Coastal Smart Growth Home: Challenges

Coastal and Waterfront Challenges and Opportunities

Bounded by water, coastal and waterfront communities are challenged to make the best use of limited land while protecting critical natural resources from the potentially damaging effects of growth. These communities must consider a common set of overarching issues when managing growth and development.

Resilience to Natural Hazards and Climate Change

Coastal and waterfront communities must be ready to respond to and rebound from hazards created by weather and climate. The uncertainty about exactly how the climate will change should not stop communities from acting to protect property and lives. Although much of the attention on climate change focuses on sea-level rise and coastal storm intensity, other potential effects may also affect inland river and lakefront communities, such as changing water levels and more extreme precipitation patterns that could lead to increased flooding and drought.

Planning with smart growth principles can help communities make efficient investments in buildings and other infrastructure, protect and restore critical environmental areas, and protect public health. In applying these principles to any development project, communities need to explicitly consider natural hazards, including the potential impact of climate change. Resilience to natural hazards, such as storms and storm surges, sea-level rise, and shoreline erosion, is inextricably linked to the siting and design of development, as well as to the built and green infrastructure that supports it.  Well-planned and well-maintained natural systems can help protect communities in many ways. For example, natural floodplains can act as protective buffers that absorb floodwater, reducing the speed and amount of flooding, controlling erosion, protecting drinking water supplies and water quality, and insulating buildings and roads from damage.

Vulnerability to the Combined Effects of Development

The natural environment that draws residents and visitors and defines the economy and character of these communities is vulnerable to both site-specific development impacts and the cumulative and secondary effects of development decisions. For example, the erection of a new dock or pier may have a small natural resource impact on a large estuary, but if adjacent channels are deepened to access the new pier, demand for more docks in nearby areas may increase and cause more extensive natural resource impacts (a cumulative impact). Boat and shipping traffic may also rise over time, causing congestion and additional pollution (a secondary effect). Residential development and road building in upland portions of coastal watersheds can also cause cumulative and secondary coastal impacts, such as reduced freshwater inflow to coastal areas, degraded estuarine water quality, and increased air pollution from increased traffic. The impacts of any single development project may be minor, but when combined with all other development impacts to a watershed over time, they can threaten fragile coastal and waterfront resources and the quality of life. Policies governing growth and development along the water must be sensitive to these unique vulnerabilities and protect the community's valuable natural assets.

Competing Uses

A growing population creates a greater demand for land for housing, placing pressure on coastal and waterfront industries, recreation, and public access to the water. Non-water-dependent uses, such as residential waterfront development, can compete with water-dependent uses like commercial and recreational fishing and port commerce. Waterfront and coastal communities must find ways to balance these uses along the water's edge.

Public Trust Doctrine

Communities must consider the public's right of access to the water when making development decisions. The public trust doctrine establishes that all navigable and historically navigable waters, including the lands beneath and resources within, are held in trust by the state for the public's benefit and use. The doctrine protects a range of uses, including commerce, navigation, and fishing. This doctrine is a key factor affecting coastal and waterfront development and must be considered in all land use decisions involving the waterfront.

State and Federal Framework

This guide focuses on local solutions, but those solutions must be crafted in accordance with the state and federal regulations governing development along the water. Regulatory issues along the water are complex, with laws and regulations beyond the environmental, land use, and transportation rules for inland development. The Coastal Zone Management Act, the Clean Water Act, the Rivers and Harbors Act, and other laws give broad planning and regulatory authority to federal and state agencies. In addition, a variety of federal agencies have regulatory authority over floodplain management, wetland protection, and disaster recovery. Given this complicated web of regulations, coastal and waterfront communities must coordinate with many agencies and make development decisions in a process that is clear and predictable.