Coastal Zone Management

PAS Report 581

By Elizabeth Felter, Marya Morris, FAICP

Product Image

APA member & PAS subscriber
List Price
Sign In & Download

Not a member but want to buy a copy? You'll need to create a free My APA account to purchase. Create account

Coastal watershed counties make up less than 20 percent of the total U.S. land area, yet they are home to more than half the nation's population. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Coastal Population Report, these counties are already more than three times as densely populated as the rest of the country, and they are projected to add at least another 15 million people by 2020. How can coastal communities balance the competing demands of these dynamic environments and the people who live there? And what happens to that balance as climate change shifts the landscape?

This authoritative new report gives planners the tools they need to keep their heads above water and their feet on the ground. Chapters cover the broad expanse of coastal activities and uses, from preservation to recreation, tourism to transportation, industry to infrastructure. Specialists explore essential issues such as water quality, erosion, habitat conservation, stormwater management, responsible development and redevelopment, offshore energy development, and the promise — and limitations — of new geospatial technologies. Case studies show proven strategies at work in cities from Boston to Biloxi.

Written by planners for planners, Coastal Zone Management will help communities break the cycle of damage-rebuild-damage and find the sweet spot between environmental protection, economic rewards, and social equity.

Excerpt — Chapter 1

Coastlines are physically dynamic environments that are continually being shaped and reshaped by tides, waves, erosion, storms, flooding, and climate change. They are also the most densely populated places in the United States. Coastal tourism and waterborne industries, like commercial fishing and energy production, are obviously dependent upon a healthy and well-functioning natural environment. Planners in coastal areas are presented with a wide range of challenges in their efforts to balance protection of these sensitive natural environments with the intense and increasing impacts of human and economic activity.


Coastal shoreline counties are contained entirely within the inland extent of coastal watershed counties, making up 53 percent of the total land area of coastal watershed counties. However, coastal shoreline counties exhibit a much higher population density than coastal watershed counties, as they contain 75 percent of the total population in this area. In 2010 more than 123 million people, or 39 percent of the nation's population, lived in coastal shoreline counties. These counties make up less than 10 percent of the land area in the United States (excluding Alaska).

Coastal states account for more than three-quarters of U.S. domestic economic activity. In 2011, 45 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product was generated in counties adjacent to an ocean or Great Lakes coast. This economic activity accounted for 51 million jobs and $2.8 trillion in wages. This economic activity includes waterborne cargo, commercial and recreational fishing, and tourism.


Coastal zone management is a collective effort on the part of planners, environmental scientists, elected officials, and environmental advocates to manage natural and humanmade systems in a way that minimizes risks to people, property, and the environment. There is a wide array of federal, state, and local programs and regulations in place that are addressing every aspect of the activities that occur along coastlines.


Coastal zone management at the federal level most notably began with the Coastal Zone Management Act (CZMA) of 1972. The purpose of the law is to "preserve, protect, develop, and where possible, to restore or enhance the resources of the Nation's coastal zone for this and future generations" (16 U.S.C. §§ 1451–1465). The CZMA established the National Coastal Zone Management Program and tasked the Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) with overseeing the program. (NOAA's Office for Coastal Management currently oversees the program.) The federal program delegates authority to states, which receive funding to prepare coastal zone management plans.

Each year NOAA evaluates how well states are meeting the federal CZMA goals using five performance standards: (1) government coordination and decision making, (2) public access, (3) coastal habitat, (4) coastal hazards, and (5) coastal dependent uses and community development. The Office for Coastal Management also supports states and local and regional agencies with data, technology, and management strategies to meet their coastal zone management goals. The National Coastal Zone Management Program and its state partners regularly collaborate with other federal agencies and programs that are invested in coastal zone management, including the National Flood Insurance Program, the Coastal Nonpoint Pollution Control Program, the National Estuary Program, the US Fish and Wildlife Services's Coastal Program, the National Park Service, and the US Environmental Protection Agency.


States develop programs that adhere to basic standards and the following broad national goals:

  • Protect and restore significant coastal resources
  • Prevent, reduce, or remediate polluted runoff to coastal waters
  • Improve public access to the coast
  • Minimize the loss of life and property in coastal hazard areas
  • Promote sustainable growth in coastal communities
  • Provide for priority water-dependent uses
  • Improve government coordination and decision making

Each state is given broad discretion to design and implement programs and initiatives that address the state's specific coastal zone issues. State coastal zone management programs are voluntary federal-state partnerships through which states receive federal funds for program implementation. States have much flexibility in program design in order to address their particular cultural, environmental, and political needs. While coastal management program components vary greatly from state to state, all state coastal agencies collaborate formally and informally with different levels of government and other organizations. Of the 35 eligible coastal and Great Lakes states and territories, 34 participate in the National Coastal Zone Management Program. Washington was the first state to join, and Illinois the most recent.


Planners are involved at every step in the development of coastal zone management programs and, in particular, at the local level where decisions about land use, development intensity, transportation, and conservation are made. Local planners have experience tackling complex problems of growth and development and are experts in bringing residents and stakeholders together to work positively and productively on planning issues. Planners in coastal communities get involved in coastal zone management through programs and projects that are funded by state coastal zone management programs. These efforts involve other regional and local agencies and nongovernmental entities working together on a variety of initiatives, including erosion and sedimentation control, habitat protection, nonpoint source pollution prevention, and hazard mitigation.

Outside of the context of federal and state regulatory and funding programs, there is a long history in coastal communities of waterfront revitalization planning, coastal environmental protection and restoration efforts, and planning for future growth and development in general. Waterfront manufacturing uses have experienced a steady decline that roughly parallels the overall decline of manufacturing uses in the United States since the 1970s and 1980s. Many coastal cities, however, began to recognize their former industrial waterfronts as assets they could use to leverage city or regional economic comebacks. This sparked the preparation and implementation of waterfront revitalization plans all over the country. Most of these sought to catalyze tourism development and recreational uses, but many also had goals to protect and maintain the remaining viable waterfront industrial uses, ports, and commercial fishing facilities. Such plans have been developed as standalone special area plans and also as adopted as elements or chapters of citywide comprehensive plans.


Adaptation plans look at all aspects of communities that are both susceptible to the effects of climate change and that are contributors to and causes of it. These aspects include — at the very minimum — population trends, development patterns, infrastructure, greenhouse gas emissions, energy production and consumption, and natural resources. Existing planning and regulatory frameworks are also analyzed to determine what current trends and future projections will affectand be affected by climate change.

Comprehensive and effective adaptation planning is part of what communities do to build resilience. In coastal areas, NOAA defines resilience as "building the ability of a community to 'bounce back' after hazardous events such as hurricanes, coastal storms, and flooding — rather than simply reacting to impacts" (NOAA 2015f). Resiliency planning includes the ability to understand potential impacts and to take appropriate action before, during, and after a particular event to minimize negative effects and maintain the ability to respond to changing conditions.

Resilience strategies involve evaluating and upgrading the lifeline systems infrastructure — communication, power, transit — that are essential immediately following a disaster. Resilience also involves protective infrastructure, including built systems (e.g., seawalls and breakwaters) and natural systems (e.g., salt marshes and dunes). Hybrid strategies, a combination of green and gray infrastructure strategies, may provide the most effective outcome as they balance the range of planning and engineering considerations.

About the Authors

Elizabeth Felter is a planner for the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission, concentrating on the Adapting to Rising Tides Program. From 2012 to 2014, she was a fellow with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Digital Coast Partnership, working on behalf of the American Planning Association and Coastal States Organization.

Marya Morris, AICP, is a planning and zoning consultant in the Chicago area. She worked for many years in the research department of the American Planning Association where she conducted research for practicing planners on topics including the connection between community design and public health, state-planning-enabling legislation, sustainability and smart growth, and sign regulations. She is a frequent contributing writer and editor for planning publications.

Product Details

Page Count
Date Published
Feb. 1, 2016
Adobe PDF
American Planning Association

Table of Contents

Executive Summary

Chapter 1: Essential Facts About Coastlines
Measuring Population
The Coastal Economy
Housing, Tourism, and Recreation
Transportation and Ports
Human Impacts on Coastal Zones
Overview of This Report

Chapter 2: The Nature of Coasts and Climate-Change Threats
The Physical Elements of Coasts
Climate Change Impacts on Coastlines

Chapter 3: Federal and State Coastal Zone Management Programs
Coastal Zone Management Act of 1972
National Flood Insurance Program
Other Federal Programs
State Coastal Zone Management Programs
Federal and State Programs: An Overview

Chapter 4: Local Coastal Zone Management Planning
Coastal and Waterfront Planning: An Overview
Adaptation and Resilience Planning

Chapter 5: Great Lakes Coastal Zone Management Programs

Chapter 6: Conclusion: Principles of Effective Planning in Coastal Zones
Ensuring Environmental Quality
Reducing Risks
Developing and Redeveloping Responsibly
Ensuring Equitable Access
Managing Stormwater and Watersheds Effectively
Engaging and Educating Stakeholders
Collaborating Across Disciplines, Sectors, and Levels of Government

Appendix A
Excerpt from the Coastal Zone Management Act of 1972