Living Shorelines and Fairfax County: Striving to Balance New Laws with Outdated Stabilization Practices

In the past 10 years, the Virginia General Assembly has twice passed legislation incorporating “living shorelines” into the Code of Virginia as a method for stabilizing tidal shorelines in the Commonwealth. In 2020, Virginia Senate Bill 776 was passed by the General Assembly and signed by the Governor, which required the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC) and local Wetlands Boards to only consider “living shoreline” approaches to tidal shoreline stabilization, unless the best available science shows that such approaches are not suitable. This legislation supports the use of living shoreline concepts that would provide shoreline stabilization in a manner that protects tidal wetland vegetation, the ecosystem, and reduces shoreline erosion, resulting in greater protection of the Chesapeake Bay. Additionally, this Bill directed local wetlands boards to “ensure protection of shorelines and sensitive coastal habitats from sea level rise and coastal hazards…” Fairfax County has its own Wetlands Board which is charged with preventing the destruction of tidal wetlands and issuing permits for projects in these sensitive areas. The County is supportive of this legislation because tidal wetlands provide critical habitat for plants and aquatic species that play a major role in the health of the Chesapeake Bay. The implementation of this new legislation relies on VMRC guidelines for successful implementation.

The proposed amendments to the Comprehensive Plan and Chapter 116 of the County Code were limited in scope to updating these documents in accordance with the adopted legislation; however, property owners near tidal shorelines expressed interest in the amendments.  This interest has encouraged the County’s Wetlands Board to consider revisiting their existing policy/guidance document that discusses Living Shorelines.  This presentation will provide a brief overview of this 2020 legislation, existing County policies that supported living shoreline concepts that were in-place prior to the 2020 legislation, a discussion of how Fairfax County updated its Comprehensive Plan and Chapter 116 of the County Code to adopt this mandate, outreach conducted, and future policy actions. Resources developed by VMRC and the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences (VIMS) will also be shared.