Critical Area Commission for the Chesapeake and Atlantic Coastal Bays

Frequently Asked Questions

General Questions about the Critical Area

  1. What is the Critical Area Program?
  2. Where is the Critical Area?
  3. How do I find out if my property is in the Critical Area?
  4. What are the Critical Area land classifications?
  5. If I buy a lot in the Critical Area, may I build a house on it?
  6. If my home is in the Critical Area will I be able to construct an addition or build a swimming pool, deck, or garage?
  7. Can I remove trees from my property if it is in the Critical Area?
  8. What are Habitat Protection Areas?
  9. If I think I see a violation near the water, where do I call?
  10. My property is in the RCA, can I create a lot to give to a family member?
  11. What is a “grandfathered lot?” If my lot is grandfathered, am I exempt from the Critical Area regulations?
  12. Are farming and timber harvesting exempt from the Critical Area regulations?
  13. What is the Critical Area Commission?
  14. Do I need to obtain the approval of the Critical Area Commission to build on my lot in the Critical Area?
  15. What is the difference between local zoning ordinances and the State’s Critical Area law and regulations?
  16. What is growth allocation?
  17. What are FIDS?
  18. What is “lot coverage” and how does it affect my property?

Questions about the Buffer

  1. What is the Buffer?
  2. What are the restrictions in the Buffer?
  3. If I am building a house or an addition outside the Buffer, is Buffer planting still required?
  4. When is a Buffer Management Plan required?
  5. Can I prepare my own Buffer Management Plan?
  6. Will my Buffer Management Plan require that I replant areas where I remove vegetation?
  7. Do I need a Buffer Management Plan to plant trees, shrubs, or a garden in the Buffer?
  8. What is the difference between “Buffer establishment” and “Buffer mitigation”?
  9. I have a lot of poison ivy, vines, and brush in my Buffer. Can I “bush hog” it?
  10. What size plants do I need to satisfy a Buffer planting requirement?
  11. Can I cut small trees in the Buffer without a Buffer Management Plan approved by the local government?
  12. Can I cut small trees in the Buffer without a Buffer Management Plan approved by the local government?
  13. Can I remove invasive or noxious plants such as English Ivy, Japanese Honeysuckle, or Phragmites in the Buffer?
  14. Can I remove a tree or natural vegetation that blocks my view of the water?
  15. Can I apply herbicides in the Buffer?
  16. Can I mow my lawn in the Buffer?
  17. What can I do about trees that are damaged by storms?
  18. Can I trim shrubs and prune trees within the Buffer?
  19. Do I have to plant in the Buffer when I am doing a shore erosion control project?
  20. Why is planting required for shore erosion control projects when the project is being installed to help the Bay by reducing sedimentation?
  21. Is mitigation required for access to the shoreline and for stockpile areas created when you do a shore erosion control project?

Answers to General Questions about the Critical Area

  1. What is the Critical Area Program?

    The Critical Area Program is a land use and resource protection program established by law to improve water quality and protect wildlife habitat in Maryland’s tidal shoreline areas. The program operates through local county and municipal plans and ordinances.

    The law requires every Maryland jurisdiction with land in the Critical Area, to implement a Critical Area program through local ordinances, codes, plans, and policies.

  2. Where is the Critical Area?

    The Critical Area includes all land within 1,000 feet of Maryland’s tidal waters and tidal wetlands. It also includes the waters of the Chesapeake Bay, the Atlantic Coastal Bays, their tidal tributaries and the lands underneath these tidal areas.

  3. How do I find out if my property is in the Critical Area?

    Maps delineating the Critical Area were formally approved as part of each local jurisdiction’s Critical Area program and are available in the jurisdiction’s planning and zoning office. Some jurisdictions have created electronic versions of the original paper maps, and these can generally be accessed through the web-site of the jurisdiction where the property is located.

  4. What are the Critical Area land classifications?

    Land within the Critical Area is classified as Resource Conservation Area (RCA), Limited Development Area (LDA), and Intensely Developed Area (IDA). These designations are based on land uses that existed on December 1, 1985 in the Chesapeake Bay Critical Area and on June 1, 2002 in the Atlantic Coastal Bays Critical Area.

  5. If I buy a lot in the Critical Area, may I build a house on it?

    A house can be constructed as long as the lot is legally recorded as a building lot and meets the county’s or town’s Critical Area, zoning, and Health Department requirements. Prior to buying property in the Critical Area, you should check with the local planning office to find out about all of the restrictions, limitations, and requirements that apply within the Critical Area.

  6. If my home is in the Critical Area, will I be able to construct an addition or build a swimming pool, deck, or garage?

    Generally, there is no prohibition on new development within the Critical Area. However, building and construction activities are subject to limits on lot coverage and clearing, as well as certain restrictions on the location of new structures. In order to obtain complete and accurate information about your specific site, you should contact your local planning office for information about compliance with the Critical Area Program.

  7. Can I remove trees from my property if it is in the Critical Area?

    In general, homeowners can obtain approval through the local planning office to remove one or more trees from their property as long as the trees are not located in the Buffer, and new trees are planted on the property. (See the question below for additional information about the Buffer.) The Critical Area law requires no net loss of forest or developed woodland cover in the Critical Area. Replacement planting may be required at a higher ratio than one-to-one depending on the number of trees on your property and the size of the tree being removed. In general, trees that are located within the Buffer cannot be removed unless they are dead, dying, diseased, or creating a hazard to people or property. A Buffer Management Plan is required for all removal of vegetation within the Buffer except for mowing an existing lawn.

  8. What are Habitat Protection Areas?

    Habitat Protection Areas (HPAs) are areas within the Critical Area that have been identified and designated for special protection through the Critical Area regulations. These areas include the Critical Area Buffer, nontidal wetlands, habitats of threatened and endangered species and species in need of conservation, specific plant and wildlife habitats, and anadromous fish propagation waters. The Heritage Division of the Department of Natural Resources maintains maps and comprehensive data on the protected species, their habitats, and the locations of these habitats within the Critical Area.

  9. If I think I see a violation near the water, where do I call?

    If the violation is taking place on land, then you should call the local planning office in the jurisdiction where the violation is taking place. In most cases, you will be referred to someone in the inspections and permits department, and they will take the information. Providing specific and accurate information about the location (street address if possible) of the violation and the nature of the activity will assist the agency in following up quickly.

    If the violation is taking place in the water or in wetlands, then you should call the Maryland Department of the Environment at (410) 537-3510.

    If the violation is taking place on a week-end or after business hours, many jurisdictions will allow you to leave a message. Leave your name and phone number, so that you can be contacted if additional information is needed. If you cannot leave a message with a specific county or town, you can leave a message with the Critical Area Commission by calling (410) 260-3460. If you believe the violation is serious and needs immediate attention on a week-end, then contact the Department of Natural Resources Communications Center at 1-800-628-9944 or (410) 260-8888.

  10. My property is in the RCA, can I create a lot to give to a family member?

    Yes for the purpose of creating a residence for a family member. If your property is seven acres or more and fewer than 60 acres, it is possible in most jurisdictions to create a lot for a family member (defined as the father, mother, son, daughter, grandfather, grandmother, grandson, or granddaughter of the applicant) for the purpose of creating a residence. A parcel that is seven acres or more but less than 12 acres may be divided into two lots. A parcel that is 12 acres or more, but fewer than 60 acres may be divided into three lots. The lots may be created at any time. The subdivision will require restrictive covenants that run with the land, stating that the subdivision was created through an intrafamily transfer and specifying the conditions under which it can be subsequently transferred to a non-family member. The original parcel to be subdivided must have existed in its current configuration as of March 1, 1986 in the Chesapeake Bay Critical Area or as of June 1, 2002 in the Coastal Bays Critical Area.

  11. What is a “grandfathered lot?” If my lot is grandfathered, am I exempt from the Critical Area regulations?

    A “grandfathered lot” is a lot or parcel that existed in its current configuration prior to adoption of the local Critical Area program. Grandfathered lots are not exempt from the Critical Area regulations. However, each local government adopted grandfathering provisions, which allow pre-existing uses to continue even though they may be inconsistent with the local program. Local governments also have grandfathering provisions that include limited flexibility for compliance with the Critical Area regulations and allow a property owner to request a variance from the strict application of the regulations. It is important to check with your local planning and zoning office when you are planning to develop or build on your grandfathered lot to ensure that your project complies with the applicable standards for your property.

  12. Are farming and timber harvesting exempt from the Critical Area regulations?

    Farming and timber harvesting are considered resource utilization activities in the Critical Area, but are not exempt from the Critical Area regulations. All farms in the Critical Area must have a Soil Conservation and Water Quality Plan in place, and farmers must work cooperatively with the local Soil Conservation Districts to implement Best Management Practices as specified in these Plans. All timber harvesting and cutting in the Critical Area require a Timber Harvest Plan. These Plans must be approved by the District Forestry Board. Timber harvests that exceed 5,000 square feet also require a Sediment and Erosion Control Plan.

  13. What is the Critical Area Commission?

    The 29-member Critical Area Commission was created by the 1984 Chesapeake Bay Protection Act. Initially, the Commission was tasked with developing the Critical Area Criteria, which are the basis of the 64 local Critical Area programs. The members of the Commission are appointed by the Governor and represent the Critical Area jurisdictions, affected interest groups, and State agencies. The Commission meets monthly and must review and approve all changes to local jurisdictions’ Critical Area programs, including changes resulting from the required six-year comprehensive update. The Commission also reviews and approves all development projects in the Critical Area on State land.

  14. Do I need to obtain the approval of the Critical Area Commission to build on my lot in the Critical Area?

    Most residential building permits do not require review or approval by the Critical Area Commission and can be handled by the local government. If the project involves a variance, special exception, or conditional use, or if the project involves disturbance greater than 5,000 square feet in the RCA, the Critical Area Commission staff will review and provide comments to the local government. Most subdivisions, site plans, and rezoning requests are required to be sent to the Commission for review and comment in conjunction with the local review process.

  15. What is the difference between local zoning ordinances and the State’s Critical Area law and regulations?

    Maryland’s Critical Area Program is based on State law included in the Natural Resources Article of the Annotated Code of Maryland. Implementation provisions are found in the Critical Area regulations in Title 27 of the Code of Maryland Regulations. However, because local governments are required to implement these provisions locally, local zoning ordinances, subdivision regulations, codes, policies, plans, and guidance documents are used to facilitate effective implementation at the local level. The Commission is constantly working to streamline the Critical Area program and improve its effectiveness, so there may be regulations in effect that have not yet been incorporated into a county’s or town’s code or ordinance. There are also occasions where there may be conflicts between local provisions and State regulations. In these instances, the more restrictive provisions usually apply.

  16. What is growth allocation?

    Growth allocation is a process whereby local jurisdictions are allowed to approve additional growth and development in certain parts of the Critical Area by changing the Critical Area classification from RCA to either LDA or IDA or from LDA to IDA. Growth allocation is used to accommodate more intense land uses and development than what would have been permitted based on the existing classification. Each county is allotted a finite number of acres that can be used to reclassify land. Requests to use growth allocation must go through a rigorous review and approval process at the local level and must be approved by the local governing body. Following local approval, growth allocation requests must be submitted to the Critical Area Commission for review and approval.

  17. What are FIDS?

    FIDS is an acronym for Forest Interior Dwelling Species. In the Critical Area, these are bird species that require large forested tracts (usually 50 acres or more) with mature deciduous trees in order to reproduce successfully and maintain viable populations. Many of these species are neotropical migratory songbirds that are an integral part of Maryland’s landscape and natural heritage. FIDS habitat is a designated Habitat Protection Area and subject to additional regulations within the Critical Area.

  18. What is “lot coverage” and how does it affect my property?

    Lot coverage is the percentage of a lot or parcel that is developed with a structure, accessory structure, parking area, driveway, walkway, or roadway. Lot coverage includes areas covered with gravel, stone, shell, impermeable decking, pavers, permeable pavement, or any other man-made material. Lot coverage does not include a fence or wall that is less than one-foot wide and is constructed without a footer, a walkway in the Buffer that provides access to a pier, a wood mulch pathway, or a deck with gaps to allow water to pass freely.

    If your property is classified as RCA or LDA, there are limits on the amount of total lot coverage permitted on a parcel. Generally, lot coverage is limited to no more than 15% of the total land area of the lot. There are some exceptions. If your parcel is one-half acre or smaller and was in residential use before December 1, 1985, then the maximum lot coverage is 25% of the parcel or lot. (The date is June 1, 2002 for lots in the Atlantic Coastal Bays Critical Area.) Subject to certain requirements, a local government may allow you to exceed the lot coverage limit by 500 square feet or more, up to 31.25 % of the lot. If your lot is greater than one-half acre and less than one acre, then lot coverage may exceed the 15% limit up to 5,445 square feet.

    In some cases, lots within a subdivision may have different lot coverage limits; however, total lot coverage for the subdivision must remain at or below 15%.

Answers to Questions about the Buffer

  1. What is the Buffer?

    The Critical Area Buffer is the land area immediately adjacent to tidal waters, tidal wetlands, and tributary streams. The minimum Buffer width is 100-feet; however, on some properties it may be wider because of steep slopes, wetlands, or sensitive soils. On some projects, a wider Buffer, often 300-feet or more, was part of the original project approval. The local planning office can assist you in determining the width and location of the Buffer on your property.

    The Buffer serves as an important protective area for aquatic resources and shoreline habitat. The Buffer is subject to much stricter requirements than the rest of the Critical Area because it is essential to water quality improvement and fish, wildlife, and plant habitat enhancement. A fully forested Buffer is the best environment for filtering pollutants and removing sediment, nutrients, and toxic substances that run off the land and pollute Maryland’s waterways. A naturally vegetated Buffer also provides the most functional habitat for wildlife, providing food, cover, and nesting areas. Vegetation along the shoreline is also essential to maintaining the intertidal zone, which is important to a variety of fish, shellfish, crabs, and birds. The Buffer also functions as an important physical barrier between human activity and development-related disturbance and Maryland’s streams, creeks, rivers, and Bays.

  2. What are the restrictions in the Buffer?

    Generally, construction and land disturbance, such as clearing trees, cutting brush, or grading, are prohibited in the Buffer. New structures, roads, septic systems, sheds, and utilities must be located outside the Buffer unless an applicant works with the local approving authority to obtain a variance. Some structures that are determined to be water dependent, such as a boat ramp, or that provide access to the water or are associated with erosion control measures can be permitted in the Buffer subject to certain regulatory requirements and permits. The cutting or removal of natural vegetation in the Buffer is not allowed unless a property owner obtains approval of a Buffer Management Plan from the local government. Replanting is typically required for the removal of vegetation with certain exceptions for dead trees and invasive species. If the Buffer is already forested, it should be maintained in natural vegetation. Supplemental planting is permitted within the Buffer. Native plant species should be used to enhance wildlife habitat.

  3. If I am building a house or an addition outside the Buffer, is Buffer planting still required?

    Yes. Planting is required unless the Buffer is already fully forested. The area of planting required depends on the type of project proposed, when the lot was recorded, and the area of existing forest in the Buffer.

  4. When is a Buffer Management Plan required?

    Any development activity (human action that results in disturbance to land, natural vegetation, or a structure) on land that has frontage on a tidal waterway, a tidal wetland, or a stream, or any disturbance to the Buffer or expanded Buffer will require a Buffer Management Plan. The Buffer Management Plan must be submitted to and approved by the local government, usually the planning office.

  5. Can I prepare my own Buffer Management Plan?

    Yes. A property owner can prepare a Buffer Management Plan for removal of individual trees, riparian access paths to the water, pruning, and most small construction projects. The Green Book for the Buffer includes Garden Plans in Chapter 6 that can be submitted for projects that require submission of a Minor Buffer Management Plan. If your required Buffer planting is 5,000 square feet or greater, you may want to hire a professional to assist in developing a plan that addresses conditions on your site and meets your specific needs.

  6. Will my Buffer Management Plan require that I replant areas where I remove vegetation?

    Yes. When vegetation, including invasive species, is removed in the Buffer, it must be replaced. The only exception is when a dead tree is removed. In that case, the area of the stump must be stabilized with native groundcover or other native vegetation as may be necessary.

  7. Do I need a Buffer Management Plan to plant trees, shrubs, or a garden in the Buffer?

    In general, a Buffer Management Plan is not required to plant voluntarily in the Buffer. A garden may be planted in the Buffer; however, if the garden is large and involves tilling to prepare the soil, you may need to file a Buffer Management Plan. Check with your local planning office before starting work. 

  8. What is the difference between “Buffer establishment” and “Buffer mitigation”?

    “Buffer establishment” is required on certain properties when construction or development takes place outside the Buffer. “Buffer mitigation” is required when construction or land disturbance takes place in the Buffer.

  9. I have a lot of poison ivy, vines, and brush in my Buffer. Can I “bush hog” it?

    No. Bush hogging is not permitted in the Buffer because it is potentially damaging to this sensitive area. Poison ivy can be sprayed with an herbicide and removed by hand (gloves are strongly recommended). Vines and brush can be cut or grubbed by hand. Some brush species may actually be native shrubs. Manual removal will ensure that desirable native species can be maintained. Mulching or planting with native groundcover species is strongly recommended to stabilize that area after removing noxious or invasive species.

  10. What size plants do I need to satisfy a Buffer planting requirement?

    The minimum size for a canopy tree is ¾-inch caliper (trunk diameter measured six inches from the ground) in order to receive 100 square feet of credit.  A ¾-inch understory tree is worth 75 square feet of credit. Large shrub species should be at least three feet high for 50 square feet of credit and small shrubs at least 18 inches high for 25 square feet of credit. Smaller planting materials or natural regeneration may be acceptable for large planting requirements.

  11. Can I cut small trees in the Buffer without a Buffer Management Plan approved by the local government?

    No. The cutting or removal of any trees, shrubs, and natural vegetation in the Buffer requires the homeowner to file a Buffer Management Plan.

  12. Can I remove invasive or noxious plants such as English Ivy, Japanese Honeysuckle, or Phragmites in the Buffer?

    Yes. Removal of invasive or noxious species in the Buffer and replacing them with desirable native species is encouraged. However, a Simplified Buffer Management Plan is required. Also, the removal of invasive species must be done by hand or by using a backpack sprayer. Mowing or bush hogging is not permitted.

  13. Can I remove a tree or natural vegetation that blocks my view?

    Removal of healthy trees and natural vegetation in the Buffer is not permitted solely for the purpose of creating a view. However, trees and shrubs can be pruned and limbed up to create openings that provide a view. The removal of invasive species and vines is permitted and can also improve a view. A Buffer Management Plan can be used for this purpose. Thoughtful design in selecting the type and location of plants in the Buffer, careful pruning of existing trees and shrubs, and a thorough approach to removing invasives and planting groundcovers can be used to enhance water views.

  14. Can I apply herbicides in the Buffer?

    Yes. You can manually apply herbicides in the Buffer for the removal of invasive species. Targeted spraying to eradicate individual plants or treat small areas, using an herbicide appropriate for application near waterways, is recommended. You may need to cover or protect desirable native species so they are not destroyed.

  15. Can I mow my lawn in the Buffer?

    Yes. Mowing an existing lawn in the Buffer is permitted. Mowing of shrub scrub vegetation, marsh vegetation, or forest understory vegetation is not permitted. New areas of lawn cannot be created in the Buffer.

  16. What can I do about trees that are damaged by storms?

    If a tree is diseased, dying, invasive, or considered a hazardous tree (likely to fall and cause damage or injury), a property owner can remove the tree by obtaining approval of a Simplified Buffer Management Plan. Each tree removed must be replaced with a ¾-inch caliper nursery stock tree. If the tree removal involves more than five trees, a local government may require a site visit, additional documentation, or a Minor Buffer Management Plan at its discretion. Dead trees do not require replacement, but the area should be stabilized with native vegetation.

  17. Can I trim shrubs and prune trees within the Buffer?

    Yes. You can trim shrubs and prune trees within the Buffer using hand tools as long as the pruning and trimming does not affect the water quality and habitat functions of the Buffer. In general, if live branches are to be pruned or invasive species are to be removed, and three or more trees will be affected, you should contact your local planning office to determine what, if any, authorization is needed. Depending on the number of trees and shrubs to be trimmed or pruned and the size of the area of the Buffer affected, a Simplified or Minor Buffer Management Plan may be required. Check with local planning staff before starting work.

  18. Is mitigation required for trimming and pruning trees within the Buffer?

    No. Mitigation is not required as long as the pruning and trimming does not remove more than 25 percent of the living canopy and limbing up of lower branches is limited to the lower one-third of the height of the tree.

  19. Do I have to plant in the Buffer when I am doing a shore erosion control project?

    Yes. Generally planting in the Buffer will be required at a one-to-one ratio for the square footage of shoreline disturbance associated with the project and for the replacement of any canopy trees that are removed. This is usually calculated as the linear feet of shoreline multiplied by the work area along the shoreline or 15 feet, whichever is greater plus the area of canopy coverage removed.

  20. Why is planting required for shore erosion control projects when the project is being installed to help the Bay by reducing sedimentation?

    Planting is necessary to restore the functions of the Buffer after disturbing the sensitive intertidal zone along the shoreline. Planting offsets the temporary impacts on habitat and water quality associated with the construction activity itself and helps to rapidly stabilize the disturbed shoreline area. Mitigation by planting in the Buffer also improves the habitat and water quality benefits of most shore erosion control practices by stabilizing soils, promoting infiltration, building natural resilience, and enhancing nutrient uptake.

  21. Is mitigation required for access to the shoreline and for stockpile areas created when you do a shore erosion control project?

    No. As long as the access and stockpile areas do not involve clearing of natural vegetation, grading, or the installation of an access road, mitigation is not required. If natural vegetation is cleared, it must be replaced at a one-to-one ratio. If a temporary road is installed, the road must be removed and the area fully restored.

Where can I get additional information?

For specific questions, contact the planning and zoning department of your local government. Click here for a list.