Development Can Improve Coastal Floodplain Management

February 7, 2023

- By The MAR Legal Team

As sea levels rise, the earth warms and storms strengthen, responsible development and regulation in our coastal communities is necessary to protect public health, safety and general welfare as well as still allowing for much needed housing development and helping coastal communities continue to thrive. The key is to create smart solutions to marry responsible development and resource protection, avoid development bans and a “one size fits” all approach on regulation. What does this look like on an already dense and developed coastline and what can we do to balance our housing needs with the ebb and flow of nature? 

Towns and cities are built around their resources, much of the Massachusetts coastline was built for the sea. Coastal access and development are paramount for continued investment in those communities, and they cannot and should not expect coastal development to go backwards. With this in mind, how do we move forward? 

There is a general appetite for protecting natural coastline buffers by utilizing natural barriers and natural floodwater storage, and while this may work in many communities, it is not feasible everywhere. Protecting the natural water storage and focusing on pathways for resilient re-design of existing structures and increasing height limits on developed parcels can serve both housing needs and climate resiliency. For new development, focusing on promoting defensive infrastructure, flood resistant siting and design and the use of spot lots can enhance sustainable drainage and benefit existing homes and infrastructure. 

Guidance exists in the form of Floodplain Protection Overlay Districts and FEMA FIRM Mapping. This was established to protect life and property from the hazards of periodic flooding and help developers, insurers, mortgage providers, homeowners, and REALTORS® in assessing the flood risk on their properties while also planning for future safeguards. Many communities balance heavily regulated development in their Floodplain Overlay Districts by allowing landowners to challenge the requirement based on the uniqueness of the parcel itself and whether it actually floods. This makes sense since many parcels don’t share the same physical characteristics.  

Some Massachusetts communities find special permit requirements serve this purpose. Governments are still able to regulate, but do so with a focus on placing development landward of the reach of mean hightide, banning development over the water; prohibiting alterations to sand dunes, and requiring flood resilient or elevated building design, siting and drainage.  

The latest hurdle to new development and redevelopment is the trend to combine Floodplain Overlay Districts, Federal Floodplain Districts and the Future Flood Risk Districts map which includes a projection of 2.4 feet of sea level rise as defined by the Massachusetts Coast Flood Risk Model (MC-FRM) “2.4 Foot Sea Level Rise” map. The inclusion of this map would in practice create a ban on coastal development and eliminate land owners ability to develop unique parcels based on future sea level projections.  

Clearly, we cannot continue with a business-as-usual mind set if we are to protect life and property from future climate issues. However, de facto bans on development would cause significant economic disruptions to coastal community’s vision for thriving waterfronts. The solution lies in us working together to find the balance of responsible development and resource protection to combat climate challenges while still allowing our coastal communities to flourish. The shorelines are changing no matter what – let us combat this with resiliency and not development bans.