Background & Purpose

Why do we have management programs for Tidal Wetlands, Beaches, and Primary Coastal Sand Dunes?
Shoreline Management is making choices to address the desire to protect upland property from erosion or develop property balanced with the benefits and uses of natural and nature-based shoreline features and shoreline habitat restoration. This requires a weighing of the private benefits and costs of management actions and the benefits and costs to public held common resources, also known as the public trust. The natural features along our shorelines - tidal wetlands, beaches and dunes, and riparian buffers, are economically and ecologically valuable. They provide food, shelter, and breeding grounds for a variety of marine animals; recreational and commercial opportunities; water quality services; and can serve as significant protection against coastal storms by dissipating wave energy and absorbing flood waters.

Shoreline change can be both slow and chronic – from daily tides for example, or sudden and dramatic – like after a hurricane or Nor-Easter. The natural process of erosion can result in loss of upland property with the distribution of sediment and nutrients into our waters, while also providing material to support wetland and beach habitats. 

The History of Shoreline Management
The foundation and rationale for the laws governing Virginia's tidal shorelines... 
There are two primary reasons for the establishment of legal programs to preserve and manage shoreline resources:
  1. Shoreline features provide services valued by society including water quality, erosion control, flood buffering, primary production in support of the estuarine food web, recreational opportunities, and aesthetics.
  2. Tidal wetlands, beaches and dunes have been adversely impacted by development with significant losses.
And Virginia Acted
Shoreline management laws and policies were enacted to preserve and manage shoreline resources... these policies were not established specifically as erosion control programs although the most frequent request to alter wetlands and beaches is driven by the desire to address shoreline erosion.
1972 Tidal Wetlands Act Preamble

What the General Assembly said about the value of wetlands ...

  •  ". . . Therefore, in order to protect the public interest, promote the public health, safety and the economic and general welfare of the Commonwealth, and to protect public and private property, wildlife, marine fisheries and the natural environment, it is declared to be the public policy of this Commonwealth to preserve the wetlands, and to prevent their despoliation and destruction and to accommodate necessary economic development in a manner consistent with wetlands preservation."
Current Tidal Wetlands Act Language

[Code of Virginia § 28.2-1301 – Powers and Duties of the Commission]

  • "(B) . . . shall preserve and prevent the despoliation and destruction of wetlands while accommodating necessary economic development in a manner consistent with wetlands preservation and any standards set by the Commonwealth in addition to those identified in § 28.2-1308 to ensure protection of shorelines and sensitive coastal habitats from sea level rise and coastal hazards, including guidelines and minimum standards promulgated by the Commission pursuant to subsection C."
  • "(D) . . . consideration shall be given to the unique character of the Commonwealth's tidal wetlands which are essential for the production of marine and inland wildlife, waterfowl, finfish, shellfish and flora; serve as a valuable protective barrier against floods, tidal storms and the erosion of the Commonwealth's shores and soil; are important for the absorption of silt and pollutants; and are important for recreational and aesthetic enjoyment of the people and for the promotion of tourism, navigation and commerce."

[Code of Virginia § 28.2-1302 – Adoption of Wetlands Zoning Ordinance; terms of ordinance]

  • “9. In fulfilling its responsibilities under this ordinance, the board shall preserve and prevent the despoliation and destruction of wetlands within its jurisdiction while accommodating necessary economic development in a manner consistent with wetlands preservation and any standards set by the Commonwealth in addition to those identified in § 28.2-1308 to ensure protection of shorelines  and sensitive coastal habitats from sea level rise and coastal hazards, including the provisions of guidelines and minimum standards promulgated by the Commission pursuant to § 28.2-1301 of the Code of Virginia.”
Commonwealth of Virginia on Conservation

[Constitution of Virginia, Article XI, Section 1 – Natural Resources and Historical Sites of the Commonwealth]

  •  ". . . To the end that the people have clean air, pure water, and the use and enjoyment for recreation of adequate public lands, waters, and other natural resources, it shall be the policy of the Commonwealth to conserve, develop, and utilize its natural resources, its public lands, and its historical sites and buildings.  Further, it shall be the Commonwealth's policy to protect its atmosphere, lands, and waters from pollution, impairment, or destruction, for the benefit, enjoyment, and general welfare of the people of the Commonwealth."
Living Shoreline Policy
[Code of Virginia § 28.2-104.1 – Living Shorelines; Development of General Permit; Guidance]
  • It is the policy of the Commonwealth to support living shorelines as the preferred alternative for stabilizing tidal shorelines; The Commission shall permit only living shoreline approaches to shoreline management unless the best available science shows that such approaches are not suitable. If the best available science shows that a living shoreline approach is not suitable, the Commission shall require the applicant to incorporate, to the maximum extent possible, elements of living shoreline approaches into permitted projects.
Chesapeake Bay Program Commitments
  • Virginia is a partner in a regional cooperative program, the Chesapeake Bay Program, and has committed to certain actions one of which is wetland restoration and enhancement. The 2014 Bay-wide goal is the creation or re-establishment of 85,000 acres of tidal and non-tidal wetlands, plus the functional enhancement of an additional 150,000 acres of degraded wetlands by 2025. These activities may occur in any land use (including urban), but primarily occur in agricultural or natural landscapes. Other Bay commitments for water quality and habitat can have an effect on tidal shoreline management. For instance, nutrient and sediment load reduction credits may provide incentives for tidal marsh creation, nontidal wetland restoration, and riparian buffer restoration.
Shoreline Resources
What they are and the services and habitat they provide ...
  • Wetlands
    Most wetlands are made up of three elements (1) water, (2) hydric soils, and (3) hydrophytic plants. Wetlands serve vital ecological functions. For example, acting as a natural barrier against flooding and storm surge; maintaining river flow; providing a natural filter to absorb pollutants; and preventing the erosion of the Commonwealth’s shoreline.
  • The source of the water determines whether a wetland is tidal or non-tidal. Tidal wetlands are wetted primarily by tidal waters but also rainwater and overland runoff. Non-tidal wetland water sources do not include tidal waters but do include stream and river flow, rainwater and groundwater.
  • Wetlands possess diverse flora and fauna, and provide critical habitat for fish and other wildlife. Additionally, wetlands can be utilized for recreational purposes such as boating, bird watching, and fishing.
  • BeachA beach is a landform along and landward of the water. Usually composed of mineral sand or pebbles, beaches are low in organic matter, typically un-vegetated and readily allow water infiltration. Given the landscape position between the waterway and the upland, beaches provide area for waves to “run” up the shore.
  • Some of the water that runs ashore infiltrates the beach and some returns on the surface. This process decreases the wave energy and water volume that reaches the upland providing erosion and flood protection.  In this way beaches can also improve water quantity.  Beaches also provide habitat for animals that live in the sand that help support the aquatic food web and are important for recreation, such as swimming and fishing.
Sand Dunes
  • Sand DuneA dune is a ridge or hill of sand found near an ocean or estuary that is formed by wind. They are often landward of a beach lying behind the area affected by tides. Dune grasses trap and hold sand. Wind and waves change the shape and location of the dunes.
  • Sand dunes provide protection to landward infrastructure from storm surges and flooding. They store sand and serve as a supply for adjacent beaches. Dunes are habitat for coastal plants (like sea-oats), animals, and birds (like plovers and terns), including some rare species. Dunes are valued for aesthetics and recreation.
Riparian Buffers
  • Forested BufferRiparian forest buffers are areas of trees, shrubs, and other vegetation found next to tidal and non-tidal streams and other waterways. Chemical and biological processes of the forest remove nitrogen and phosphorous and trap sediment.
  • Riparian forest buffers help control the rate and volume of water flowing in waterways. Water flowing through a riparian forest is slowed by the vegetation, leaf litter, and porous soils found there. Riparian forest soils act as areas of water storage and the plants provide water up-take. A canopy created by riparian forest provides shade, impacting water temperature. In addition, they provide habitat for birds, small mammals, and other wildlife.  Forest buffers provide recreational and aesthetic services.
Subaqueous Lands
  • SubaqueousVirginia owns the bottom underneath tidal waters up to the Mean Low Water line (the line of low tide averaged over 20 years). All the beds of the bays, rivers, creeks and the shores of the sea within the jurisdiction of the Commonwealth, not conveyed by special grant or compact according to law, shall remain the property of the Commonwealth and may be used by all the people of the Commonwealth for the purpose of fishing, fowling, hunting, and taking and catching oysters and other shellfish.
  • Subaqueous lands provide habitat for submerged aquatic vegetation, benthic animals such as oysters and clams, while waters above are habitat for fish, crustaceans, birds, and marine reptiles and mammals. Subaqueous bottom and tidal waters provide for the food web supporting commercial and recreational fishing, as well as swimming and water-based recreation.