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No more beachfront homes? New state regs could limit coastal development

Eve Zuckoff

The state is looking to limit new homes from being built along the most vulnerable areas of the coast as part of an effort to better prepare for climate change.

For years, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) has been working on a suite of new rules and changes to the Wetlands Protection Act and waterways regulations. Officials are calling the newly announced plans “Resilience 1.0” and said they will soon release more plans to help communities prepare for extreme weather.

“Our hope is that these updates will allow homeowners, business owners and communities to plan better and develop smarter and really reduce our overall risk,“ said Bonnie Heiple, MassDEP commissioner.

MassDEP officials will offer three information sessions on the proposed regulations — two on Jan. 18 and one on Jan. 23. Public hearings will be hosted via zoom on Jan. 31 and Feb. 1; and a public comment period will last through March 1.

Less development, less risk 

Currently, there’s about $55 billion worth of infrastructure like homes and businesses in the state’s coastal floodplain, which mostly includes low-lying areas that are potentially inundated with water during storms.

The proposed regulations would minimize new development in the most vulnerable areas of the coastal floodplain where waves tend to reach over three feet.

“So for these houses that are being built in areas that are increasingly perilous to build," Heiple said, “the proposal is that that type of development would no longer be allowed.”

Instead, these “outermost zones” can be used to protect larger swaths of coastal communities.

“The ideal is that we would be preserving the natural shoreline so that wave energy and tidal changes are impacting the coast naturally,” said Kathy Baskin, assistant commissioner at MassDEP's Bureau of Water Resources, “instead of just barreling into the built environment and causing greater erosion.”

The regulations would also require elevation of new development in areas where most storm damage occurs.

But the most vulnerable parts of the coastal floodplain are generally already developed or covered by other regulations for beaches or wetlands. So, Heiple added, only about 10% of the most vulnerable parts of the floodplain will be subject to these new development restrictions.

"It's actually quite a small slice when you see the mapping. It's little bits and pieces of of the coastline that are still available,” she said. "We think it's really important that we're not continuing to build in those areas. But this won't affect broad swaths of remaining coastline.”

Stormwater regulations to be upgraded, too 

MassDEP officials said the other half of their proposed regulations center around stormwater management.

If the changes are finalized, developers could be awarded a new type of credit for "Green Site Design” when they use natural solutions to manage stormwater.

State officials said they’re hopeful this would lead to cleaner water; with traditional infrastructure, stormwater runoff often picks up fertilizer, oil, pesticides, dirt and other pollutants on roads and yards, before making its way into fresh water and saltwater environments.

With a credit in hand proving they’re using trees and buffer zones to manage stormwater, for example, developers would be excused from having to construct stormwater pipes and detention basins to a certain degree.

“So if you put in a certain number of trees, or you have a swale, the conservation commissions will be able to say something like, ‘Oh, we see that you get credit for 25% or 50% of the stormwater that you would have managed,’” Baskin said.

However, new housing developments with five to nine units per lot must meet the new standards "only to the extent possible." Housing developments with four or fewer units and single-family houses and would be exempted from the stormwater requirements and wetlands regulations altogether.

Eve Zuckoff covers the environment and human impacts of climate change for CAI.