.

Climate Change Adaptation


The Faces of Climate Change Adaptation: The Need for Proactive Protection of the Nation’s Coasts (Coastal States Organization, May 2010) states:

"Maryland is one of the most progressive states in adapting to climate change. In August of 2008, Maryland released its Climate Action Plan, detailing the steps necessary for Maryland to adequately cope with its changing climate. The Climate Action Plan aimed to answer three key questions: 1) What can the state’s best scientists tell the state about how and when climate change will affect Maryland’s citizens and natural resources?; 2) What can Maryland do to adapt to the consequences of climate change?; and 3) What can Maryland do to reduce emissions of green house gases (GHGs) and the state’s carbon footprint to begin reversing global warming trends? To best address these questions, the Climate Action Plan examined the likely consequences of the changing global climate to Maryland’s agriculture industry, forestry resources, fisheries resources, freshwater supply, aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems, and human health. The Climate Action Plan focused on the science of these changes through a Comprehensive Climate Change Impact Assessment, Chapter 2 of the Climate Action Plan, undertaken by the Commission’s Scientific and Technical Working Group (STWG), and based on extensive literature review and model projections. To project future conditions in Maryland, the STWG used Supercomputer models to estimate climate responses to increased GHG concentrations. Specifically, the STWG examined analysis in: water resources and aquatic environments; farms and forests; coastal vulnerability; Chesapeake Bay and coastal ecosystems; human health; and mitigation and adaptation.

As part of the Climate Action Plan, the Commission’s Adaptation and Response Working Group (ARWG) developed a Comprehensive Strategy for Reducing Maryland’s Vulnerability to Climate Change, Chapter 5 of the Climate Action Plan. This strategy aimed to: promote programs and policies aimed at the avoidance and/or reduction of impact to the existing built environment, as well as to future growth and development in vulnerable coastal areas; shift to sustainable economies and investments, and avoid assumption of the financial risk of development and redevelopment in highly hazardous coastal areas; enhance preparedness and planning efforts to protect human health, safety and welfare; and protect and restore Maryland’s natural shoreline and its resources, including its tidal wetlands and marshes, vegetated buffers, and Bay Islands, that inherently shield Maryland’s shoreline and interior. To adequately address this strategy, the ARWG suggested that policies in the following areas be implemented: reduction of impact to existing and future growth; financial and economic well-being; protection of human health, safety and welfare; natural resource protection; adaptation and response toolbox; and future steps and directions.

The Maryland Climate Action Plan also examined the importance of mitigation in a climate policy. The Commission, based upon the recommendations of its Greenhouse Gas and Carbon Mitigation Working Group (MWG) in the Comprehensive Greenhouse Gas and Carbon Footprint Reduction Strategy, Chapter 4 of the Plan, recommended that Maryland implement forty-two GHG reduction strategies to begin to reduce global warming. Based on those goals, the Commission established: 10% reduction by 2012; 15% reduction by 2015; 25 – 50% reduction by 2020; and 90% reduction by 2050. To achieve these goals, Maryland has already taken a proactive approach, instituting the Healthy Air Act, The Clean Cars Act, EmPower Maryland Program, and the Commission on Climate Change. Currently, the state agency leads are beginning the implementation process for each of the forty-two mitigation strategies and nineteen adaptation strategies through the development of implementation plans for each."

As stated above, Maryland benefits from both a Climate Action Plan and a State Adaptation Plan, and as early as 1985 was commission sea-level rise response studies. Although the state initially adopted a response strategy based largely on coastal armoring, many of the state’s more recent initiatives focus on “soft responses” and managed retreat. In fact, many of Maryland’s current coastal management policies and legislative acts already incorporate sea level rise, even if indirectly. Numerous studies specifically focused on sea level rise and proactive adaptation strategies have additionally already been published. LiDAR mapping is available for the entire coastal area, and various outreach and educational documents are available to the public.

Despite years of coastal armoring, intense developmental pressures, and certain legislative loop-holes that have served to increase coastal construction, the state is increasingly pursuing proactive adaptation strategies, and in some cases, even considering a policy of managed retreat and/or rolling easements. A number of coastal communities have additionally proven extremely progressive in terms of sea-level rise adaptation, implementing stricter setback policies and developing adaptation strategies based on projected sea-level rise rates. Although Maryland has a number of obstacles to overcome before it can most effectively adapt to climate change, many of its current programs and policies can serve as models for other state’s adaptation initiatives.

Climate Change

On April 20, 2007, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley signed Executive Order 01.01.2007.07, establishing the Maryland Commission on Climate Change to advise the State on matters related to climate change. The Executive Order charged the Commission with developing a Plan of Action to address the causes of climate change, prepare for likely consequences and impacts, and establish firm benchmarks and timetables for implementing the recommendations. With help from three different working groups, the Scientific and Technical Working Group, Greenhouse Gas and Carbon Mitigation Working Group, and Adaptation and Response Working Group, the Commission released its final Climate Action Plan in 2008, as well as an interim report in January 2008. Together, the Plan’s Comprehensive Climate Change Impact Assessment, Comprehensive Greenhouse Gas and Carbon Footprint Reduction Strategy set forth a comprehensive framework to aid the state in its climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts. The Plan was particularly notable in its recognition of the severe impacts climate change is expected to have on Maryland’s coastal regions.

Based upon the recommendations of its Greenhouse Gas and Carbon Mitigation Working Group (MWG) in the Comprehensive Greenhouse Gas and Carbon Footprint Reduction Strategy, Chapter 4 of the Plan, The Commission implemented forty-two GHG reduction strategies to begin to reduce global warming. Based on those goals, the Commission established: 10% reduction by 2012; 15% reduction by 2015; 25 – 50% reduction by 2020; and 90% reduction by 2050, reductions which were further articulated in the passage of the Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reductions Act of 2009.

To achieve these goals, Maryland has already taken a proactive approach, instituting the Healthy Air Act, The Clean Cars Act, EmPower Maryland Program, and the Commission on Climate Change, and joined the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. In 2009 the state passed the Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reduction Act of 2009 (GGRA). Currently, the state agency leads are beginning the implementation process for each of the forty-two mitigation strategies and nineteen adaptation strategies through the development of implementation plans for each.

Maryland state agencies also maintain a number of climate change websites including:

While these websites are important in acknowledging climate change and its impacts, detailing Maryland’s efforts to respond to climate change, and providing links to numerous climate change mitigation and adaptation documents, the State lacks a singular, centralized website that explains the science behind climate change and provides educational and outreach materials. This type of website would be especially beneficial to regular citizens and decision makers interested in learning more about climate change and how it will directly affect Maryland, instead of forcing them to wade through numerous policy documents.


High rates of coastal subsidence, combined with expansive, low-lying wetlands, early on forced the state to adopt a highly proactive coastal management approach. Proving historically susceptible to coastal erosion, especially as exacerbated by sea-level rise, Maryland undertook an aggressive coastal strategy beginning in the mid-1980s, first releasing the erosion control study Potential Impacts of Sea-Level Rise on the Beach at Ocean City, Maryland in 1985. Sea-level rise was also a key factor motivating Maryland to become the second mid-Atlantic state to obtain LiDAR elevation data for the entire coastal floodplain (after North Carolina).

In one of the State’s earliest initiatives recognizing climate change and sea-level rise, Maryland’s Coastal Program prepared A Sea Level Rise Response Strategy for the State of Maryland (2000). The strategy set forth both short and long-term objectives, along with key activities, to address the three primary impacts associated with sea-level rise – erosion, flooding, and inundation – and recommended policies and actions to reduce the state’s vulnerability to sea level rise. Sea-level rise planning focused on four areas: outreach, data needs, incorporation of sea-level-rise planning into environmental practices, and removal of institutional barriers. In addition to providing an overview of the state’s erosion data, inundation modeling, and analysis of the state’s existing response capability and planning needs, the report includes suggested amendments to the Flood Hazard Management Act, expansion of critical area buffers, and updated policy from the Wetlands and Riparian Rights Act. The report emphasizes that rising sea levels pose a very real threat, and policy interventions will soon become necessary.

According to the Coastal States Organization’s 2008 report, The Role of Coastal Zone Management Programs in Adaptation to Climate Change, Maryland has an advanced set of sea-level-rise and coastal hazard planning objectives through ongoing state and local planning and policy initiatives. To date, sea-level-rise considerations are included in the National Estuary Program Management Plan (1999), the Chesapeake 2000 Bay Agreement, the Baltimore and Prince George’s County Hazard Mitigation Plans, the Coastal Bays Hazards Initiative (2004) and the Worcester County Comprehensive Plan (2006).

As part of the Climate Action Plan, the Commission’s Adaptation and Response Working Group (ARWG) developed a Comprehensive Strategy for Reducing Maryland’s Vulnerability to Climate Change, Phase I: Sea-level rise and coastal storms. Recognizing the significant impacts climate change will bring to Maryland’s coastal areas, the Strategy calls for strict adherence to an adaptation plan, stating: Adaptation and response planning is crucial to Maryland’s ability to achieve sustainability. A ‘do nothing’ approach will lead to unwise decisions and increased risk over time. Planners and legislators must realize that the implementation of measures to mitigate climate change and sea-level rise impacts associated with erosion, flooding, and inundation of low-lying lands is imperative to sustainable management, as well as protection of Maryland’s coastal resources and communities.

The Strategy lays out the specific priority policy recommendations of the ARWG to address short-and long-term adaptation and response measures, planning and policy integration, education and outreach, performance measurement, and, where necessary, new legislation and/or modifications to existing laws. Setting forth a number of specific goals to help the state adapt to climate change, with particular emphasis placed on adaptation to sea-level rise and increased intensity of coastal storms, the strategy aimed to:

  1. Promote programs and policies aimed at the avoidance and/or reduction of impact to the existing built environment, as well as to future growth and development in vulnerable coastal areas;
  2. Shift to sustainable economies and investments, and avoid assumption of the financial risk of development and redevelopment in highly hazardous coastal areas;
  3. Enhance preparedness and planning efforts to protect human health, safety and welfare;
  4. Protect and restore Maryland’s natural shoreline and its resources, including its tidal wetlands and marshes, vegetated buffers, and Bay Islands, that inherently shield Maryland’s shoreline and interior.

To adequately address this strategy, the ARWG suggested that policies in the following areas be implemented:

  1. Reduction of impact to existing and future growth;
  2. Financial and economic well-being;
  3. Protection of human health, safety and welfare;
  4. Natural resource protection;
  5. Creation of an adaptation and response toolbox;
  6. Future steps and directions.

With specific consideration to sea-level rise adaptation, the Strategy recommended:

  • Development of a Maryland Sea-Level Rise Disclosure and Advisory Statement to inform prospective coastal property purchasers of the potential impacts that climate change and sea-level rise may pose to a particular piece of property.
  • Require the integration of coastal erosion, coastal storm, and sea-level rise adaptation and response planning strategies into existing state and local policies and programs.
  • Develop and implement state and local adaptation policies (i.e., protect, retreat, abandon) for vulnerable public and private sector infrastructure.
  • Strengthen building codes and construction techniques for new infrastructure and buildings in vulnerable coastal areas.
  • Conduct health impact assessments to evaluate the public health consequences of climate change and projects and/or policies related to sea-level rise.
  • Promote and support sustainable shoreline and buffer area management practices.
  • Update and maintain state-wide sea-level rise mapping, modeling, and monitoring products.
  • Utilize new and existing educational, outreach, training and capacity building programs to disseminate information and resources related to climate change and sea-level rise.
  • Develop state-wide sea-level rise planning guidance to advise adaptation and response planning at the local level. Develop and implement a system of performance measures to track Maryland’s success at reducing its vulnerability to climate change and sea-level rise.
  • Pursue the development of adaptation strategies to reduce climate change vulnerability among affected sectors, including agriculture, forestry, water resources, aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems, and human health.

In January 2011 the Maryland Commission on Climate Change released its Phase II Strategy for Reducing Maryland’s Vulnerability to Climate Change. The report outlines strategies to reduce the impacts of climate change, including sea level rise, increased temperature, and changes in precipitation within the following sectors: Human Health; Agriculture; Forest and Terrestrial Ecosystems; Bay and Aquatic Environments; Water Resources; and Population Growth and Infrastructure. Along with the Phase I Strategy for Sea Level Rise and Coastal Storms (2008), the Phase II Strategy is a key component of Maryland's Climate Action Plan. State agencies will use the strategies to guide and prioritize state-level activities with respect to climate science and adaptation policy. To learn more, visit Maryland's Climate Change website.

On December 28th, 2012, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley signed the Climate Change and Coast Smart Construction Executive Order (EO), a landmark initiative to increase the State’s long term resiliency to storm related flooding and sea level rise. The Executive Order directs all State agencies to consider the risk of coastal flooding and sea level rise when designing capital budget projects and charges the Department of General Services with updating its architecture and engineering guidelines to require that new and rebuilt State structures be elevated two or more feet above the 100-year base flood level. The Executive Order also charges the Maryland Department of Natural Resources to work with the Maryland Commission on Climate Change, local governments and other parties as appropriate, to develop additional Coast Smart guidelines within nine months, for the siting and construction of new and rebuilt State structures, as well as other infrastructure improvements such as roads, bridges, sewer and water systems, and other essential public utilities. Recommendations for applying the new construction guidelines to non-state infrastructure projects that are partially or fully funded in the State’s capital budget will also be developed. Additionally, the Executive Order tasks the Scientific and Technical Working Group of the Maryland Commission on Climate Change with providing updated sea level rise projections for Maryland. More information on Maryland’s climate change adaptation efforts.

Since the 1980s, coastal management officials in Maryland have cooperated with the U.S. EPA in efforts to learn the ramifications of accelerated sea-level rise for their activities. Increased erosion from sea-level rise was one of the factors cited for the state’s decision in 1985 to shift its erosion control strategy at Ocean City from groins to beach nourishment (AP, 1985). As early as 1985 the state had published Potential Impacts of Sea-Level Rise on the Beach at Ocean City, Maryland, a study examining the potential implications of sea-level rise for efforts to control erosion of the beach at Ocean City. The study noted that current sea-level trends and other factors were already causing significant erosion at Ocean City and other beaches, thus elevating strategies for addressing coastal erosion to top, near-term priorities. Although the study proved important in increasing the State’s recognition of the impacts of sea-level rise, and even suggested that the city’s long-term planning should include sea-level rise, it determined that a plan of managed retreat was economically infeasible. Thus, in direct contrast to the managed retreat policy largely advocated today, the study’s conclusion served to promote the historic use of erosion control measures along Maryland’s shoreline.

Established in 1968 to address shoreline and streambank erosion problems, Maryland’s Shore Erosion Control Program (Nat Resources Article Section 8-1001 through 8-1008) represents an essential component of the state’s current SLR response network and will continue to be the primary entity providing both technical and financial assistance for shoreline protection. In recent years, the Program has been especially focused on promoting nonstructural projects that bioengineering methods for shoreline restoration. Recent initiatives also include LiDAR acquisition, shoreline inventories, and erosion analysis.

Established in 1999, Maryland’s Shore Erosion Task Force was charged with identifying shore erosion control needs, reviewing contrib. factors to shore erosion; clarifying local, state, and fed roles regarding shore erosion; and establishing 5- and 10- year erosion-control plans. Although the Task Force itself is not responsible for examining sea-level rise, it nevertheless concluded that accelerated SLR was a significant factor in prolonging and exacerbating Maryland’s shore erosion problems. The Task Force issued its final report in January 2000 that called for development of a Comprehensive Shore Erosion Control Plan for Maryland, and also suggested analyzing areas subject to shore erosion, SLR, and environmental sensitivity for the purpose of prioritizing and targeting shore protection activities at the regional level.

Launched by Governor O'Malley in April 2009, the Coast-Smart Communities Initiative was created in response to the Maryland Commission on Climate Change Action Plan. The initiative provides financial and technical assistance to coastal communities to address vulnerability to the impacts of rising sea levels and climate change, and helps communities identify and implement effective adaptation strategies. Beginning in October 2009, the Initiative is also funding four pilot projects that focus on promoting coastal community adaptation, including: the development of a strategic plan targeting sea level rise and climate change in Anne Arundel County; improvements to Caroline County's floodplain and stormwater management programs; a sea level rise adaptation and response plan for the City of Annapolis that includes a vulnerability and impact assessment as well as outlines policy response options; and an integrated community and watershed design project for the town of Queenstown. For more information about this Initiative also see: On a Collision Course with Sea Level Rise: Helping Maryland Communities become Coast-Smart.

In June 2010 Governor O’Malley announced the launch of the CoastSmart Communities Online Resource Center website, which serves to help local communities address the current risks associated with coastal hazards and the potential increased impacts of those hazards in the future due to climate change. The site brings information, planning tools and financial resources together into a single location making them more accessible to local partners and other users. Highlights of the new site include web-based planning tools, storm surge inundation and sea level rise maps, training programs, staff resources and local grant applications.

From the beginning Maryland has pursued an aggressive coastal mapping and erosion acquisition scheme. Already the Maryland Coastal Program and local partners have acquired high resolution topographic LiDAR data for the majority of the State’s coastal counties. This data is now being used to develop models demonstrating both the impact of gradual sea level rise inundation over time, as well as impacts associated with increased storm surge from episodic flood events. Specific sea-level rise modeling has additionally been completed for Worcester and Dorchester Counties, as well as pilot areas in Anne Arundel and St. Mary’s Counties. The State also recently completed historic shoreline position maps, a statewide calculation of historic erosion rates, a comprehensive inventory of shoreline features and conditions for Maryland’s coast, and a sea level rise economic cost study. State and county planners and emergency responders are already utilizing these models and maps as the region plans faces a high likelihood of damaging coastal storms and rising sea level. Project partners are further exploring ways to integrate the models into future research efforts and land-use decision-making.

Maryland’s Coastal Atlas – part of the Maryland iMap tools – provides centralized access to the state’s coastal data, in addition to providing mapping tools that help visualize, query, map, and analyzes data sets. Modeled after Oregon’s successful Coastal Atlas, the website features Maryland Shorelines Online, a mapping application for statewide shoreline erosion data that also includes a comprehensive shoreline inventory, storm surge inundation areas, and vulnerable high risk sea-level rise areas based on LiDAR data.

NOAA’s Coastal Management website also highlighted the efforts of Maryland’s Coastal Program to effectively respond to climate change impacts along the state’s coastline. Using Maryland as a model state for climate change adaptation, the case study expounded on Maryland’s extensive use of inundation modeling, acquisition of high resolution topographic LiDAR data, and integration of these models into future research efforts and land-use decision-making. See Maryland Governor’s Commission on Climate Change and Sea Level Rise Inundation Modeling.

Sponsored by the EPA, the report Governments Plan for Development of Land Vulnerable to Rising Sea Level: Maryland develops maps that distinguish shores that are likely to be protected from the sea, from those that are likely to be submerged, assuming current coastal policies, development trends, and shore protection practices. The maps presented in the report represent neither recommendations nor unconditional forecasts of what will happen, but simply the likelihood that shores will be protected if current trends continue. Shoreline armoring, land elevation, and managed retreat are all approaches being pursued somewhere in the state.

The summary map shows the assessment of the likelihood of shore protection for the coastal zone of Maryland and adjacent areas in Delaware, Virginia, and the District of Columbia. Table 1 quantifies the area of land within approximately 3 feet (1 meter) above the tides for each of the shore protection categories by county. Table 2 quantifies the length of Maryland's shoreline along the Atlantic Ocean, Chesapeake Bay, and Potomac River by likelihood of shore protection. The report found:

  1. The prospects for shore protection appear to be largely established along all of the 31-mile Atlantic Ocean coast.
  2. Along the 768 miles of estuarine shoreline, the prospects for shore protection are much less certain than along the ocean. These lands include approximately 173.3 square miles of dry land within about 3 feet (1 meter) above the tides.
  3. Despite the momentum toward coastal development, all of our options still appear to be open for more than 72 percent of the low dry land in Maryland.
  4. The areas where shore protection is unlikely are concentrated along the Eastern Shore of Chesapeake Bay, the southern portion of Worcester County, and Charles County along the Potomac River.

For a more complete summary of the Report’s findings and application to sea-level rise adaptation, see here and here.

Currently the state does not require removal of shore protection structures once the shore erodes to the point where the structures are flooded by the tides, nor is construction prevented of replacement bulkheads within state waters. Yet with the enactment of the Living Shoreline Protection Act of 2008, the state continues to strongly encourage “soft” and alternative approaches to halting erosion. According to the Act, the Department of the Environment is charged with designating certain areas appropriate for structural shoreline measures, with only nonstructural measures allowed outside those designations. The Act also prevents construction of new buildings within 100 ft. of most tidal shores.

Following the lead of Virginia’s Living Shoreline Initiative, in 2009 Maryland’s Department of the Environment and the non-profit Chesapeake Bay Trust entered into a new funding partnership to create “living shorelines” in the Bay’s tidal areas and tributaries. The Living Shorelines Initiative is an effort aimed at decreasing shoreline hardening so as to allow wetlands to naturally migrate inland as sea levels rise. Living Shorelines are shorelines that have been altered to protect them from erosion and to create habitat using nature-based techniques such as marsh plantings, beach nourishment, and low profile oyster reefs, breakwaters and sills. The initiative promotes the use of nonstructural or “hybrid” approaches to shoreline stabilization and can preserve, and in some cases expand, wetlands and natural shoreline features in the face of rising sea levels. More information on Maryland’s Living Shoreline Initiative and similar information from Virginia. In 2013 Maryland hosted a Mid-Atlantic Living Shorelines Summit.

Case Studies

An increasing number of individual counties are also embarking on climate change initiatives. The Maryland Coastal program has developed sea-level-rise planning guidance for Dorchester, Somerset, and Worcester counties. The guidance lays out the process, methodology, and timeline for incorporating sea-level-rise and coastal hazard-response planning into local planning processes and frameworks. Importantly, each guidance document is tailored to meet the specific needs of individual counties. In general, however, the documents address four phases of sea-level-rise and coastal hazards planning:

  1. Vulnerability and impact assessment;
  2. Long-range and comprehensive planning;
  3. Code, regulation and development standards; and
  4. Public education and outreach.

Worcester County: The Worcester County, Sea Level Rise Response Strategy (2008) was published September 2008 with the purpose to develop and assess response options for the expected impacts of accelerated SLR caused by climate change, and to help start planning responses to SLR impacts on the local communities and ecosystems within Worcester county. The report includes SLR scenarios (inundation models, scenarios used in analysis), projected SLR impacts, potential response options (adaptation options for exisiting and future development as well as infrastructure and natural systems), and priorities for SLR response (criteria for prioritizing response options and recommendations for response implementation). To develop the model, USGS created a highly detailed LIDAR topographic elevation model of Worcester County. The study also investigated the use of “rolling easements” in other jurisdictions that are highly susceptible to sea level rise, as well as the feasibility of purchasing “rolling easements.”

In 2006, the DNR, USGS, and Worcester County completed the Worcester County Sea Level Rise Inundation Model. The study used projected rates of sea level change and high-resolution LiDAR to model future conditions. Following development of the Worcester County Sea Level Rise Inundation Model (2006), the County adopted its 2006 Comprehensive Plan. This Plan called for the development of a Sea Level Rise Response Strategy; directed future growth to areas outside of Category 3, Hurricane Storm Surge boundaries; and discouraged hard shoreline stabilization. The project utilized funds to support a planning consultant to assist Worcester County with the development of the Sea Level Rise Response Strategy, as called for in the Comprehensive Plan.

Somerset County, Rising Sea Level Guidance (2008). Somerset County utilized funds to assess the County’s vulnerability to sea level rise and to review and develop workable revisions to the County’s plans, development codes, and regulations to mitigate the identified impacts. The recommendations address suggested modifications to the County’s planning and regulatory mechanism, including the Floodplain Management Ordinance/Building Code, Zoning Ordinance, Subdivision Regulations, Comprehensive Plan, and Hazard Mitigation Plan.

Dorchester County, Sea Level Rise: Technical Guidance for Dorchester County (2008). With nearly 60% of Dorchester County lying within the 100-year floodplain, it is by far one of Maryland’s most vulnerable counties to sea level rise. This project supported a review all existing long-range and comprehensive planning documents, county codes, regulations, plans and ordinances to determine whether sea level rise or coastal hazard mitigation has been addressed in any of these documents and where it could be incorporated. Additionally, the report provides guidance and recommendations for public education and outreach, and a summary of financial and technical needs to facilitate implementation.

Other coastal counties are also undertaking sea-level rise initiatives:

  • Calvert County Zoning Ordinance. Recognizing the need to address erosion control issues in Calvert County, the Calvert County Commissioners appointed a Cliff Policy Task Force in 1992. After carefully examining bluff erosion issues, including the potential impact of sea level rise, the Task Force formulated specific recommendations for the preservation of cliffs within the County. Cliff setbacks are now based on a specified distance from the top edge of the cliff or at the position the shoreline is estimated to be in 50 years, whichever is greater. The Zoning Ordinance also sets forth a range of categorical provisions including prohibiting shore erosion control structures and requiring consideration of relocating structures before permitting shore erosion control devices. Along approximately 7 miles of cliff, the county requires homes to be set back 300 feet and bans shore protection. Along another 5 miles, shore protection is allowed to protect only homes built before 1997. These shore protection policies represent some of the only such policies in the nation that prohibit shore protection along an estuary, even when the prohibition means that homes will be lost. The provisions set forth in the Calvert County Zoning Ordinance are therefore an example of the type of progressive planning necessary to protect coastal resources at risk from sea level rise-induced shore erosion. Other local governments in Maryland should be encouraged to follow Calvert County’s lead.
  • City of Annapolis Sea Level Rise Adaptation and Response Plan: Vulnerability and Impact Assessment and the Policy Response Option Analysis (ongoing) The City of Annapolis is currently conducting an assessment of the City Dock area of the historic district and Eastport neighborhood for sea level rise and storm surge impacts. The assessment will include: the identification and mapping of areas susceptible to flooding now and in the future; identification of structural and non-structural options for protecting property identified in flood threatened areas; review of fixed and temporary flood barriers; identification of infrastructure modifications, such as storm drains and sewer pipes, and the installation of stormwater pumping stations; estimation of design and construction costs associated with various options for structural and non-structural protection of flood threatened areas; and the identification of short-term, mid-term and long-term planning goals.
  • Town of Queenstown: Integrated Community and Watershed Design Project (ongoing) Queenstown is preparing an Integrated Community Design Document to address the growth in the town's planning area, ensuring it will be compatible with the town's rural waterfront village character. The Town’s Draft Community Plan introduces for the first time the use of Category 4 Hurricanes for determining storm surge levels and sensitive areas. As a part of this project, criteria will be established requiring any development activity to directly address mitigation of sea level rise effects and to incorporate mechanisms to address climate change.
  • Anne Arundel County Sea Level Rise Strategic Plan (ongoing) Anne Arundel County is working through an interagency project team to conduct a vulnerability assessment to identify potential areas of sea level rise and storm surge inundation, assess trends and predict impacts of shoreline erosion, and develop complete inventories of resources at risk. The County proposes to take the findings of this work to develop a sea level rise strategic plan that establishes policies and a framework of priority actions to protect resources and minimize impacts.
  • Town of Crisfield: Strategic Revitalization Plan for the Town of Crisfield and Technical Appendices (2008). In April 2005, Crisfield was designated as a Maryland Priority Place, a State program designed to assist communities and facilitate well-planned development and community revitalization by integrating smart growth principles in city efforts. This project supported the development of a Strategic Revitalization Plan to guide the way for the future re-development, while outlining a strategy to maintain the vital coastal character, public access and protection of Crisfield’s natural resources. The SRP includes a data inventory and analysis, stakeholder interviews, economic, market and natural resource analysis, design charrettes and recommendations in order to explore economic development opportunities and redevelopment and infill scenarios for Crisfield’s downtown and Somers Cove marina.

Additional References

  1. NOAA and Connecticut Sea Grant have released Cost-Efficient Climate Adaptation in the North Atlantic, a report that looks at community-level coastal flood management and climate change adaptation best practices throughout the North Atlantic region of the United States.
  2. Coastal Sensitivity to Sea-Level Rise: A focus on the Mid-Atlantic Region
    1. Final Report
    2. Appendix 1: State and Local Information on Vulnerable Species and Coastal Policies in the Mid-Atlantic
  3. List of publications pertaining to the Maryland coastal zone and Maryland’s coastal zone management
  4. Pamphlet - Maryland At Risk – Sea-level Rise Adaptation & Response (2008)


Gwen Shaughnessy
Coastal Hazards and Climate Programs Specialist

Catherine McCall
Planning and Technical Services Section Chief

Coastal Barrier Resources Act

The federal Coastal Barrier Resources Act (CBRA), passed in 1982, was designed to "minimize the loss of human life, wasteful expenditure of federal revenues, and the damage to fish, wildlife and other natural resources" by denying federal support for everything from sewer construction to flood insurance in undeveloped or little-developed coastal areas such as barrier islands. CBRA does not restrict development in these areas, but it indirectly discourages development by denying the use of federal funds for development projects or redevelopment after storm or flood damage. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service administers this program, which identified 1.3 million acres of coastal land to be covered by the act. Unfortunately, pressure by property owners and developers in these areas has lead Congress to pass dozens of exemption bills which exclude certain areas from CBRA, thus thwarting the intent of the Act.

The Coastal Barrier Improvement Act (CBIA) was enacted on November 16, 1990. The CBIA resulted in reauthorization of the CBRA of 1982. The CBRA establishes the Coastal Barrier Resources System (CBRS) to protect areas such as undeveloped coastal barrier islands. There is a discussion of CBRA on NOAA's web site that concludes:

"Although the removal of federal funding assistance has discouraged development in some coastal barrier islands, development has continued in other areas despite designation as a unit of the CBRS. CBIA is not intended to prevent or regulate development in high-risk areas; rather the intent is to direct that federal dollars not be spent for development in these areas. Activities conducted in areas adjacent to CBRS units may adversely impact these sensitive areas; these activities are not regulated under CBIA. In addition, CBIA does not restrict the use of private, local, or state funding within CBRS units. Some coastal states have initiated legislation that limits state funding of certain projects."

A report released in March 2007 reviews the extent to which (1) development has occurred in CBRS units since their inclusion in the system and (2) federal financial assistance and permits have been provided to entities in CBRS units. GAO electronically mapped address data for structures within 91 randomly selected CBRS units and collected information on federal financial assistance and permits for eight federal agencies. GAO found multiple federal agencies have provided some financial assistance to property owners in CBRS units that is expressly prohibited by CBRA; some assistance allowed under CBRA; and hundreds of permits for federally regulated development activities within the unit. GAO recommended, among other things, the four agencies that provided prohibited loan guarantees or insurance policies to CBRS units first verify and then cancel those that are in violation of CBRA.

On April 7, 2009, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released to the public its Report to Congress: John H. Chafee Coastal Barrier Resources System Digital Mapping Pilot Project. The report, which was directed by the Coastal Barrier Resources Reauthorization Act of 2000 (P.L. 106-514), highlights the benefits of updating Coastal Barrier Resources System (CBRS) maps with more accurate and precise digital maps to better protect people, coastal areas and natural resources. A 2016 report is now available.

FEMA has now developed a fact sheet on CBRA. The fact sheet outlines the responsibilities and restrictions that various programs within FEMA have under CBRA.

General Reference Documents

EPA's Risk-Based Adaptation website (under the heading of Climate-Ready Estuaries) provides several resources and tools to help users identify, analyze, prioritize and reduce their climate change risks.

An informative publication is Ten Principles for Coastal Development (2007) by the Urban Land Institute.

The Coastal States Organization (CSO) has published two reports relating to climate change adaptation. The first is Coastal Community Resilience: An Evaluation of Resilience as a Potential Performance Measure of the Coastal Zone Management Act (July 2008). (No link to this could be found.) Developed by CSO staff and CSO’s Coastal Resilience Steering Committee, the document demonstrates the value of resilience to coastal management and offers concrete recommendations for enhancing resilience at the state and local level. The second document is The Role of Coastal Zone Management Programs in Adaptation to Climate Change (September 2008)(PDF, 732KB). The report includes detailed results of a 2008 adaptation survey designed to obtain up to date information on the status of adaptation planning, priority information needs, and the anticipated resource needs of the coastal states, commonwealths, and territories.

In April 2009, the Heinz Center and Ceres announced the release of their Resilient Coasts - A Blueprint for Action, to outline steps to reduce risks and losses in the face of growing threats. The Heinz Center and Ceres produced the blueprint with a coalition of leading insurers, public officials, risk experts, builders, and conservation groups. The blueprint is endorsed by many groups, including The Travelers Institute, The Nature Conservancy, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Wharton School, and the Mayor of Charleston, South Carolina. The blueprint includes policy changes and common sense actions that could reduce economic losses from future storms and rising sea levels by as much as half along U.S. coastlines. The blueprint outlines specific recommendations, including: enabling planning for climate impacts by providing the necessary science and decision-making tools; requiring risk-based land use planning; designing adaptable infrastructure and building code standards to meet future risk; strengthening ecosystems as part of a risk mitigation strategy; developing flexible adaptation plans; maintaining a viable private property and casualty insurance market; and integrating climate change impacts into due diligence for investment and lending. The coalition urges the Obama administration, Congress, local leaders and the private sector to see that blueprint actions are implemented through regulation, investment, education, and other means.

In January 2010 the National Association of Counties released Building Resilient Coastal Communities: Counties and the Digital Coast which highlights many of the Digital Coast resources that counties use to address coastal flooding, habitat conservation and land use. More resources, tools and data are available through NOAA's Digital Coast website.

More recently, NOAA Coastal Management has developed a Sea Level Rise and Coastal Flooding Impacts Viewer as part of its Digital Coast website. Being able to visualize potential impacts from sea level rise is a powerful teaching and planning tool, and the Sea Level Rise Viewer brings this capability to coastal communities. A slider bar is used to show how various levels of sea level rise will impact coastal communities. Completed areas include Mississippi, Alabama, Texas, Florida, and Georgia, with additional coastal counties to be added in the near future. Visuals and the accompanying data and information cover sea level rise inundation, uncertainty, flood frequency, marsh impacts, and socioeconomics.

StormSmart Coasts is a resource for coastal decision makers looking for the latest and best information on how to protect their communities from weather and climate hazards. StormSmart Legal is a new addition to the StormSmart Coasts Network that provides information about property rights, regulatory takings, and permissible government regulation in coastal areas.

In December 2012 NOAA's Climate Program Office released a report Global Sea Level Rise Scenarios for the United States National Climate Assessment. The report was produced in response to a request from the U.S. National Climate Assessment Development and Advisory Committee. It provides a synthesis of the scientific literature on global sea level rise, and a set of four scenarios of future global sea level rise. The report includes input from national experts in climate science, physical coastal processes, and coastal management.

NOAA's Coastal and Waterfront Smart Growth website is organized into 10 chapters describing different elements essential for communities interested in implementing coastal and waterfront smart growth. By clicking on the individual chapters, you can get a description of each Coastal and Waterfront Smart Growth Element, how this relates to the Coastal and Waterfront Issues, Tools and Techniques you can use in your community, and Case Studies of successes. Each chapter contains a navigation box allowing quick access to the information and the ability to download the content of each page. A 2012 report by NOAA and EPA on Achieving Hazard-Resilient Coastal & Waterfront Smart Growth presents ideas shared by smart growth and hazard mitigation experts related to building hazard-resilient coastal communities.

EPA has a website devoted to preparing for rising sea level and other consequences of changing climate. The premise of the Greenhouse Effect and Sea Level Rise website is that society should take measures to make our coastal development and ecosystems less vulnerable to a rise in sea level. The papers on this site demonstrate that numerous low-cost measures, if implemented, would make the United States less vulnerable to rising sea level. A more recent EPA website is Adapting to Climate Change, but was removed by the Trump administration.

Coastal Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerabilities (USGS-NOAA, January 2013) emphasizes the need for increased coordination and planning to ensure U.S. coastal communities are resilient against the effects of climate change. The report examines and describes climate change impacts on coastal ecosystems and human economies and communities, as well as the kinds of scientific data, planning tools and resources that coastal communities and resource managers need to help them adapt to these changes. Case studies are presented for Chesapeake Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.

In December 2012 the Lincoln Institute released Coastal States’ Climate Adaptation Initiatives: Sea Level Rise and Municipal Engagement (Working Paper). This paper explores how states and municipalities interact to address sea level rise, providing an overview of the state of practice, some reasons for different levels of action, and some of the needs of municipalities. It includes recommendations for ways states can provide adaptation support to municipalities.

Coastal Risk Reduction and Resilience: Using the Full Array of Measures, (pdf, 1.2 MB) published in September 2013, discusses the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' capabilities to help reduce risks to coastal areas and improve resilience to coastal hazards through an integrated planning approach. Federal, state, local, non-governmental organization and private sector interests connected to our coastal communities possess a complementary set of authorities and capabilities for developing more integrated coastal systems. The effective implementation of an integrated approach to flood and coastal flood hazard mitigation relies on a collaborative, shared responsibility framework between Federal, state, and local agencies and the public.

The National Climate Assessment is an extensive report released through the U.S. Global Change Research Program and produced by a large team of experts with the guidance of the Federal Advisory Committee. The report is put out every few years, with the most recent one being the 2014 National Climate Assessment and the next report expected to be released in 2018-2019. It includes numerous studies on the impacts of climate change on different economic sectors and geographic regions in the U.S. An important and applicable portion of the report is the Response Strategies section, which lays out actionable ways that decision-makers ranging from the federal government to private-sector companies can take to mitigate and adapt to climate change.


  1. Katheleen Freeman, MDNR. Surfrider State of the Beach survey response, January 2003 and personal communication, March 2003.

State of the Beach Report: Maryland
Maryland Home Beach Description Beach Access Water Quality Beach Erosion Erosion Response Beach Fill Shoreline Structures Beach Ecology Surfing Areas Website
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