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Legal and Policy Challenges for Future Marsh Preservation in the Chesapeake Bay Region


As communities face increased flooding from relative sea level rise and attempt to preserve their marshes, they face a number of policy challenges including limited public awareness of the extent of the risk, limited authorities, and limited funds. This paper highlights these legal and policy challenges and discusses some tools to address them.

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  1. 1.

    From Virginia northward in the northeast Atlantic coastal region, relative sea level rise is “projected to be greater than the global average for almost all future global median sea level rise scenarios.”

  2. 2.

    In 2018, the national annual high tide flooding frequency reached 5 days, tying the historical record from 2015 and breaking records within the Chesapeake Bay region.

  3. 3.

    “Scenarios do not predict future changes, but describe future potential conditions in a manner that supports decision-making under conditions of uncertainty. Scenarios are used to develop and test decisions under a variety of plausible futures.”

  4. 4.

    “… FEMA is tasked with pursuing competing goals — keeping flood insurance affordable and keeping the program fiscally solvent. Emphasizing affordability has led to premium rates that in many cases do not reflect the full risk of loss and produce insufficient premiums to pay for claims.”

  5. 5.

    The likely range (66% probability) of relative sea level rise expected in Maryland from 2000 to 2050 is 0.8–1.6′, with approximately a 1-in-20 chance it could exceed 2.0′ and about a 1-in-100 chance it could exceed 2.3′. Later this century, rates of sea-level rise increasingly depend upon the amount of global emissions of greenhouse gases during the next 60 years; if emissions continue to grow, the likely range of relative sea-level rise in Maryland is 2.0–4.2′ over this century, with a 1-in-20 chance that it could exceed 5.2′.

  6. 6.

    The report notes that greater detail is provided in the regional chapters than the national topics in order to respond to public demand for more localized information, and because “impacts and adaptation tend to be realized at a more local level.”

  7. 7.

    Dr. Keeler argues that we should let the market work and stop subsidizing insurance and individualized risk reduction, consider at what point investing in buying time is no longer worth the cost, and shift the disaster response discussion to consider relocation.

  8. 8.

    Becketti et al. query, “Will the value of the house decline gradually as the expected life of the house becomes shorter? Or, alternatively, will the value of the house—and all the houses around it—plunge the first time a lender refuses to make a mortgage on a nearby house or an insurer refuses to issue a homeowner’s policy? Or will the trigger be one or two homeowners who decide to sell defensively?”

  9. 9.

    Living shorelines are shoreline management practices that mimic natural shoreline habitats. Maryland and Virginia define living shorelines by their ability to minimize coastal erosion and improve water quality; Delaware’s definition also includes improved habitat for critical marine life (Delaware Dept. of Natural Resources n.d.; Maryland Dept. of Natural Resources n.d.; Va. Code Ann. § 28.2–104.1(D) 2020).

  10. 10.

    In the seminal case of Nollan v. California Coastal Commission, 483 U.S. 825 (1987), the U.S. Supreme Court held that requiring a public beachfront easement as a condition to issuing a permit to rebuild Nollan’s house was a taking of private property for a public use without just compensation as required by the 5th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, noting that there must be an essential nexus between a legitimate state interest and a government action. Five years later, in Lucas v. South Carolina Coastal Council, 505 U.S. 1003 (1992), the U.S. Supreme Court held that the S.C. Beachfront Management Act, which prohibited the plaintiff from building on beachfront lots bought before adoption of the Act, was a taking of property without just compensation because a denial of all economic value or use of property is a taking. Those cases and their progeny can cause local governments to act cautiously when imposing land use restrictions and requirements in flooding areas.

  11. 11.

    Flooding in the Miami, Florida area has triggered developers’ increasing interest in a ridge of land in Miami-Dade County, traditionally home to low income, minority communities.

  12. 12.

    It is feared that a rebuilt Paradise, California will be unaffordable for some former residents, due to new building restrictions.

  13. 13.

    As part of the rebuilding of Saint Martin after Hurricane Irma hit in 2017, the government is attempting to restrict development or buy properties in low-lying, flood-vulnerable areas with low income residents.

  14. 14.

    For example, Va. Code § 28.2–1300 (2019) includes the following definition:

    “Vegetated wetlands of Back Bay and its tributaries” or “vegetated wetlands of the North Landing River and its tributaries” means all marshes subject to flooding by normal and wind tides, but not hurricane or tropical storm tides ...


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The author wishes to thank Conor Jennings, J.D. 2020, William & Mary Law School, for his invaluable assistance with this article, as well as Taryn Sudol, Coordinator, Chesapeake Bay Sentinel Site Cooperative; Jesse Reiblich, VCPC Postgraduate Fellow; and the authors of articles in this issue who provided very helpful insights, particularly Donna Bilkovic and Molly Mitchell.

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EA Andrews.

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Correspondence to Elizabeth Armistead Andrews.

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Andrews, E.A. Legal and Policy Challenges for Future Marsh Preservation in the Chesapeake Bay Region. Wetlands 40, 1777–1788 (2020).

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  • Sea level rise
  • Law
  • Policy
  • Flooding