Critical Area Commission for the Chesapeake and Atlantic Coastal Bays

Background and History

Skipjack races on the Chesapeake Bay, istockThe Chesapeake Bay, the largest and most productive estuary in the United States, is Maryland's grandest natural resource. The Bay drains a watershed of more than 64,000 square miles within which dwell more than 13 million people. Its ecosystem provides habitat for about 2700 species of plants and animals. The region constitutes a major commercial center connected by extensive transportation networks to the nation's interior. The Bay's seemingly limitless bounty has encouraged the development of commercial activities as varied as fishing, shipbuilding, agriculture, steel-making, manufacturing and chemical production.

The intensity of this development has caused a dramatic reduction in the health of the Bay ecosystem. Nutrients, sediments, and toxic substances entering the Bay are not readily flushed out into the ocean but, because of the unique circulation pattern in the Bay, accumulate within the estuary. The major environmental problems of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries were investigated in a comprehensive study initiated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1975. The study's final research findings and recommended remedial strategies were published in September 1983. They formed the foundation for the first Chesapeake Bay Agreement by which the governments of Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia, in partnership with the federal government, agreed to develop and implement coordinated plans to improve and protect the water quality and living resources of the Bay.

The EPA study especially recognized that land use and population growth are major factors in shaping the historical decline in the living resources of the Bay. The number of people living around the bay determine the demands placed on its ecosystem and those demands are growing. It has been estimated that between 1970 and 1980, developed acreage in Maryland grew more than twice as fast as the population: a 7.5 percent population increase was accompanied by a 16.5 percent increase in developed acreage. Much of this increase occurred within 1000 feet of the tidal waters of the Chesapeake. In a period of only thirty years, from 1950 to 1980, the population of the Chesapeake Bay basin grew by 50% to nearly 12.5 million people. By 2020, that number will rise to over 16 million. In Maryland alone, we are preparing for an increase of over a million new citizens whose desire for access to the Bay’s resources will be undiminished.

Both water quality and wildlife habitat can be seriously degraded by the cumulative impact of intensified development. That impact is often manifested as non-point source pollution. Non-point source pollution is generated by diffuse land use activities rather than from an identifiable or discrete facility. It is conveyed to waterways through natural processes -- rainfall, storm runoff or groundwater seepage rather than by deliberated discharge. Non-point source pollution is not generally corrected by "end-of-the-pipe" treatment but by changes in land management practices.

In 1984, to safeguard the Bay from the negative impacts of intense development, the Maryland General Assembly enacted the Chesapeake Bay Critical Area Protection Program, a far-reaching effort to control future land use development in the Chesapeake's watershed. The ribbon of land within 1000 feet of the tidal influence of the Bay was determined to be crucial because development in this "critical area" has direct and immediate effects on the health of the Bay.

The Chesapeake Bay Critical Area Commission was charged with devising a set of criteria which would minimize the adverse effects of human activities on water quality and natural habitats and would foster consistent, uniform and more sensitive development activity within the Critical Area. In cooperation with the Critical Area commission , local critical area management programs are administered by the 61 local governments whose jurisdiction are partially or entirely within the Critical Area.

Development in the Critical Area

Land within the Critical Area is categorized by its predominant use and the intensity of its development. This system allows local governments to focus new development toward existing developed areas and permits some infill of similar density. It also allows them to designate natural resources areas for habitat protection and for forestry, agriculture and other resource utilization activities. Each classification or category poses different challenges for land managers attempting to achieve the goals of the Critical Area Law and so the specific management programs for each differ. But the intention of each of the programs remains consistent -- to protect the Chesapeake Bay from the ill effects of human activities. Read more...

Preserving Our Precious Natural Resources

The Critical Area Law requires that each local jurisdiction identify and provide for the establishment, preservation, and maintenance of Habitat Protection Areas. These areas include: a naturally vegetated 100-foot buffer (the Buffer); nontidal wetlands; the habitats of threatened and endangered species, and species in need of conservation, and their habitat; significant plant and wildlife habitat; and, anadromous fish-spawning areas. Read more...

Growth Allocation

To accommodate future growth, a local jurisdiction is authorized under the Critical Area Act to change a land use designation and allow development at a density or intensity which exceeds the limits of a site’s original designation. Read more...