State of the Beach/State Reports/VA/Shoreline Structures

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Virginia Ratings
Indicator Type Information Status
Beach Access65
Water Quality77
Beach Erosion4-
Erosion Response-5
Beach Fill6-
Shoreline Structures 6 2
Beach Ecology4-
Surfing Areas58
Coastal Development{{{19}}}{{{20}}}
Sea Level Rise{{{21}}}{{{22}}}


Virginia’s state laws -- the Primary Coastal Sand Dunes and Beaches Act, the Tidal Wetlands Act of 1972 and the Subaqueous Lands Act -- require a permit for any alteration of primary sand dunes and beaches, any tidal and non tidal wetland, and any state owned subaqueous lands. Virginia’s Marine Resources Commission has a set of guidelines that further define the policy set forth in the Code of Virginia. Specifically, the Coastal Primary Sand Dunes and Beaches Guidelines do not allow shoreline protection or erosion control structures, including bulkheads, riprap, revetments, gabion baskets, sand bags, groins, jetties or any other hardening of the shoreline. However, an Act amended these policies by adding a section numbered 28.2-1408.1, relating to the standards for the use of coastal protection structures. The act allows homeowners in Sandbridge Beach (approximately a 4-mile stretch of beach) to not be prohibited from erecting and maintaining protective bulkheads or other equivalent structural improvements until January 1, 2006. Similar amendments could be possible in the future.

The following guidelines, policies and regulations relate to shoreline structures:

  • Code of Virginia - Tidal Wetlands Act, Primary Sand Dunes & Beaches Act, Subaqueous Lands Act, Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act
  • The Marine Resources Commission has promulgated guidelines based on the mandates of the Code of Virginia. These guidelines include: Wetlands Guidelines, Coastal Primary Sand Dunes & Beaches Guidelines, Subaqueous Lands Guidelines and Shoreline Development Best Management Practices.
  • The Division of Chesapeake Bay Local Assistance (part of Dept. of Cons. & Rec.) has also produced guidelines as mandated by Virginia Code.

Permitting for shoreline structures is a complex process. The Division of Chesapeake Bay Local Assistance at the Dept. of Conservation and Recreation (formerly Chesapeake Bay Local Assistance Dept.) oversees all buffer infringements and modifications. The Virginia Marine Resources Commission acts as the “clearinghouse” for all shoreline permits. Most permit decisions are made at the local (city or county) level by a volunteer 5 to 7 person wetlands board. If a wetlands board has not been adopted, the permit decisions are made by MRC. Other entities or agencies that may be involved include the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, Virginia Institute of Marine Science, and local government staff.

In 2003 the Virginia Coastal Program supported a study titled, An Analysis of the Current Shoreline Management Framework in Virginia: Focus on the Need for Improved Agency Coordination. In this report, shoreline management in Virginia is described, particularly comparing the current permit process with the multiple objectives desired by the numerous involved agencies. Recommendations based on surveys, interviews, and field visits pointed toward gaps and overlaps in the process and potential ways to improve Virginia shoreline management. Please contact Virginia Witmer at the Virginia Coastal Program for more information (804) 698-4320.

The Virginia Marine Resources Commission has produced a guide titled "Shoreline Development BMPs: Best Management Practices for Shoreline Development Activities which Encroach In, On, or Over Virginia's Tidal Wetlands, Coastal Primary Sand Dunes and Beaches and Submerged Lands." This publication is not currently available on-line, but can be obtained by calling the Virginia Marine Resources Commission at (757) 247-2200.

The Virginia Coastal Program recently supported a reprint of a popular brochure titled Shoreline Erosion Problems - Think Green! which encourages citizens to consider establishing marsh vegetation to provide long-term shoreline stabilization at a fraction of the cost of conventional structures such as bulkheads and rock revetments.

The Virginia Marine Resources Commission implemented new regulations to permit emergency placement of storm damaged shoreline protection structures, in order to streamline the permitting process when emergencies exist. The 2001 Coastal Needs Assessment suggests that the impact of this new regulation on the further hardening of shorelines will be minimal.

The Living Shorelines Stewardship Initiative (LSSI) was a collaborative project supported by several public and private entities. The overall goal of the LSSI was to improve water quality and enhance habitat for living resources in the Chesapeake Bay through the shoreline management efforts of individual waterfront property owners. Key strategies to reaching the goal included: using science to drive appropriate types and locations for “living shorelines” treatments; and facilitating the institutionalization of living shorelines approaches through contractors and shoreline management policy makers. The ultimate desired outcome was to have: "Maryland and Virginia shorefront property owners routinely consider and frequently choose living shoreline alternatives as their preferred shoreline management treatment." In 2013 Maryland hosted a Mid-Atlantic Living Shorelines Summit.


The Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) Center for Coastal Resources Management, Wetlands Program maintains a comprehensive database of permitted structures and other shoreline projects. Although statewide information regarding the percentage of shoreline that is armored could be extracted from their database, the information is not readily available. The database information is summarized each year in the Virginia Wetlands Report. The latest such issue is Spring 2012 Vol. 27 No. 1.

VIMS publishes Shoreline Evolution Reports and Shoreline Management Reports that detail down to the individual property scale, the condition of the shoreline (natural, bulkheaded, revetment, etc.). Although there are reports for Viginia Beach, they only cover the Chesapeake Bay shoreline and not the Atlantic Ocean shoreline.

Also check out the VIMS CCRM searchable database which provides yearly for bulkheads, breakwaters, beach fill and many other categories.

According to Virginia’s Institute of Marine Science Center for Coastal Resources Management’s annual summary report, approximately 229.2 miles, 4.3% of Virginia’s shoreline has been armored from 1993 to 2004. Approximately 19.8 miles of armoring was added in 2004, with the average over the last ten years being 18.5 miles of new shoreline protection structures added to Virginia’s shoreline.

The Virginia Institute of Marine Science has also developed the Shoreline Managers Assessment Kit (SMAK). This is a great mapping tool that integrates a variety of shoreline and land use features, including shoreline structures. It was generated and compiled using GIS technology. The tool has been developed to assist with environmental reviews and shoreline management along Virginia's shoreline.

"Operation Big Beach" in Virginia Beach (widening the beach to 300 feet) included construction of a concrete seawall from Rudee Inlet to 58th Street.

"Soft" armoring is not considered temporary stabilization in Virginia. These structures are permitted as needed/requested by the entities. On the Atlantic coastline (Virginia Beach area of Virginia) there are five main areas: South Sandbridge (no comprehensive projects - sand bags, etc. present), Dam Neck (regulated by the Navy), Cape Henry (have a system of breakwaters installed) and the tourist beach area (part of a comprehensive beach fill project conducted by the Army Corps).

Information on U.S Army Corps of Engineers projects in Virginia is available through the ACOE Norfolk District Website. Projects are listed by area and also by category.

The Shoreline Studies Program at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science conducts research involving wave climate analysis, shoreline morphology, shore-zone stratigraphy and shoreline management strategy recommendations. A document titled "Shoreline Management" is not currently available on-line, but may be obtained by calling the Virginia Institute of Marine Science at (804) 684-7000.

Information on Rudee Inlet and other similar case studies regarding Weir Jetties at Coastal Inlets can be viewed online.

A consideration at Rudee Inlet is that if a spur were to be constructed at the end of the north jetty (original proposal from Rudee Inlet Study), it would be right on top of the "first peak" (one of the best breaks in the Mid-Atlantic and home of the East Coast Surfing Championships). Instead, an extension of the north jetty is being considered.[1]

An article by Tom Horton in the Baltimore Sun on July 1, 2005 decried the increasing amount of shoreline armoring in Chesapeake Bay. The article states that Virginia issued permits to harden around 220 miles of its tidal shoreline between 1993 and 2004. It continues at about 15 to 20 miles per year. Between 1996 and 2005 the Maryland Department of the Environment issued permits allowing more than 200 miles of hardening - more than a million feet of tidal shoreline. A recent detailed survey of Baltimore County shows half of the total 253 miles of tidal shoreline is hardened.

Many bay restoration experts are concerned that dramatic changes in ecological conditions may be inevitable if current trends continue. Most of the recent armoring is stone rip-rap, which greatly impacts horseshoe crab spawning areas. Although Maryland's Critical Area Act is highly restrictive of any disruption within 100 feet of tidewater, permits for erosion control - even where little threat exists - are granted with little scrutiny.

The town of Cape Charles spent more than $1 million in 2005 and 2006 to install a breakwater. Developers of the planned developments of Bay Creek and Marina Villages on the north and south sides of the town have spent "several more millions" on breakwaters.

The Fiscal Year 2017 Civil Works Budget for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers provides $4.62 billion in gross discretionary funding for the Civil Works program. This budget lists proposed projects and the associated budget justification by state.


Tony Watkinson
Virginia Marine Resources Commission
Habitat Management Division
2600 Washington Avenue
Newport News, VA 23607
Phone: (757) 247-2255

Scott Hardaway
Virginia Institute of Marine Science
Shoreline Studies Program
P.O. Box 1346
Gloucester Point, VA 23062
Phone: (804) 684-7277

Carl Hershner
Virginia Institute of Marine Science
Wetlands Program
P.O. Box 1346
Gloucester Point, VA 23062
Phone: (804) 684-7387

Marcia Berman
Virginia Institute of Marine Science
(804) 684-7188

Perception of Effectiveness

The 2001 and 2006 Assessments provided the following information concerning Virginia's policies related to shoreline structures:

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.

The 2001 Assessment stated:

Until the proposed changes to the Coastal Primary Sand Dune Act are implemented, there will continue to be a gap in the state’s ability to manage valuable dune and beach resources in localities not currently covered by the Act. These features serve to protect against coastal hazards such as shoreline erosion and flooding. Furthermore, without regulatory or policy changes, hard structures will continue to be used as the most popular shoreline erosion control mechanisms, despite their damage to natural habitat. Improved outreach to waterfront property owners, training for local wetlands boards, and regulatory incentives should also increase the use of more appropriate shoreline management measures.

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.

Public Education Program

Virginia CZM's Shoreline Management Web page is a good starting point for information on problems caused by shoreline armoring and natural alternatives to address shoreline erosion.

A series of publications were funded by the Virginia Coastal Program to address shoreline stabilization and erosion and sediment control. A brochure, produced by the Virginia Marine Resources Commission and the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) - Shoreline Erosion Problems? Think Green - helps ensure that nonstructural alternatives to shoreline erosion are included among the options known to property owners, and illustrates how using marsh grasses can not only secure their property but benefit water quality and wildlife. This brochure has been very popular among property owners making reprints necessary. A field version of Virginia's Erosion and Sediment Control Handbook was developed by the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation at the request of many individuals, businesses and government agencies. Over 4,000 copies of the handbook have been distributed in the coastal areas of Virginia; and, another VIMS publication titled Shoreline Management in Chesapeake Bay describes and illustrates specific, practical response to shoreline management issues. It looks at how the physical environment, man-made constructions, and land-use patterns impact one another, and presents solutions to management problems with an eye to cost-effectiveness, sound construction, coastal hazards, property loss, habitat preservation and water quality.

Shoreline Management Approaches provides basic information on "hard" and "soft" options for dealing with shoreline erosion issues.

The Virginia Institute of Marine Science published An Overview of Permitted Tidal Wetlands Impacts for 2002 (K. Duhring), which summarized impacts to Virginia wetlands via construction of various shoreline structures including bulkheads and riprap. (Virginia Wetlands Report Winter/Spring 2003, 18:1, p.6)

Other documents can be found at: and here.

The 2003 biennial Virginia Coastal Partners Workshop included a special session on Wetlands & Shoreline Management. Participants at the December 3, 2003 event included local and state agencies as well as wetlands board members from various Virginia coastal localities. The session provided a preliminary outlet for discussion on the current status of shoreline management in Virginia that led to an Interagency Shoreline Management Consensus Document. Involved agencies including DCR, VMRC, DEQ, Corps, VIMS, the Chesapeake Bay Local Assistance Department, local governments and interested stakeholders began work on the consensus document in January 2004 and the document was published in May 2005. The document's goal was to convey best available technical advice on shoreline structures for interested property owners and provide specific case study examples showing how impacts to the environment can be minimized while still providing for shoreline erosion control. One outcome of the effort was the creation of a theoretical matrix using erosion and shoreline change as indicators of the need for action and the preferred actions.

Living shorelines is an increasingly popular approach to erosion control that uses strategically placed plants, stone and sand to deflect wave action, conserve soil and simultaneously provide critical shoreline habitat. Living shorelines often stand up to wave energy better than solid bulkheads or revetments, which add to the problem by amplifying waves on neighboring shores. Here is a link to an article on this subject:

Also see this Maryland DNR brochure on Living Shorelines.

Community education for coastal hazards in floodplain management encompasses many efforts. To minimize the potential for flood damage in coastal areas, the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) responds to individuals requesting assistance and understanding of floodplain regulations. Since the last assessment, the number of requests for information has decreased. During the course of a year, DCR’s Floodplain Management Program staff typically: responds to over 300 technical assistance requests; conducts and participates in at least 8 training sessions, workshops, and conferences on floodplain management; and conducts 60-80 community assistance visits. Requests for community education have remained in demand due to Hurricane Floyd in 1999, and Hurricane Isabel in 2003.

Roxy's Rough Ride to the Beach tells the story of Roxy the Rock and her travels from the top of the watershed to the beach tells how natural erosion creates beaches. The story is taken from Surfrider Foundation's Beachology series and illustrated by students in the Mentoring Young Scientists program at the Virginia Aquarium.


  1. Jay Bernas, City of Virginia Beach. Personal communication. March 2003.

State of the Beach Report: Virginia
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