- What is the Critical Area Program?
The Critical Area includes all land within 1,000 feet of Maryland’s tidal waters and tidal wetlands. It also includes the waters of the Chesapeake Bay, the Atlantic Coastal Bays, their tidal tributaries, and the lands underneath these tidal areas. .
- How do I find out if my property is in the Critical Area?
Maps delineating the Critical Area were formally approved as part of each local jurisdiction’s Critical Area program and are available in the jurisdiction’s planning and zoning office. Some jurisdictions have created electronic versions of the original paper maps, and these can generally be accessed through the web-site of the jurisdiction where the property is located.
- Can you develop in the Critical Area?
A house can be constructed as long as the lot is legally recorded as a building lot and meets the county’s or town’s Critical Area, zoning, and Health Department requirements. Prior to buying property in the Critical Area, you should check with the local planning office to find out about all of the restrictions, limitations, and requirements that apply within the Critical Area.
Building and construction activities are subject to limits on lot coverage and clearing, as well as certain restrictions on the location of new structures. In order to obtain complete and accurate information about your specific site, you should contact your local planning office for information about compliance with the Critical Area Program.
Most residential building permits do not require review or approval by the Critical Area Commission and can be handled by the local government. If the project involves a variance, special exception, or conditional use, or if the project involves disturbance greater than 5,000 square feet in the RCA, the Critical Area Commission staff will review and provide comments to the local government. Most subdivisions, site plans, and rezoning requests are required to be sent to the Commission for review and comment in conjunction with the local review process.
- Can I remove trees from my property if it is in the Critical Area?
In general, homeowners can obtain approval through the local planning office to remove one or more trees from their property as long as the trees are not located in the Buffer, and new trees are planted on the property. (See the question below for additional information about the Buffer.) The Critical Area law requires no net loss of forest or developed woodland cover in the Critical Area. Replacement planting may be required at a higher ratio than one-to-one depending on the number of trees on your property and the size of the tree being removed. In general, trees that are located within the Buffer cannot be removed unless they are dead, dying, diseased, or creating a hazard to people or property. A Buffer Management Plan is required for all removal of vegetation within the Buffer except for mowing an existing lawn.
- If I think I see a violation near the water, who do I call?
If the violation is taking place on land, then you should call the local planning office in the jurisdiction where the violation is taking place. In most cases, you will be referred to someone in the inspections and permits department, and they will take the information. Providing specific and accurate information about the location (street address if possible) of the violation and the nature of the activity will assist the agency in following up quickly.
If the violation is taking place in the water or in wetlands, then you should call the Maryland Department of the Environment at (410) 537-3510.
If the violation is taking place on a week-end or after business hours, many jurisdictions will allow you to leave a message. Leave your name and phone number, so that you can be contacted if additional information is needed. If you cannot leave a message with a specific county or town, you can leave a message with the Critical Area Commission by calling (410) 260-3460. If you believe the violation is serious and needs immediate attention on a week-end, then contact the Department of Natural Resources Communications Center at 1-800-628-9944 or (410) 260-8888.
- Are farming and timber harvesting exempt from the Critical Area regulations?
Farming and timber harvesting are considered resource utilization activities in the Critical Area, but are not exempt from the Critical Area regulations. All farms in the Critical Area must have a Soil Conservation and Water Quality Plan in place, and farmers must work cooperatively with the local Soil Conservation Districts to implement Best Management Practices as specified in these Plans. All timber harvesting and cutting in the Critical Area require a Timber Harvest Plan. These Plans must be approved by the District Forestry Board. Timber harvests that exceed 5,000 square feet also require a Sediment and Erosion Control Plan.
- What is the Buffer?
The Critical Area Buffer is the land area immediately adjacent to tidal waters, tidal wetlands, and tributary streams. The minimum Buffer width is 100-feet; however, on some properties it may be wider because of steep slopes, wetlands, or sensitive soils. On some projects, a wider Buffer, often 300-feet or more was part of the original project approval. The local planning office can assist you in determining the width and location of the Buffer on your property.
The Buffer serves as an important protective area for aquatic resources and shoreline habitat. The Buffer is subject to much stricter requirements than the rest of the Critical Area because it is essential to water quality improvement and fish, wildlife, and plant habitat enhancement.
- What are the restrictions in the Buffer?
Generally, construction and land disturbance, such as clearing trees, cutting brush, or grading, are prohibited in the Buffer. New structures, roads, septic systems, sheds, and utilities must be located outside the Buffer unless an applicant works with the local approving authority to obtain a variance. Some structures that are determined to be water-dependent, such as a boat ramp, or that provide access to the water or are associated with erosion control measures, can be permitted in the Buffer subject to certain regulatory requirements and permits. The cutting or removal of natural vegetation in the Buffer is not allowed unless a property owner obtains approval of a Buffer Management Plan from the local government. Replanting is typically required for the removal of vegetation with certain exceptions for dead trees and invasive species. If the Buffer is already forested, it should be maintained in natural vegetation. Supplemental planting is permitted within the Buffer. Native plant species should be used to enhance wildlife habitat.
- If I am building a house or an addition outside the Buffer, is Buffer planting still required?
Yes. Planting is required unless the Buffer is already fully forested. The area of planting required depends on the type of project proposed, when the lot was recorded, and the area of existing forest in the Buffer.
- When is a Buffer Management Plan required?
Any development activity (human action that results in disturbance to land, natural vegetation, or a structure) on land that has frontage on a tidal waterway, a tidal wetland, or a stream, or any disturbance to the Buffer or expanded Buffer will require a Buffer Management Plan. The Buffer Management Plan must be submitted to and approved by the local government, usually the planning office.
- Can I prepare my own Buffer Management Plan?
Yes. A property owner can prepare a Buffer Management Plan for removal of individual trees, riparian access paths to the water, pruning, and most small construction projects. The Green Book for the Buffer includes Garden Plans in Chapter 6 that can be submitted for projects that require submission of a Minor Buffer Management Plan. If your required Buffer planting is 5,000 square feet or greater, you may want to hire a professional to assist in developing a plan that addresses conditions on your site and meets your specific needs.
- Will my Buffer Management Plan require that I replant areas where I remove vegetation?
Yes. When vegetation, including invasive species, is removed in the Buffer, it must be replaced. The only exception is when a dead tree is removed. In that case, the area of the stump must be stabilized with native groundcover or other native vegetation as may be necessary.
- Do I need a Buffer Management Plan to plant trees, shrubs, or a garden in the Buffer?
n general, a Buffer Management Plan is not required to plant voluntarily in the Buffer. A garden may be planted in the Buffer; however, if the garden is large and involves tilling to prepare the soil, you may need to file a Buffer Management Plan. Check with your local planning office before starting work.
- What is the difference between “Buffer establishment” and “Buffer mitigation”?
“Buffer establishment” is required on certain properties when construction or development takes place outside the Buffer. “Buffer mitigation” is required when construction or land disturbance takes place in the Buffer.
- I have a lot of poison ivy, vines, and brush in my Buffer. Can I “bush hog” it?
No. Bush hogging is not permitted in the Buffer because it is potentially damaging to this sensitive area. Poison ivy can be sprayed with an herbicide and removed by hand (gloves are strongly recommended). Vines and brush can be cut or grubbed by hand. Some brush species may actually be native shrubs. Manual removal will ensure that desirable native species can be maintained. Mulching or planting with native groundcover species is strongly recommended to stabilize that area after removing noxious or invasive species.
- Can I cut small trees in the Buffer without a Buffer Management Plan approved by the local government?
No. The cutting or removal of any trees, shrubs, and natural vegetation in the Buffer requires the homeowner to file a Buffer Management Plan.
- Can I remove invasive or noxious plants such as English Ivy, Japanese Honeysuckle, or Phragmites in the Buffer?
Yes. Removal of invasive or noxious species in the Buffer and replacing them with desirable native species is encouraged. However, a Simplified Buffer Management Plan is required. Also, the removal of invasive species must be done by hand or by using a backpack sprayer. Mowing or bush hogging is not permitted.
- Can I remove a tree or natural vegetation that blocks my view?
Removal of healthy trees and natural vegetation in the Buffer is not permitted solely for the purpose of creating a view. However, trees and shrubs can be pruned and limbed up to create openings that provide a view. The removal of invasive species and vines is permitted and can also improve a view. A Buffer Management Plan can be used for this purpose. Thoughtful design in selecting the type and location of plants in the Buffer, careful pruning of existing trees and shrubs, and a thorough approach to removing invasives and planting groundcovers can be used to enhance water views. The Green Book for the Buffer provides planting plans that maintain viewsheds and is an excellent resource for property owners in the Buffer.
- Can I apply herbicides in the Buffer?
Yes. You can manually apply herbicides in the Buffer for the removal of invasive species. Targeted spraying to eradicate individual plants or treat small areas, using an herbicide appropriate for application near waterways, is recommended. You may need to cover or protect desirable native species so they are not destroyed.
- Can I mow my lawn in the Buffer?
Yes. Mowing an existing lawn in the Buffer is permitted. Mowing of shrub scrub vegetation, marsh vegetation, or forest understory vegetation is not permitted. New areas of lawn cannot be created in the Buffer.
- What can I do about trees that are damaged by storms?
If a tree is diseased, dying, invasive, or considered a hazardous tree (likely to fall and cause damage or injury), a property owner can remove the tree by obtaining approval from the local jurisdiction of a Simplified Buffer Management Plan. Each tree removed must be replaced with a ¾-inch caliper nursery stock tree. If the tree removal involves more than five trees, a local government may require a site visit, additional documentation, or a Minor Buffer Management Plan at its discretion. Dead trees do not require replacement, but the area should be stabilized with native vegetation.
- Can I trim shrubs and prune trees within the Buffer?
Yes. You can trim shrubs and prune trees within the Buffer using hand tools as long as the pruning and trimming does not affect the water quality and habitat functions of the Buffer. In general, if live branches are to be pruned or invasive species are to be removed, and three or more trees will be affected, you should contact your local planning office to determine what, if any, authorization is needed. Depending on the number of trees and shrubs to be trimmed or pruned and the size of the area of the Buffer affected, a Simplified or Minor Buffer Management Plan may be required. Check with local planning staff before starting work.
- Is mitigation required for trimming and pruning trees within the Buffer?
No. Mitigation is not required as long as the pruning and trimming does not remove more than 25 percent of the living canopy and limbing up of lower branches is limited to the lower one-third of the height of the tree.
- Do I have to plant in the Buffer when I am doing a shore erosion control project?
Yes. Generally planting in the Buffer will be required at a one-to-one ratio for the square footage of shoreline disturbance associated with the project and for the replacement of any canopy trees that are removed. This is usually calculated as the linear feet of shoreline multiplied by the work area along the shoreline or 15 feet, whichever is greater, plus the area of canopy coverage removed. For more information on shoreline erosion control, including links to Buffer Management Plans and the Buffer Notification Form required for shoreline work, please visit our website.
- Is mitigation required for access to the shoreline and for stockpile areas created when you do a shore erosion control project?
As long as the access and stockpile areas do not involve clearing of natural vegetation, grading, or the installation of an access road, mitigation is not required. If natural vegetation is cleared, it must be replaced at a one-to-one ratio. If a temporary road is installed, the road must be removed and the area fully restored.