Comprehensive Plan

The Comprehensive Plan contains the official land use planning policies for a locality. The Plan does not contain regulations, but rather provides a vision of the community’s future which is legally implemented through the zoning ordinance, subdivision regulations, and the capital improvements program.

Localities within the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission are required to incorporate strategies to combat projected sea-level rise & recurrent flooding into their Comprehensive Plans. The Plan is the first step in sea level rise (SLR) adaptation, providing an opportunity to: 1) assess both current and future SLR vulnerabilities through studying, mapping, & adopting risk scenarios and 2) recommend adaptive policies to protect against SLR impacts.

Virginia Beach’s 2009 Comprehensive Plan revision included a SLR projection of 2.3-5.2 ft. by 2100. The 2016 revision featured an increased focus on resiliency. The City identified two SLR scenarios for short and long-term planning purposes.

  • Short term SLR projection= 1.5 ft.

  • Long term SLR projection (50+ years)= 3 ft.

    • Used as the basis for long-term decisions on design/replacement of public infrastructure & utilities, alternative transportation modes, & stormwater drainage systems.

Florida: In 2011, Florida passed the Community Planning Act, which allowed for the optional designation of an “Adaptation Action Area” within a locality’s Comp. Plan. This designation allows for the City to identify areas to pursue adaptation planning measures, in addition to prioritizing funding for infrastructure improvements.

Florida Statute 163.3164(1) defines an Adaptation Action Area as

“A designation in the coastal management element of a local government’s comprehensive plan which identifies one or more areas that experience coastal flooding due to extreme high tides and storm surge, and that are vulnerable to the related impacts of rising sea levels for the purpose of prioritizing funding for infrastructure needs and adaptation planning.”

The City of Fort Lauderdale, Fl. has served as an Adaptation Action Area pilot community, with the goal of integrating SLR adaptation into the Comp Plan. In 2015, the City’s Community Investment Plan identified 16 Adaptation Action Areas, with 38 projects designated for funding, including improvements to the stormwater system, creation of stormwater parks, and seawall restoration & replacement.

The lack of standard SLR projections is barrier felt by all localities - too many scenarios to plan efficiently & effectively.

Potential solution: use Army Corp of Engineers’ sea-level change curve calculator - projections based on specific geographies & includes low, intermediate & high scenarios.

Localities should ensure the goals & strategies included in the Comp. Plan are based on local conditions. Adaptation needs vary dramatically based on elevation, land use & availability of funding/staff time. While some localities seek ways to accommodate rising waters, other higher-lying localities have discussed the need to prepare for migration within their boundaries.

Some communities are creating interdepartmental sea level rise advisory committees where adaptation projects are discussed as a group to reduce duplication of efforts & to identify funding. In Portsmouth, meetings between multiple departments resulted in one department financing a project of another.


  • Potentially the most useful planning tool to anticipate sea level rise impacts: can incorporate studies & mapping vulnerable areas
  • Review process provides an opening to plan for SLR
  • Provides opportunities for public participation
  • No standard estimate to how much & when localized SLR will occur
  • Varying SLR projections = planning for substantially different scenarios = time consuming & expensive
  • Plans include SLR as issue, but implementation of adaptation/mitigation strategies are difficult to achieve & sometimes politically unfavorable
  • Lack the administrative time/resources to adopt new policies or programs

1: Use an increased planning horizon to identify future issues & opportunities

Ex. Norfolk’s Vision 2100 uses a 100-year timeframe to plan for the City’s future development.

2: Study & map vulnerabilities to SLR (flooding, storm surge, erosion, wind)

Ex. Poquoson: Combined life-cycle costing used with inundation map modeling to develop maps - added into Comp. Plan (Figure 8-4) to inform future land use map.

3: Identify & designate zones within the locality expected to see increased impacts.

4: Tailor specific adaptation/mitigation strategies and plan for future growth based on the current & future conditions facing these zones.

  • In areas highly susceptible to SLR:

    • Develop zones that prioritize strategies for either protection, accommodation, managed retreat, or open space preservation

    • Implement stringent requirements for development, redevelopment, and rebuilding

      • Florida: Local governments must include a redevelopment component to reduce the risk of flood in comprehensive coastal management plans.  

    • Conserve low-density lands for a transfer of development rights (TDR) program

    • Promote resilient shoreline management strategies

      • Ex. Accomack County Comp. Plan: encourages Wetlands Board to push shoreline erosion control measures toward living shorelines.

    • Encourage green infrastructure (GI) and low impact development (LID) in areas where traditional stormwater management systems are being overwhelmed

    • Protect, conserve, and/or acquire floodplains & land adjacent to natural infrastructure; identify shorelines for natural infrastructure installation/rehabilitation

  • In areas less susceptible to SLR:

    • Prioritize economic development & site critical infrastructure, including evacuation routes

    • Designate Urban Development Areas to shift growth away from the coastline

    • Identify receiving areas for a TDR program

5: Ensure the following plans and ordinances align with the goals, strategies, & actions described in the Comp. plan.

  • Local hazard mitigation plans

  • Comprehensive coastal resource management guidance

  • Zoning ordinance

  • Stormwater management ordinance

  • Building code

  • Subdivision ordinance

  • Capital Improvement Program

  • Transportation plans (Long-range transportation plan, six-year improvement plan)

  • Floodplain management plan

  • Green Infrastructure Plan

  • Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy (CEDS)

Example: Ex. James City County’s Comprehensive Plan references four individual watershed management plans adopted by the Board of Supervisors. The Powhatan Creek Watershed Management Plan has minimum 200 ft. riparian buffer along Creek’s main tidal stem to preserve ecological value.

6: Along with goals, policies, & strategies, increase accountability and successful implementation by including

  • Benchmarks & metrics for success

  • Implementation schedule for the Plan’s actions

  • Implementation progress report, as part of the planning commission’s annual report

1: Up to 100 points (Activity 510, Natural Floodplain Functions Plan (NFP), Manual pg. 510-235)

Credit for plans addressing habitat conservation and restoration, green infrastructure, open space, and natural floodplain functions in the Comprehensive Plan.

2: Up to 10 points (Activity 420, Open Space Incentives (OSI), pg. 420-20)

Credit for recommending open space use or low-density development of flood-prone areas in the Comprehensive Plan.

Code of Virginia, § 15.2-2223: planning commission shall prepare & recommend comprehensive plan & every governing body shall adopt a plan

Code of Virginia § 15.2-2223.1: locality may amend its plan to incorporate urban development areas...a portion may be designated a receiving area for any transfer of development rights program established by locality

Code of Virginia, § 15.2-2223.2: A Comprehensive Coastal Resource Management Plan must be included in comprehensive plans [required for Tidewater localities]

Code of Virginia, § 15.2-2223.3: Comprehensive plans must incorporate strategies to combat projected sea-level rise & recurrent flooding [required for localities within the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission]


Virginia Institute of Marine Science’s Comprehensive Coastal Resource Management Portals (CCRMPs): Provide VA General Assembly directed & locally relevant data, resources, shoreline best management practices, & other SLR related info for localities in coastal VA.

Hampton Roads Planning District Commission’s “Coastal Resiliency Committee”: Opportunity to share pertinent information on best available data & adaptation planning strategies + compare what works & doesn’t work with other localities.

Accomack-Northampton Planning District Commission’s “Climate Adaptation Working Group (CAWG)”: mission is to provide educational outreach & develop planning tools to assist local governments & residents. CAWG hosts public workshops on data, while also soliciting knowledge and personal anecdotal accounts on how SLR & climate change impact residents.

CanVis (Digital Coast): An easy alternative to Photoshop, which allows for the visualization of potential community impacts, including SLR, new development & shoreline armor.

Habitat Priority Planner (Digital Coast): Inventories specific habitats and conditions, and allows for “what if” scenarios showing the potential impact of new development or habitat restoration.

InVEST (Natural Capital Project): Includes 18 models for mapping and valuing ecosystem services.

SLAMM View: Visualizes SLR projects using the “Sea Level Affecting Marshes” model, and also considers local conditions of the Chesapeake Bay region.


CCRM. (2013). Comprehensive Coastal Resource Management Guidance. Virginia Institute of Marine Science, Center for Coastal Resources Management.

Ekstrom, J., Moser, S., & Torn, M. (2010). Barriers to Climate Change Adaptation: A Diagnostic Framework. California Energy Commission.

FEMA. (2015). Plan Integration: Linking Local Planning Efforts.

Grannis, J. (2011). Adaptation Tool Kit: Sea-Level Rise and Coastal Land Use. Georgetown Climate Center.

HRPDC. (2013). Coastal Resiliency: Adapting to Climate Change in Hampton Roads. Hampton Roads Planning District Commission.

Mitchell, M., Stiles, W., & Hartley , T. (2014). Sea Level Rise: A Relentless Reality that Virginia Must Continue to Plan Carefully For . The Virginia News Letter , 90 (6).

SFRPC. (2013). Adaptation Action Areas: Policy Options for Adaptive Planning for Rising Sea Levels. South Florida Regional Planning Council.

Stiles, W. (2010). A “Toolkit” For Sea Level Rise Adaptation in Virginia . Wetlands Watch .

VA APA. (2014). Managing Growth and Development in Virginia: A Review of the Tools Available to Localities. Virginia Chapter of the American Planning Association