Rhode Island Coastal Setbacks and Coastal Buffer Zones

Rhode Island, under the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC), mandates erosion-oriented setbacks and Coastal Buffer Zones (Rhode Island Administrative Code 650 20-00-1.1, Adopted November 2017). The Rhode Island CRMC is the state’s regulatory coastal management agency. These regulations better protect structures and conserve important coastal ecosystems by determining setbacks and buffers based on accelerating rates of sea-level rise and erosion. Setbacks are based on average annual rates of erosion as measured on localized, property-scale maps. Property owners may voluntarily exceed these minimum setback requirements based on CRMC’s recommendations to plan for future coastal climate impacts. In addition, CMRC requires that property owners establish Coastal Buffer Zones (CBZ) for development adjacent to vegetated, natural shorelines to minimize disturbances to those habitats. CBZs facilitate the transition of those habitats to upland areas. CBZs also help prevent erosion and flooding by stabilizing the soil and slowing water runoff.

CRMC regulations (Rhode Island Administrative Code 650 20-00-1.1.9) require a minimum setback of 50 feet from a coastal feature, or 25 feet from a CBZwhichever is furthest inland, except in “areas of erosion,” as defined by CRMC. In areas of erosion, setbacks are instead based on historical erosion rates as shown on CRMC’s Shoreline Change Mapswhich are statewide maps illustrating coastal erosion1. The Shoreline Change Maps are unique in enabling people to consider highly localized erosion risks to adequately plan for coastal impacts facing their property. Setbacks for three or fewer houses may be no less than 30 times the average annual erosion rate; for commercial or industrial structures or four or more houses, they may be no less than 60 times the average annual erosion rate. Still, acknowledging that future erosion rates may be more aggressive due to climate change and sea-level rise, CRMC recommends property owners set structures back even further than the minimum requirements to better protect those structures. 

Coastal Buffer Zones are also required by CRMC regulations (Rhode Island Administrative Code 650 20-00-1.1.11) for all new or “sizeable” (i.e., structural footprint is increased by 50 percent or more) residential developments, as well as any development on existing commercial and industrial structures. As defined by CRMC, a CBZ is land adjacent to a shoreline feature that is “vegetated with native shoreline species and which acts as a natural transition zone between the coast and adjacent upland development” (Rhode Island Administrative Code  650 20-00-1.1.2(26)). Required buffers generally range from 15–200 feet, depending on, among other things, the size of the lot.

Publication Date: November 29, 2017

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