The Virginia General Assembly enacted the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act in 1988. The Act is a critical element of Virginia's multifaceted response to the Chesapeake Bay Agreement. The Bay Act established a cooperative relationship between the Commonwealth and local governments aimed at reducing and preventing nonpoint source pollution. The Bay Act, like many other environmental protection programs, is an extension of the public trust doctrine. The beds of Virginia's streams, rivers and estuaries and the waters above them are held and managed by the Commonwealth for the benefit of all Virginians.
The Bay Act Program is designed to improve water quality in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries by requiring the use of effective conservation planning and pollution prevention practices when using and developing environmentally sensitive lands. At the heart of the Bay Act is the concept that land can be used and developed in ways that minimize negative impacts on water quality. The first sentence of the Bay Act serves as a theme for the entire statute:
"Healthy state and local economies and a healthy Chesapeake Bay are integrally related; balanced economic development and water quality protection are not mutually exclusive."
The Virginia General Assembly designed the Act to enhance water quality and still allow reasonable development to continue. The Bay Act balances state and local economic interests and water quality improvement. The Bay Act created a unique partnership between the state and local governments in Tidewater Virginia. The Act recognizes that local governments have the primary responsibility for land use decisions. The Act expands local government authority to manage water quality and establishes a more specific relationship between water quality protection and local land use decision-making.
Each Tidewater locality must adopt a program based on the regulations adopted by the Local Assistance Board. The Regulations, like the Bay Act, recognize local government responsibility for land use decisions. The Regulations are designed to establish a framework for compliance but do not dictate precisely what local programs must look like. Local governments have flexibility to develop water quality preservation programs that reflect unique local characteristics and embody other community goals. Such flexibility also facilitates innovative and creative approaches in achieving program objectives.
Local Bay Act programs start by adopting or amending local land use plans and ordinances. Local governments must amend their zoning ordinances, subdivision ordinances, and comprehensive plans to incorporate water quality protection measures consistent with the Bay Act Regulations. The Regulations address non-point source pollution by identifying and protecting certain lands called Chesapeake Bay Preservation Areas. The Regulations use a resource-based approach that recognizes differences between various land forms and treats them differently.
The lands that make up Chesapeake Bay Preservation Areas are those that have the potential to impact water quality most directly. Generally, there are two types of land features: those that protect and benefit water quality (Resource Protection Areas, or RPAs) and those that, without proper management, have the potential to damage water quality (Resource Management Areas, or RMAs). By carefully managing land uses within these areas, local governments help reduce the water quality impacts of nonpoint source pollution and improve the health of the Chesapeake Bay.