The Chesapeake Bay Act and Regulations require that a vegetated buffer no less than than 100-feet wide be located adjacent to and landward of all tidal shores, tidal wetlands, non-tidal wetlands connected by surface flow and contiguous to tidal wetlands or along water bodies with perennial flow. These features, including the 100-foot buffer, comprise the Resource Protection Area (RPA), and serve a direct water quality function by removing excess sediment, nutrients, and potentially harmful or toxic substances from groundwater and surface water entering the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. Buffers also help to absorb periodic flood surges, and supply thermal protection, food, and cover to fish and other wildlife, stabilize stream-banks and provide recreation and aesthetic values.
Generally, vegetation in the 100-foot buffer must be preserved on lots that include an RPA, and established where it does not exist. The Regulations permit a property owner to modify the buffer by removing vegetation for several reasons:
(1) to provide for reasonable sight lines,
(2) the construction of access paths,
(3) general woodlot management, and
(4) shoreline erosion control projects.
Since the establishment of Bay Act, local government staff members have requested guidance on how to interpret and implement the sections of the Regulations that address buffer establishment, conservation, restoration, modification, and mitigation. While DCR-DCBLA had attempted to meet this need through information bulletins and a discussion in the Local Assistance Manual, it had long been recognized that further exploration of the issues and more detailed guidance was required. Without more specific guidance to localities on buffer issues, the full water quality benefits of riparian buffers are likely to remain unrealized.
In October 2001, the Department was awarded a grant from the U.S. Forest Service to undertake the Riparian Buffer Project. The primary goals of the project were (1) to promote the establishment and conservation of riparian forest buffers within Tidewater localities through the development and distribution of informational materials, and (2) to form a Buffer Issues Committee which would develop and publish buffer guidance that was consistent enough to be equitable across localities, but flexible enough to accommodate differences in local situations. The Guidance Document would provide administrative and regulatory assistance to localities in addition to providing technical recommendations for the establishment of riparian buffers. The Guidance Document would include recommendations for specific changes to land use ordinances that may be adopted by the Tidewater local governments. The guidance generated may serve as a model for other communities in the Chesapeake Bay watershed as well as an approach for the retention and management of forests in urban and suburban areas. We believe this project has greatly improved local administration of the Bay Act, thereby contributing to the water quality of the Bay and its tributaries.
The Riparian Buffers Modification and Mitigation Manual was adopted by the Chesapeake Bay Local Assistance Board in September of 2003 and is available for download at http://www.dcr.virginia.gov/stormwater_management/ripbuffmanual.shtml.