Coastal Construction and Beach Management

If you’re a coastal property owner, it’s important to understand the dynamic processes that shape Virginia’s shorelines as well as the potential risks and consequences of living at the coast. Most properties along the oceanfront, inland bays, marshes, and tidal rivers are vulnerable to coastal hazards such as storms, erosion, sea-level rise, and flooding. Property owners should be mindful of potential impacts and risks associated with living at the coast. Some basic considerations are included in this section.

Investigations conducted by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and other organizations after major coastal disasters have consistently shown that properly sited, well-designed, and well-constructed coastal residential buildings generally perform well. An excellent source of information for protecting your property at the coast is found in FEMA’s Coastal Construction Manual (FEMA P-55) available on FEMA’s website. Prepared by FEMA with assistance from other agencies, organizations, and professionals involved in coastal construction and regulation, this manual is intended to help designers and contractors identify and evaluate practices that will improve the quality of construction in coastal areas and reduce the economic losses associated with coastal disasters.

Additional coastal construction resources and publications are available via FEMA’s website, including various National Flood Insurance Program Technical Bulletins, Home Builder’s Guide to Coastal Construction (FEMA P-499), Recommended Residential Construction for Coastal Areas: Building on Strong and Safe Foundations (FEMA P-550), Local Official’s Guide for Coastal Construction (FEMA P-762 ), Wind Retrofit Guide for Residential Buildings (FEMA P-804), and Protecting Manufactured Homes from Floods and Other Hazards (FEMA P-85).
The Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act requires that all localities located in Tidewater, Virginia, as defined in the Act, establish 100-foot wide Resource Protection Areas (RPAs) along waterbodies with perennial flow and adjacent to tidal wetlands, nontidal wetlands connected by surface flow and contiguous to tidal wetlands or water bodies with perennial flow, tidal shores, and other lands deemed necessary by local government to protect the quality of state waters. Developments within these RPAs must meet certain requirements.

Permitting guidelines are designed to ensure that structures are located behind the primary dune or as far landward as possible on the lot to reduce impact on the primary sand dune or active beach area. It is advisable to build as far away from the shoreline as possible and to develop on the highest elevation of the property, but not on the coastal dunes. It is important for property owners to realize that the codes established by the state of Virginia do not guarantee a safe location. Every lot is different, so be sure to contact your local building authorities prior to conducting any construction activities.

Building codes in flood-prone areas, including coastal high-hazard areas, require structures to be built to a minimum height above Base Flood Elevation (BFE). These elevations are identified on Flood Insurance Rate Maps (FIRMs). A FIRM is an official map of an area’s special hazard areas and flood risk premium zones. They are used to determine flood insurance rates and should be available at your local town hall, county planning office, state flood mitigation office, or the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Contact your local building official for additional information on BFEs and flood zone information for your property.

Coordination of federal, state, and local agency activities is necessary to support regional approaches to addressing coastal erosion and storm damage to beaches. Government agencies that assist the state include the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, NOAA, FEMA, and the Department of the Interior. The need for a comprehensive, coordinated, and proactive approach to shoreline management is emphasized by numerous factors: The coast is actively changing and moving; storm activity can, and very often does, dramatically alter the coast; and coastal population and development continues to increase. Virginia’s comprehensive coastal planning and regulatory programs continue to evolve with coastal science and general understanding of processes that impact all aspects of the coast. The science and management tools of shore protection have generally progressed from building structures designed to protect buildings (seawalls and bulkheads) to practices that protect and enhance the natural beach (construction setbacks, dune protection, and beach nourishment).

The Shoreline Erosion Advisory Service (SEAS) was established in 1980 to assist private landowners and localities in Virginia with erosion problems in both tidal and non-tidal areas. Assistance is provided free of charge, and include services such as technical assistance, site investigations, plan reviews, and construction inspections. Visit their website to learn more.

Along the immediate coast, beach nourishment is one of the strategies used to minimize storm damage to personal property and public infrastructure. Beach nourishment is the process of adding sand to an eroding beach to restore its width and elevation to specified, engineered dimensions. Used almost exclusively in developed beach areas, nourishment is commonly accomplished by pumping sand onto the beach from an offshore source using a dredge, although it may also be conducted by trucking sand onto the beach. Beach nourishment does not prevent erosion or stop the movement of sand along a beach. It is actually a strategy that resets the erosional clock by adding sediment to the system and reestablishes the buffer of sand between the ocean and structures. To be effective over the long term, beach nourishment projects must be periodically maintained by adding more sand.

Dunes and dune management

Sand dunes—ridges or mounds of windblown sand—are an integral part of Virginia’s beach system. Dunes are vital to shoreline stability because they are protective features that also serve as reservoirs for sand. They are resilient natural barriers to the destructive forces of coastal storms and offer the least expensive and most efficient defense against flooding tides and waves. Coastal storms can destroy even well-established dunes. During storms, high-energy waves may wash against the base of the dunes, eroding sand and undermining the seaward dune face. In extreme storms, the dune face may recede significantly and the dune itself may be destroyed. During storm events, dune sand is removed and redistributed along the beach—essentially the dunes act as a sand storage system and a buffer between waves and coastal property. Depending on the size of the dune and intensity of the storm, high continuous dunes can provide a barrier to storm surge and overwash, thereby reducing flooding on the landward side.

Natural dune recovery after a storm depends on the severity of the storm and the initial condition of the dune. The front dunes can be severely eroded or completely flattened or overtopped during a storm. In the days and weeks after a storm, waves begin to push sand from nearshore bars back to shore to rebuild the beach. Eventually sufficient sand returns to the beach, and the dune begins to recover from storm damage as the wind blows sand up into the dune area. Natural dune rebuilding processes operate relatively slowly. Left solely to natural processes, dunes may take years or even decades to recover after a severe storm. Because dunes play such a direct role in providing storm and flood protection, it’s important to remember that removal of dune material will increase flood risk. The NFIP prohibits all manmade alteration of sand dunes within VE and V zones unless an engineering analysis demonstrates that the activity will not result in an increased flood risk.

There are many ways for individuals and communities to help protect Virginia dunes:

  • Place signs on the dune to explain the importance of keeping off of the beach grass and dunes.
  • Restore damaged dunes, plant vegetation, and put up dune fencing to restrict traffic. Do not remove any material from the dune—all sand should remain on the dune and beach system.
  • Use designated dune walkovers and access points to control pedestrian and vehicular traffic flow across dunes. All planted areas should be protected from vehicles, pedestrians, and pets.
  • Allow beach grass and dune vegetation to grow naturally. Mowing destroys the grasses’ ability to trap sand and may kill the plants.
  • Maintain a clear, clean, and natural dune environment. Items such as Christmas trees, cut shrubs, and yard clippings will smother natural dune vegetation and may also become a fire hazard. This type of debris should not be placed on the dune or beach. Similarly, items such as cars, trucks, bikes, and boats should be kept off of the dune.
  • Avoid hard landscaping such as railroad ties, flower boxes, retaining walls, piling tops, large stone, brick, cement blocks, and concrete. These items should not be placed in dune environments. They are easily lifted by storm waves, becoming debris that can batter your home and adjacent buildings and may cause severe damage or loss of property.

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