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

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Virginia Ratings
Indicator Type Information Status
Beach Access65
Water Quality77
Beach Erosion4-
Erosion Response-5
Beach Fill6-
Shoreline Structures6 2
Beach Ecology4-
Surfing Areas58
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 Virginia'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

Virginia’s “Coastal Primary Sand Dune / Reaches Guidelines: Barrier Islands” states (4 VAC 20-440-10):

The density of structures and the percentage of the shoreline frontage occupied by those structures are critical to minimizing the impact they have on sand migration across the island. Data concerning the development on barrier islands indicates that adverse impacts may be minimized when no more than 25% of the islands’ linear shoreline is occupied by structures (coastal homes). The factor shall be considered in evaluating individual and cumulative impacts of each permit application. In considering permit applications the following guidelines shall be followed:

(1) There shall be adequate area within the lot that is neither sand dune, including beach and overwash areas, nor wetlands to accommodate the proposed dwelling and any appurtenant structures, including attendant sanitary facilities.
(2) Minimum frontage for a lot on the ocean capable of supporting a single-family vacation cottage shall be 100 feet.
(3) Minimum side yard requirements shall be 30 feet.
(4) The setback from the dune crest for all structures including septic systems shall be 20 times the local 100-year long-term annual shoreline recession rate. The dune crest shall be defined as the location of the highest elevation of the coastal primary sand dune, beach or washover located on the lot.
(5) The maximum allowable square footage for the first floor of a single family dwelling on a 100-foot lot shall be 900 square feet and for a 200-foot lot, 1800 square feet, including porches, decks, and other appurtenances. Houses with first floors larger than these will not be considered necessary economic development.
(6) The maximum height of a dwelling shall be 25 feet measured from the base of the first floor to the peak of the roof.
(7) All dwellings shall be constructed on elevated open pilings a minimum of 10 feet above grade. No enclosures will be permitted below the first floor.
(8) An appropriate identification number shall be affixed to all septic tanks made of nonbiodegradable plastic materials to aid in their identification.

(9) Exceptions to these requirements may be authorized in individual cases. No such exception shall be authorized unless the commission finds (i) that the strict application of the requirement would produce undue hardship, and (ii) that the authorization of such exception will not result in significant detriment to barrier islands, their natural resources, or adjacent property.

Virginia’s Shoreline Erosion Advisory Service was created in 1980 to provide technical advice about shoreline erosion problems to landowners, local governments and environmental agencies.

The report "State Coastal Program Effectiveness in Protecting Natural Beaches, Dunes, Bluffs, and Rock Shores" (T. Bernd-Cohen and M. Gordon), Coastal Management 27:187-217, 1999, notes that there is a setback based on a 30-year erosion rate or 20 times local recession rate from mean high water for barrier islands.

The Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act requires a 100 ft. wide vegetated buffer adjacent to and landward of all tidal shores, tidal wetlands, non-tidal wetlands connected by surface flow and contiguous to tidal wetlands or along water bodies with perennial flow. This is for those locations on the Chesapeake Bay, and does not pertain to open ocean coastlines. There are no setback requirements on ocean coastlines mandated by the state.

Virginia Beach's requirements state that the "primary dune" can't be disturbed. Flood zones (usually including waterfront properties) must be disclosed as part of real estate disclosure laws. Please also see Virginia's Coastal Primary Sand Dunes Act and Chesapeake Bay Dune Systems: Evolution and Status.

Virginia Marine Resources Commission, responsible for management of available barrier islands, revised and strengthened its Barrier Island Policy to better protect both this important resource and those investing on these lands. The policy restricts development to single family residential dwellings and places tight restrictions on the location of development and on vehicle access to the barrier islands.

Virginia's 2006 Coastal Needs Assessment indicates that "The Virginia Uniform Statewide Building Code (USBC), updated in 2003, is based on the 2000 model building codes developed by the International Code Council, Inc. These new codes have more stringent fire and wind provisions." The 2006 Assessment also states:

"As a result of a grant from the Coastal Program, in May 2005, VIMS published the Interagency Shoreline Management Consensus Document providing guidance to various state agencies and local government for setting priorities for shoreline management in Virginia. The priorities, developed through collaboration with various state agencies, call for minimizing environmental impacts while providing erosion control. The four general approaches, from least to greatest impact, are 1) no action, 2) non-structural techniques, 3) combined non-structural and structural techniques, and 4) structural techniques. The document provides the best available technical advice on shoreline structures for property owners and provides specific case study examples illustrating how impacts to the environment can be minimized. Local and state governments are advised to identify areas that are ideal for no action to be taken. The priorities set in this consensus document will be reflected in the review of habitat management permits for development that affects tidal wetlands, coastal primary sand dunes, and subaqueous lands."

The 2001 and 2006 Assessments provided the following additional information related to Virginia's hazard avoidance policies:

Restrict "hard" shoreline protection structures:

"The VMRC implemented new regulations to permit emergency replacement of storm damaged shoreline protection structures, in order to streamline the permitting process when emergencies exist. There are several criteria for emergency wetlands general permit established under this regulation. First, evidence must be observed of ongoing erosion which failure to act in an expeditious manner will threaten property or has the potential to adversely impact the public health, safety or welfare. Second, no vegetated wetlands may be impacted by the project. Thirdly, impacts associated with issuance of the general wetland permit are minimal and do not exceed an average of one square foot per running foot of shoreline. Lastly, the proposed stabilization, materials and the encroachment sought, is the minimum necessary to address the situation. Given these guidelines for the regulation, the impact of this new regulation on the further hardening of shorelines appears to be minimal."

Beach/dune protection:
"The Coastal Primary Sand Dune Protection Act mentioned above was enacted in 1980. While natural Bay dune systems are rare in comparison to other critical estuarine habitats, it was long recognized that the management of these critical and rare areas was inconsistent in Virginia. The original law was limited to only eight localities with open ocean and/or Chesapeake Bay shoreline, so not all dune resources were regulated. This left dune resources open to pressure from expanding development in the coastal region. A study began at VIMS in 1999 (funded under Section 306) to aid in working towards creating an inventory of dune resources in all coastal localities, leading to the understanding that dune resources can best be protected through the creation of a comprehensive regulatory program. The first year of the study focused on jurisdictional localities in Virginia, including Middlesex, Westmoreland, Isle of Wight, Surry and York Counties, and the Cities of Newport News, Suffolk and Poquoson."

The second year focused on non-jurisdictional areas, with monitoring work on selected dune sites conducted to characterize the seasonality of dune resources, biological assessments, groundwater dynamics, and analyses of historical shoreline change.

The 2001 Coastal Needs Strategy focused on enhancing dune management and supported research to support amendments to the Coastal Primary Sand Dune Protection Act of 1980. The proposed changes were:

  • Alternative jurisdictional definitions that would more accurately describe and delineate the functional limits of natural dune systems, as opposed to just primary coastal dunes.
  • Expansion of the reach of the regulatory program to existing resources in current non-jurisdictional localities.
  • Inclusion of beaches and their supporting dune systems.
  • Changes to the definition of a resource protection features under the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act and Regulations.


The restoration of protective functions was the focus of actions that resulted in replenishment of beach buffers along the Virginia Beach Atlantic Ocean shoreline. In addition, the Commonwealth initiated actions, pursuant to Chesapeake Bay Program commitments, to restore forested riparian buffers, increase wetlands, and improve riparian buffer management practices.

UPDATE: As mentioned above, over the past several years, a series of studies have been conducted to inventory and analyze Virginia dune and beach resources. This extensive examination ultimately resulted in legislation passing unanimously in 2008 that expanded dune and beach protection from nine communities to all the communities in the state’s coastal zone. The expanded area protects an additional 1,300 estuarine beaches and dunes along about 75 miles of shoreline that includes 24 counties and 14 cities. The result is that communities and the state are now better able to protect dune and beach resources from shoreline hardening structures designed to combat shoreline erosion, as well as other coastal development. More info on Chesapeake Bay (and coastal) Dunes.

Like many areas of the country, Virginia has real estate disclosure laws for homes located in flood zones, but not for those in coastal high erosion areas.

The Department of Conservation and Recreation has developed a flood plain manual with requirements for rebuilding of flood damaged structures based on the amount of damage to the structure.

Coastal damage caused by Hurricane Isabel in 2003, as well as further damage by Tropical Depression Gaston (2004) and Tropical Storm Jeanne (2004) has focused efforts in pre-disaster planning currently taking place throughout Virginia. All Hazard Mitigation Planning is underway locally, regionally and at the state level under the requirements of the Disaster Mitigation Act of 2000.

Accomack County has been estimated as the most threatened county in the state for damage due to sea level rise, with Northampton County second.

The 2006 Virginia Coastal Assessment reports:

As part of the federal Disaster Mitigation Act of 2000, localities desiring federal dollars for hazards mitigation are required to develop local hazard mitigation plans. Beginning in 2003, the state asked the 23 planning district commissions (PDCs) in the state to manage the development of local hazard mitigation plans. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) provides funding to the Virginia Department of Emergency Management (VDEM) which, in turn, provides funding to local PDCs. The federal approval process for these 23 plans is ongoing. Once a plan is approved federally, each locality in the district reviews the plan for approval. This plan development allows localities to determine risks, prioritize hazard mitigation efforts, and continue to receive federal funds. Furthermore, FEMA knows that localities are preparing for disasters and will at least be partially prepared for the redevelopment effort to follow.

A report An Analysis of the Current Shoreline Management Framework in Virginia: Focus on the Need for Improved Agency Coordination by Krista Trono of University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science in 2003 evaluated the status of the shoreline erosion control management framework and process in Virginia. The report concluded (in part):

"Shoreline stabilization structures for erosion control on private property are having drastic impacts on shorelines throughout the Virginia coastline. Property owners primarily take the advice of marine contractors and often propose unnecessary structures to be placed on low energy shorelines. Wetlands boards base most decisions on accommodating economic needs and have permitted many unnecessary structures. The current implementation of laws, policies, and regulations is inconsistent among localities.

Shoreline management in Virginia is a complex process primarily because numerous agencies review projects for overlapping jurisdictions and have varying objectives to meet. Coordination among state agencies including VIMS, VMRC, Corps, CBLAD, DCR/SEAS, and DEQ is essential to achieve the best management of shorelines in the Commonwealth. Improved coordination between local governments and state agencies must be achieved. Inefficiencies in the process must also be addressed. Further research should be accomplished to understand and provide for better shoreline management. Recommendations for future study include interviews and surveys directed toward marine contractors, wetlands board members, and property owners. Due to the time constraints of this project, these stakeholder groups were not directly contacted. Comments from these groups would provide understanding of their particular concerns regarding the current process.

An economic study of permit fees would also be of use in future research. Review for the cost of staff time in reviewing and conducting site visits, mailings, advertisement, and other expenditures would provide documentation of exactly how much it costs to review one permit. Research would provide a future recommendation on what the optimal local permit fee should be."

A report from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science describes how Virginia can respond to the ongoing challenges of high tides, storm surge, intense storms, sinking land, and rising sea level. Recurrent Flooding Study for Tidewater Virginia, which was called for by a joint resolution of Virginia’s House and Senate, recommends a multi-step approach with flexibility to allow policymakers to adapt as conditions change and knowledge grows. The report presents adaptation options in three categories - (1) management, (2) accommodation, and (3) protection - and offers recommendations addressing recurrent flooding at the state and local levels.

VIMS Center for Coastal Resources Management (CCRM) has GIS-based planning tools for Oil Spill Cleanup and Response (OSCAR), Wetland Mitigation Site Targeting, Marina Site Suitability analysis, and a Shoreline Manager's Assessment Kit.

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.

Climate Change Adaptation


Climate change stands to seriously threaten Virginia, with the most publicized change probably the expected rise in sea level. Comprised of low-lying marshlands and gradual subsidence, Virginia’s coastal zone faces some of the highest rate of relative sea level rise on the East Coast. According to a recent report by the National Wildlife Federation, the Chesapeake Bay region, rimmed with marshes and other low-lying lands, may be one of the hardest-hit areas in the country.

The State has responded by developing a comprehensive Climate Action Plan, in addition to a built-in State Adaptation Plan. An incredibly proactive move, the State Adaptation Plan also recommended the creation of a Sea Level Rise Adaptation Plan to be completed by January 2011. Despite these progressive, overarching initiatives, the State would greatly benefit from more simple measures such as maintaining a state-sponsored climate change website, increasing climate change educational and outreach materials, and centralizing its climate change mitigation and adaptation measures. Furthermore, the lack of open ocean setbacks, coastal building restrictions, and a managed retreat strategy, will greatly impede the implementation of any sort of sea level rise adaptation policy. Increased erosion data, shoreline mapping, and creation of local management plans will also help the state better prepare for climate change impacts.

Climate Change

Virginia took its first steps towards climate change mitigation with the 2007 release of the Virginia Energy Plan. Required by the 2006 General Assembly (Executive Order 48), the plan was prepared by a broad-based advisory group ranging from local citizens to Virginia energy producers. The plan established four broad energy goals:

  1. Increased energy independence;
  2. Expanded consumer education on energy use;
  3. A target to reduce 2025 baseline greenhouse gas emissions by 30%;
  4. An effort to capitalize on economic development opportunities and increased research and development of renewable and alternative energies.

The Virginia Energy Plan was updated in 2010.

Prior to the mitigation measures established in the energy plan, Virginia combated climate change by legislatively establishing a voluntary renewable portfolio standard and joining the Climate Registry.

In 2007, Executive Order 59 established Virginia’s first Governor’s Commission on Climate Change. The Commission’s primary task was to create a state Climate Change Action Plan that focused on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and evaluated the expected impacts of climate change on Virginia’s citizens, natural resources and economy. Specifically, the Climate Change Action Plan would identify the additional steps that must be taken to achieve the goal of reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 30% by 2025. In its draft findings, the Commission acknowledged that that global climate change is happening and could affect Virginia in a number of ways including its ecosystems, agriculture and forestry industries, fisheries harvest, transportation network, military installations and insurance industry.

In December 2008 the Commission released its Final Report: A Climate Change Action Plan. In addition to setting forth emission reductions goals, the Report specifically recognized sea-level rise as a major concern for coastal Virginia, noting:

“Climate changes such as sea level rise pose serious and growing threats to Virginia’s roads, railways, ports, utility systems, and other critical infrastructure… These effects already are being felt in coastal Virginia. The frequency and severity of storms in the future are expected to exceed those of the past...”

In addition to the projected climate change impacts, the Report also recognized existing data gaps and obstacles hindering the state’s ability to fully adapt to climate change:

“Modeling and simulation tools already are being used to improve our understanding of how sea level rise and storm surge may affect certain areas of coastal Virginia. However, the fact that LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) elevation data does not exist for most of coastal Virginia is a major obstacle to the ability to plan effectively for these changes.”

In developing the state’s Climate Action Plan, the Commission also included a built-in State Adaptation Plan (Climate Change Action Plan) that provided a set of key recommendations to help Virginia begin implementing comprehensive adaptation strategies. The Commission’s Adaptation and Sequestration Workgroup proposed numerous mitigation and adaptation measures, and included a section specifically related to coastal and shoreline management. Suggestions to address existing legislative or other barriers to action are also included. See below, under Adaptation, for more information about the State Adaptation Plan and how it relates to sea-level rise.

While the state’s Climate Action Plan sets forth a comprehensive mitigation and adaptation strategy, many question its effectiveness and ability to fully address the climate change issue. For instance, the final Climate Change Action Plan failed to charge any one agency or state entity with its actual implementation. Critics are quick to point out that in lacking a clear implementation strategy, the Plan’s recommendations are difficult to actually put into practice. Furthermore, the State has experienced a shift in political parties since the Plan’s initial release. Thus far the current political party has proven less proactive on the climate change front, instead focusing its energies elsewhere.

For more information about the Climate Change Action Plan’s shortcomings, see this opinion article by former State Climatologist Patrick J. Michaels, titled Commission Does Little About Climate Change.

While the Governor’s Commission on Climate Change formerly had a website detailing its actions, the State currently does not sponsor a website specifically dedicated to the science of climate change or the impacts of climate change. In general, there is also a lack of climate change related educational and outreach tools. Fortunately the Virginia Institute of Marine Science maintains the Initiative for Coastal Climate Change Research, which is committed to conducting state-of-the-art scientific research on issues related to climate change, particularly in the world’s coastal zones. VIMS’s website includes links to a number of informative white papers and climate change research publications. See here.

As mentioned above, in 2007 Governor Tim Kaine issued Executive Order 59, establishing a Climate Change Commission. The Commission met over the course of 2008 and issued a report based upon its deliberations. The Commission’s deliberations and work was posted on a website maintained by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality until mid-2012. At that point, the website was taken down and placed in an .ftp storage site, where it is not searchable. In an attempt to keep the website visible for those who want to review and study the Commission’s work, Wetlands Watch established a “mirror site” for the Commission on Climate Change.

Climate change research, mitigation and adaptation took a back seat in Virginia during 2010 to 2014, during which time the state's climate change commission did not meet. But with the election of Terry McAuliffe as governor, he plans to reactivate a climate change commission to advise him on what can be done to protect Virginia.


Unlike many coastal states’ climate change action plans, Virginia’s repeatedly acknowledges the impacts climate change is expected to have on its coastal communities. The Action Plan further included a State Adaptation Plan (SAP), providing Virginia with an initial set of adaptation measures. The SAP itself included important adaptation considerations specifically for coastal communities, recommending:

14C. Local governments in the coastal area of Virginia should include projected climate change impacts, especially sea level rise and storm surge, in all planning efforts, including local government comprehensive plans and land use plans. Local governments should revise zoning and permitting ordinances to require projected climate change impacts be addressed in order to minimize threats to life, property, and public infrastructure and to ensure consistency with state and local climate change adaptation plans.

Taking an extremely proactive step in terms of sea-level rise response, the Plan suggested creation of a Sea Level Rise Adaptation Strategy by January 1, 2011, stating:

14K. The Secretary of Natural Resources should lead an inter-agency and intergovernmental effort to develop a Sea Level Rise Adaptation Strategy by January 1, 2011. The Sea Level Rise Adaptation Strategy should encompass the full range of policies, programs, and initiatives that will be required to adapt in the areas of natural resources, economy, and infrastructure and any other area impacted by sea level rise.

If published, the Sea Level Rise Adaptation Strategy would represent an unprecedented step in coastal community initiatives to respond to sea level rise.

While not exactly the Sea Level Rise Adaptation Strategy, the 2013 Recurrent Flooding Study addresses all localities in Virginia’s coastal zone. It documents flooding risks based on available records of past road and infrastructure inundation as well as potential flooding risks based on the best available topographic information. It assesses future risk based on projections for sea level rise from the National Climate Assessment program modified to incorporate factors specific to Virginia’s coastal zone. The study also inventories adaptation options from regional, national, and international sources. Options include planning, management, and engineering strategies that merit particular consideration for application in Virginia. Here are the recommendations from the full report:

1. Given the long time frame necessary to effectively address recurrent flooding and sea level rise issues and given the speed at which risks are projected to increase, Virginia and its coastal localities should immediately begin comprehensive and coordinated planning efforts.
2. The State should initiate identification, collection and analysis of data needed to support effective planning for response to recurrent flooding issues in Virginia.
3. The State should take a lead role in addressing recurrent flooding in Virginia for the following reasons:

a. Accessing relevant federal resources for planning and mitigation may be enhanced through state mediation.
b. Flooding problems are linked to water bodies and therefore often transcend locality boundaries.
c. Resource prioritization efforts will require consistent or standardized assessment protocols across all localities and regions.
d. Localities do not feel enabled to address all flooding and sea level rise issues.

4. The State should request an expert review of local government legal authority to address current and projected flooding risks and what levels of evidence are likely to be required to justify locality action. The State should then enact any enabling authority needed to allow localities to address current and projected flooding issues.
5. The State should develop a comprehensive strategy for addressing recurrent flooding issues throughout Tidewater Virginia.

a. Part of that strategy should include prioritization of areas for flood management actions based (in part) on risk
b. Detailed studies should be done of prioritized areas to determine:
i. Potential adaptation strategies appropriate to the area
ii. Implementation feasibility of identified strategies
iii. Cost/benefit of identified strategies

Nevertheless, the State still lacks many elements vital to undertaking a comprehensive climate change adaptation strategy. For instance, the state currently has no statewide mandatory setbacks along the open ocean coast, although there is a mandatory 100 foot buffer along the Chesapeake Bay. Fortunately development is restricted on almost all barrier islands along the Atlantic, as these areas are largely owned by either the Nature Conservancy or the federal or state government. Additional dune and beach protection was also expanded to include all coastal counties in 2008. However the report Governments Plan for Development of Land Vulnerable to Rising Sea Level: Virginia notes that although development is not immediately expected for much of Virginia’s eastern shore or Bay tributaries, there are currently “no policies in place to prevent such development either." The Report goes on to point out:

“…there is no explicit plan for the fate of most low-lying coastal lands as sea level rises. Environmental planners do not know whether to assume that the coastal wetlands will be lost or simply migrate inland. Those who plan coastal infrastructure do not know whether to assume that a given area will be submerged by rising waters or protected from the sea. And even in developed low lands that will presumably be protected, public works departments do not know whether to assume that the land surfaces will gradually be elevated or that the area will be protected with a dike”.

With the goal of promoting the dialogue by which society decides where to hold back the sea and where to yield the right of way to the inland migration of wetlands and beaches, the Report develops a series of maps distinguishing shores that are likely to be protected from the sea from those likely to be submerged. In creating these maps, current coastal policies were taken into account.

For the full report see here. For a summary of the report see here. For the report’s sea-level rise maps see here.

Published by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, the short summary document titled Planning for Sea Level Rise and Coastal Flooding further warns:

Present planning and management concepts will be ineffective if they remain “static” and do not account for sea level rise.

The state’s failure to adopt a comprehensive policy explicitly addressing the consequences of rising sea-levels is also addressed in the publication Coastal Sensitivity to Sea-Level Rise: A Focus on the Mid-Atlantic Region. The report does point out, however, that the state’s numerous policies and legislative acts designed to protect wetlands, beaches, and private shorefront properties collectively represent an implicit sea-level rise policy. Yet without mandated setbacks, considerations of managed retreat, and a history of shoreline armoring, it will be difficult for the State to effectively address climate change adaptation. The state furthermore lacks comprehensive, reliable erosion data for the entire coast, although Shoreline Evolution Reports are available to compare present and past shoreline placement. Virginia additionally faces major private property rights issues, meaning that no time soon will the state prohibit rebuilding after a major storm or erosion event. [1]

Better elevation data has also been cited as a critical need for the coastal zone, and while advanced LiDAR elevation data is available for some select coastal areas, it represents a major need for the state as a whole. Projects are currently underway to obtain additional LiDAR data for the remaining coastal areas*. Virginia’s Coastal Zone Management Program also highlighted the lack of erosion data as a major obstacle to the State’s adaptation objectives, nothing that:

“In order to adequately plan for climate change, Virginia will need more information in the form of higher resolution elevation mapping, research into the effects of climate change on coastal resources, and other data collection, modeling and forecasting products. There will also be a need for intergovernmental coordination and technical assistance to local governments”.

Despite these shortcomings, Virginia’s Coastal Zone Management Program has undertaken a number of important initiatives to help coastal communities better adapt to rising sea levels and intense coastal storms. The Program has been especially active in promoting the Living Shorelines initiative, 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. This strategy is slated to provide $750,000 over a five-year period for various initiatives and products including “Living Shoreline Summit,” held in December 2006, revised wetlands guidelines, improved data on shoreline conditions, outreach material for landowners, and a guidance document for local governments to use in shoreline management planning. For additional initiatives and products, see the web pages Coastal Program’s Shoreline Management and the more recent Climate Change Adaptation Efforts as well as its Final Strategy: Shoreline Management. In 2013 Maryland hosted another Mid-Atlantic Living Shorelines Summit.

For more information on the Living Shorelines Initiative see Virginia’s CZM Program website, in addition to the following publications:

The Virginia CZM Program also works closely with eight regional Planning District Commissions (PDCs) that provide technical assistance to the 87 localities comprising the State’s coastal zone. The PDCs have thus far helped localities develop FEMA-approved “All Hazards Plans” addressing preparedness and response to event s such as coastal storms, flooding, and hurricanes.

Currently, however, only four of the eight coastal PDC’s are proactively responding to climate change adaptation and sea-level rise: Accomack-Northampton Planning District Commission, Hampton Roads PDC, Middle Peninsula PDC and the Northern Virginia Regional Commission. These four PDC’s are presently in the process of assessing and mapping the potential impacts of sea-level rise and severe storm events to both developed and natural areas, and working towards policy development to establish a framework for local response to these issues. More information on Virginia CZM Program Climate Change Adaptation Grant Projects can be found here.

Accomack-Northampton Planning District Commission

The Accomack-Northampton Planning District Commission (A-NPDC) serves two counties and 19 incorporated towns on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. The Eastern Shore of Virginia is a 70-mile long peninsula between the Atlantic Ocean and the Chesapeake Bay that has remained as one of the few remaining rural regions on the Atlantic seaboard despite consistent pressure from future development. The region is unique for its vast wealth of coastal resources. The threats of development and constant changes to the region’s dynamic coastal environment put the socio-economic, natural, and built environments on the Eastern Shore at risk. In 2012, the A-NPDC assumed the role of lead agency for the Eastern Shore of Virginia Climate Adaptation Working Group (CAWG) to coordinate efforts among local, state, and federal representatives of government, aquaculture, agriculture, and community organizations to better plan and mitigate risks associated with climate change and sea level rise. The CAWG along with other A-NPDC efforts such as the Eastern Shore of Virginia Ground Water Committee are working to ensure a productive future for Eastern Shore residents and the natural environment.


  • Supports a Climate Adaptation Workgroup which meets regularly and has worked with The Nature Conservancy and the Coastal Services Center to secure funding for LiDAR and to create new elevation models and sea level rise scenarios that have been shared publicly.
  • Created an innovative “Coastal Change Archive” that engages residents using Participatory Geographic Information System (GIS) tools to code their stories and observations to a map of the Shore. It will serve as a historical resource for current and future generations to better understand how seascapes, landscapes, plants, animals, and humans are responding to changes in the natural environment. The Archive will also provide a baseline for evaluating the impacts of future climatic changes. Nick Meade, Virginia CZM Program GIS Coordinator, helped with the mapping sessions, processed the data, and developed the maps for inclusion on Coastal GEMS. Go to and click on the “Coastal Land” category to see the Archive’s “mapped stories.”

Reports include 2011 Annual Report, Eastern Shore of Virginia Transient & Working Waterfront Infrastructure Needs Assessment (February 2013), 2012 Annual Report, a Coastal Change Archive, and a vulnerability analysis of transportation infrastructure within Accomack and Northampton Counties that will identify areas most vulnerable to inundation as result of coastal flooding and elevated sea levels.

Hampton Roads

Hampton Roads has been identified as one of the most vulnerable areas to sea-level rise in the nation, after New Orleans. Located on the low-lying tidal lands surrounding Chesapeake Bay, the area is plagued by high subsidence rates and heavy development.

In February 2010 the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission published Climate Change in Hampton Roads: Impacts and Stakeholder Involvement. With the goal of developing a long-term climate change adaptation strategy, the Report represents the beginning of the regional efforts by Hampton Roads localities to cooperatively address the impacts and planning requirements of climate change. The Report also identifies data and information needs that will better equip the PDC to effectively respond to climate change. The Report is comprised of three main sections:

  1. Collection and analysis of available information on climate change (vulnerability and impact analyses as well as info on potential impacts of climate change on Hampton Roads Region);
  2. series of meetings held with local government staff and other interested stakeholders on the impacts of climate change on the region; included discussions about what steps HRPDC could take to facilitate local government planning efforts for climate change;
  3. development of a regional framework for responding to climate change. This last part focuses on involving local and regional stakeholders and using their input to develop usable planning guidelines and recommendations and is ongoing. The Hampton Roads PCD also participates in the Living Shorelines Initiative. See here for more information.

A more recent report is Coastal Resiliency: Adapting to Climate Change in Hampton Roads (July 2013).

Middle Peninsula

In 2008, a Climate Change Advisory Workgroup was created for the Middle Peninsula, and tasked with identifying critical anthropogenic and ecological impacts of climate change and sea level rise to the region. The Advisory Workgroup recently released its report Middle Peninsula Climate Change Adaptation: An Assessment of Potential Anthropogenic and Ecological Impacts of Climate Change on the Middle Peninsula. Over a three year period, the project will assess and discuss climate change and create an adaptation strategy.

  • Year 1 – Collection, Assessment and Analysis of Available Information on Climate Change Impacts on the Middle Peninsula.
  • Year 2 - Facilitation of Presentations and Discussions of Climate Change Issues (results of year one findings). Sheduled to be completed by 9/30/2010
  • Year 3 - Initial Stages of Development of a Policy Response to Climate Change Assessments
    • Using available topographic data, MPPDC staff generated county wide maps and assessed the impacts of 1ft sea level rise by 2050 and a 1.5ft rise by 2100.
    • With selected hotspots from each county, an ecologic and economic impact assessment was conducted. It revealed that the Middle Peninsula may lose approximately $187M - $249M worth of infrastructure (i.e., roads, houses, onsite disposal systems, etc) and wetland function due to sea level rise (i.e., inundation) by 2050.

More recent reports are Middle Peninsula Climate Change Adaptation Phase 2- Facilitation of Presentations and Discussions of Climate Change Issues with Local Elected Officials and the General Public (2010) and Initiating Adaptation Public Policy Development (2012).

Northern Virginia

The Northern Virginia Regional Commission Sustainable Shorelines and Community Management Project is a three-phase project that seeks to regionalize planning efforts for sea level rise in Northern Virginia. The initiative will inventory existing data resources and policies, examine potential data gaps, and identify potential opportunities for regional coordination. The Phase I Report was completed in September 2009, and created an inventory of existing data resources and policies for natural and man-made resources to support in the identification of data gaps, and to understand current local shoreline management plans and regulations.

The Policy Inventory Report is a compilation of adaptive approaches in cities and regions similar to Northern Virginia, as well as Northern Virginia’s existing local policies that the jurisdictions may build upon or integrate strategies into. At the September workgroup meeting, a discussion on the final draft report revealed additional interest by the workgroup members in understanding the legal authority Virginia’s local governments have and what may currently prohibit the integration of adaptation strategies into their plans and policies.

Phase II will build on Phase I by improving the region’s understanding of impacts due to projected sea level rise and storm surge and it will set the stage for implementing recommended strategies in Phase III. Phase II will focus on refining the sea level rise and storm surge vulnerability map in Northern Virginia by filling data gaps identified through Phase I, and also, begin the development of adaptation strategy recommendations. Two economic evaluations will also be conducted to better understand the financial implications of sea level rise and storm surge. The Phase II report was released in December 2012. Phase III will consist of implementation of the recommended strategies.

The Virginia CZM Program is responding to climate change by additionally focusing recent efforts on land acquisition, implementing improved local planning approaches, supporting the collection of LiDAR and high resolution erosion data and sea-level rise inundation mapping, supporting climate change outreach efforts through the state Office of Environmental Education (at the Department of Environmental Quality), and funding county shoreline situation reports and shoreline evolution studies. The Virginia CZM Program website includes many useful links related to the State’s coastal resources, with one specifically dedicated to Adapting to Climate Change. The site details the climate change adaptation efforts of the Virginia CZM Program, in addition to current grant projects and current research.

The December, 2007 Coastal Partners Workshop in Portsmouth focused on climate change and included a discussion of coastal issues to be addressed through the Program’s next “focal area.” The priority issue identified was sustainable community planning, with an emphasis on both local adaptation to climate change and blue-green infrastructure protection planning. The Workshop also highlighted the importance of regional vulnerability analyses and identification of potential policy response strategies.

Virginia Institute of Marine Science also sponsors the Initiative for Coastal Climate Change Research, and conducts numerous research and outreach projects concerning climate change and climate change adaptation. Published in 2009, VIMS’s Vulnerability of Shallow Tidal Water Habitats in Virginia to Climate Change dedicates a section to Climate Change and Shoreline Hardening, detailing the negative effects of shoreline protection. The report further describes how climate change is expected to exacerbate these issues, as rising sea levels and increased storm activity will incite coastal communities to protect their shorelines.

Important legislation governing coastal development and wetland, dune, and beach protection in Virginia includes the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act, Virginia’s Coastal Primary Sand Dunes & Beaches Act, Erosion and Sediment Control Law, and the Tidal Wetlands Act.

Additional References


Shep Moon
(804) 698-4527

Beth Polak
(804) 698-4260

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. Phone conversation with Shep Moon on 7.21.2010

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