Habitat: Waterfront Living Through the Eyes of Critical Areas by Robert Rauch



The Chesapeake Bay and all of its tributaries have over 11,000 miles of waterfront. The highly coveted waterfront has been sought after by residential developers for years. Residential lots with waterfront views and access to the Bay command high premiums and attractive profits for developers and land owners. Subdividing farms with extensive waterfronts into one and two acre lots was very popular in the 1960s and 1970s. Many farmers quickly recognized that their waterfront could be subdivided into lots and they could still retain much of the property to continue farming. There were other incentives to waterfront property land owners to subdivide the waterfront. Large waterfront properties, with unprotected shorelines, can lose acres of valuable real estate every year. Revenue from waterfront subdivision was often the only financially feasible way for a family, that had owned their farms for many years, to protect the shoreline. The high-priced waterfront with the potential for subdivision also became many farm owner’s valuable retirement plans.

Waterfront lot purchasers would typically clear the shorelines of brush and trees for a clear view and access to the water. Stone or timber shoreline protection and a pier with boat slips generally followed.  Many owners would construct their house as close to the water as possible to maximize the waterfront living experience. In 1984 all of that changed for Maryland waterfront property owners. The Maryland Critical Areas law was adopted and statewide development standards were enforced to limit the impact of new waterfront development activities on the quality of the Chesapeake Bay. Concerns over water quality and increasing nutrient loads from runoff inspired rigid standards for the development and use of tidal waterfront property. Regulated use of activities within 1,000 feet of the shoreline was determined to be critical for protection of the Bay. Special attention and more ridged control of a 100-foot buffer further limited a property owner’s right to improve the shoreline. The State of Maryland developed a set of standard rules and regulations for towns and counties to adopt and enforce. The local jurisdictions also had the right to adopt stricter standards for development in the Critical Area.

With the adoption of the Maryland Critical Areas Law, current and future owners of undeveloped Maryland waterfront property must now consider the development of their property with consideration given to State and local Critical Areas regulations. Restrictive buffer standards, increased setbacks, limitations on the amount of rooftop area and other non-porous surfaces and designed stormwater management improvements must n

ow be addressed in every Critical Areas development plan. Site design and approvals are also more complicated, expensive and time consuming. Development standards are slightly less restrictive for lots that were developed prior to the adoption of the Critical Areas program.

Maintenance of an undisturbed buffer is expected to filter and reduce the runoff of damaging pollutants. Heavy undergrowth and a continuous tree line are expected to provide valuable habitat for a variety of wildlife. Unfortunately, these environmental and wildlife considerations are not necessarily compatible with the enjoyable use of a residential waterfront property. Tree lines and unmaintained grasses and shrubs can obstruct views and access. Homeowners are however, allowed limited access to docks and other permitted water dependent uses. View lines may also be created, but any related disturbance to the buffer must be permitted as part of an approved buffer management plan. Shoreline protection is allowed with State and local permits. Passive or living shorelines are preferred to structural improvements. Limited dredging may be allowed in association with the permitting of a dock or pier. Lot coverage and landscaping outside of the buffer must take into account the incorporation of stormwater management improvements that conform to recently adopted enhanced nutrient removal standards that incorporate treatment measures suitable for residential lots.

Every lot and every development project will have unique conditions that a homeowner must address. Depending on the date that a lot was recorded, the buffer will range from 100’ to 200’. If you want to remove a dead tree in the buffer you must plant a new tree. Disturbance of the buffer to construct a walk or trail to gain access to a dock will require mitigation of the disturbance at a rate of 2:1. Buffer disturbance for erosion control requires mitigation of the disturbance at a rate of 1:1. Lawns may not be extended into the buffer as a form of mitigation. In certain circumstances, natural reestablishment of the buffer may be permitted. If the shoreline buffer on an existing lot is not fully established with approved vegetation, a homeowner is required to fully establish the buffer as part of the site development requirements for the project. Essentially, unobstructed views and non-restricted access to the rivers and Bay are no longer possible for waterfront property owners; that is not to say that a well-designed Critical Areas compliant buffer cannot be an aesthetically pleasing landscape feature. A healthy and vibrant shoreline brings diverse wildlife and unique wetland vegetation to your backyard, beautiful in their own right.


The design, approval and permitting associated with the development of a waterfront home, in Maryland’s Critical Area, will require the assistance of an engineering firm familiar with local development standards and process, Critical Areas design standards, and current stormwater management design requirements. An environmental scientist should be employed to assist in the verification of tidal and non-tidal wetlands and design and approval of a septic system and well. A landscape architect is an important member of the design team. Stormwater management practices should be designed into the overall landscape design for the property. An Architect familiar with restrictions imposed on waterfront property will provide valuable assistance in the design of a home that meets the owners needs and preferences and reduces Critical Areas impacts. Finally, a qualified real estate attorney will be required if any variances are desired to the standard Critical Areas development standards. Permitting will include approval of a site plan, buffer management plan, stormwater management plan, building plans, pier design, and septic and well plans. Sufficient time should be given to a development schedule to complete design and obtain all permits and approvals. With the right development team and an understanding of the applicable waterfront development standards, beautiful, functional and enjoyable waterfront lots can be designed and developed for your dream home.


Robert Rauch, P.E. is the President of RAUCH inc., a civil engineering, survey, architectural and construction management firm based in Easton, Md.  Bob is a Registered Professional Engineer in Maryland, Delaware and Virginia.  He serves on the Board of Regents for the University System of Maryland, the Board of Directors for the University of Maryland Medical System, and The Board of Visitors of University of Maryland, A. J. Clark School of Engineering, Dept. of Civil & Environmental Engineering.  In 2016 RAUCH inc. was recognized as Talbot County’s Small Business of the Year. Bob was also recognized in 2017 as Talbot County’s Businessman of the Year.

Maryland Department of Natural Resources has made available the following resources to assist property owners to understand the many complicated rules and regulations that apply to planning, designing and construction on a lot or parcel located in Maryland’s Critical Area:

Building in the Critical Area

The Green Book for the Buffer – An Illustrated Guidebook for Planting at the Shoreline

Critical Area Buffer Resources Guide



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