Comprehensive Plan

The Comprehensive Plan contains the official land use planning policies for a locality. Plans integrate many local government functions, such as development & redevelopment, zoning, capital improvement budgets, economic development, & transportation. Sea level rise (SLR) will affect all of these functions; long-range planning process presents an opportunity for adaptation planning.

Local governments control land use decisions for most of VA’s privately owned tidal shoreline. Shorelines are the first line of defense against rising water; land use planning is critical when adapting to SLR. Comprehensive Plans can assess SLR vulnerabilities through maps & adoption of risk scenarios & recommend pursuing, adopting, & implementing adaptive policies, such as the creation of “inundation zones,” to protect against SLR impacts.

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.

Virginia Beach Comp. Plan (2009): included SLR projection of 2.3-5.2 ft. by 2100. Resiliency is key focus in current Plan revision - includes wide range of SLR scenarios: near, middle, and far-term estimates. Portsmouth undergoing Plan update: resiliency & SLR adaptation will feature throughout all sections.

James City County Comp. Plan: implements multiple individual watershed management plans. Ex: Powhatan Creek Watershed Management Plan has minimum 200 ft. riparian buffer along Creek’s main tidal stem to preserve ecological value.

Gloucester: Floodplain Management Plan referenced in Comp. Plan.

Portsmouth: Floodplain Management Plan included as an addendum to Comp. Plan.

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

Poquoson: life-cycle costing used with inundation map modeling to develop maps - added into Comp. Plan to represent SLR over time.

Hampton Roads Planning District Commission’s “Coastal Resiliency Committee”: opportunity to share pertinent information on best available data & adaptation planning strategies + opportunity to 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.


Florida: "Adaptation Action Area" or "Adaptation Area" is an optional comprehensive plan designation for areas that experience coastal flooding + vulnerable to impacts of SLR. Area designation prioritizes funding for infrastructure & adaptation planning.

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

Locality interview feedback: lack of standard SLR projections is barrier felt by all localities - too many scenarios to plan efficiently & effectively. Possible solution: use Army Corp of Engineers’ sea-level change curve calculator - projections based on specific geographies & includes low, intermediate & high scenarios.

Locality interview feedback: some localities seek ways to accommodate rising waters, but other higher-lying localities mentioned need to prepare for migration to their boundaries.

Locality interview feedback: some localities created interdepartmental sea level rise advisory committees where adaptation projects are discussed as a group to reduce duplication of efforts and/or confusion & 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

Plans alone have no teeth to enforce adaptive measures, but can be highly influential if planning and regulatory tools, including zoning, transportation planning, water supply & stormwater management planning, economic development, parks/open space planning, building codes, subdivision ordinances, floodplain management plans, and green infrastructure plans, closely model its inclusion of sea level rise adaptation strategies. Localities can use Comprehensive Plans to:

  • Study and map vulnerabilities to sea level rise
  • Develop adaptation/mitigation strategies via land use designations, create local hazard mitigation plans, adopt comprehensive coastal resource management guidance, & designate Urban Development Areas
  • Site critical infrastructure & UDAs outside high hazard areas
  • Conserve low-density lands for a transfer of development rights (TDR) program
  • Protect, conserve, and/or acquire floodplains & land adjacent to natural infrastructure; identify shorelines for natural infrastructure installation/rehabilitation

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]


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).

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