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 that 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.

Case Study

Virginia Beach’s 2016 Comprehensive Plan details an Environmental Stewardship Framework that considers sea level rise, recurrent flooding, and hazard mitigation. This provides an overview of the city’s planning efforts, which include a recent update to the floodplain ordinance, the adoption of a 2-foot freeboard requirement, and the identification of two sea level rise scenarios to use for short and long-term planning purposes. The short-term planning horizon considers 1.5 ft. of projected SLR, while the long-term horizon (50+ years) uses 3 ft. of SLR as the basis for decisions regarding public infrastructure.

Case Study

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.

Use Comp. Plans to outline goals for enhancing & protecting natural resources. 


Norfolk's Comp. Plan Action ES1.3.1: Increase the quantity/density/diversity of trees to achieve a goal of 40% tree canopy cover through a combination of regulatory actions and City-provided trees. 

Locality Feedback

Goals & strategies included in the Comp. Plan need to be based on local conditions. Adaptation priorities will vary significantly based on elevation, land use, & availability of funding/staff time. Coastal communities must seek ways to accommodate rising water, while higher-lying localities may need to prepare for migration within their boundaries.

In 2017, Rhode Island passed a bill requiring that each member of a local planning board/commission participate in a training program on SLR and development within the floodplain.  Within Virginia, several communities are developing interdepartmental SLR advisory committees that provide a forum to discuss adaptation projects, reduce duplicative efforts, and identify funding sources. In at least one urban locality interviewed, this type of collaboration resulted in one department financing the project of another. 

One barrier felt by all localities is the lack of a standard SLR projection to use for planning horizons. To address this, staff should consider referencing the VIMS data on historic sea level and projections found on AdaptVirginia, or the USACE sea-level change curve calculatorThe City of New York's Office of Recovery and Resiliency has addressed this issue by releasing Climate Resiliency Design Guidelines which apply to all City capital projects. 

  • Avenue to incorporate local studies & map vulnerable areas
  • Review process provides an opening to plan for SLR

  • Provides opportunities for public participation

  • 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

  • Many localities lack the administrative time/resources to adopt new policies or programs


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. Nationally, some states have begun implementing training requirements to educate local planning boards on the effects of sea level rise. 

Study & map vulnerabilities to SLR (flooding, storm surge, erosion). Poquoson has combined life-cycle costing with inundation modeling to develop maps, which were added into the Comp. Plan (Figure 8-4) to inform the future land use map.

Identify & designate zones within the locality expected to see increased impacts. Then, specify adaptation/mitigation strategies and plan for future growth based on the current & future conditions facing these zones. Ex. The USACE, in partnership with the City of Norfolk, conducted the Coastal Storm Risk Management Feasibility Study, which recommends suitable actions by area (which could then be incorporated into the Comp. Plan). 

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. In 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) or purchase of development rights (PDR) program. Protect, conserve, and/or acquire floodplains & land adjacent to natural infrastructure as open space and buffers. Identify shorelines for natural infrastructure installation/rehabilitation, and promote resilient shoreline management strategies. For example, the Accomack County Comp. Plan encourages Wetlands Board to push shoreline erosion control measures toward living shorelines. Finally, encourage green infrastructure (GI) and low impact development (LID) in areas where traditional stormwater management systems are being overwhelmed.

Click to enlarge a cross-section showing resilient coastal solutions (source: ACOE)

In areas less susceptible to SLR:

Prioritize economic development & site critical facilities and infrastructure, including evacuation routes. Designate Urban Development Areas to shift growth away from the coastline, and identify receiving areas for a TDR/PDR program.

Ensure that other local plans and ordinances align with the goals, strategies, & actions described in the Comp. Plan, including the zoning ordinance, building code, subdivision ordinance, Capital Improvement Program, Green Infrastructure Plan, and Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy (CEDS).

Example: James City County’s Comprehensive Plan references four individual watershed management plans adopted by the Board of Supervisors. The Powhatan Creek Watershed Management Plan recommended a 300 ft. riparian buffer along the Creek’s main tidal stem to preserve ecological value.

Along with goals, policies, & strategies, increase accountability and successful implementation by including benchmarks & metrics for success, an implementation schedule for the Plan’s actions, and an implementation progress report, as part of the planning commission’s annual report.


In the Plan, explicitly state that the locality shall keep flood-prone land open, minimize stormwater runoff and impervious surfaces, and protect water quality and other environmentally sensitive features in compliance with the VSMP through the use of GI practices, environmental site design techniques and/or conservation, open-space, low-density, or cluster development.


Williamsburg, VA

The City's Comp. Plan identifies 2 Regional Reserve Open Space Areas (adjacent to floodplains). In addition to the benefits of land preservation, these Open Space Areas are used like a regional BMP to offset stormwater impacts of proposed development, and allow developers to buy nutrient credits to meet VSMP requirements.

CRS Credit

1: Up to 100 points (Activity 510, Natural Floodplain Functions Plan (NFP), Manual pg. 510-35)

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

Localities can use the Comp. Plan to identify and map priority areas for restoring/enhancing natural floodplain functions, restoring habitat, and protecting open space. Adopting additional Plans (such as a Stormwater Master Plan or a Green Infrastructure Plan), that include these priorities, as an addendum to the Comp. Plan can provide added authority, reinforce and align CRS and stormwater priorities and actions across multiple local departments, between Plans, and through the Capital Improvement Program.


2: Up to 10 points (Activity 420, Open Space Incentives (OSI7), Manual pg. 420-25)

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

Recommend/identify land in Master Plans to be preserved as open space through environmental site design and/or areas to be restored as stormwater BMPs (as retrofits or through development).

Ex: Sheetflow (across amended soils and turf) to Conserved Natural Open Space or a Vegetated Filter Strip (of restored native vegetation); and Urban Tree Planting and Reforestation/Riparian Buffer Planting (in floodprone areas).

3: Up to 382 points (Activity 510, Floodplain Management Planning (FMP), Manual pg. 510-4)

Credit for community-wide plans that address floodplain management. Plans must meet a 10-step requirement. Typically, localities receive credit for this activity through their Hazard Mitigation Plan.

Virginia Beach Outdoors Plan

The Plan, a reference document to the City's Comp. Plan, explicitly discusses the use of parks and greenways for flood protection, stormwater storage, and water quality. It also identifies natural resources (ex. Live Oak Grove Preservation Area in Princess Anne Commons Athletic Village) that have been protected and mapped in master planning efforts and refers to/aligns with the City Urban Forestry Plan to restore Riparian Buffers.


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 locally relevant data, resources, shoreline BMPs, & other SLR related info for localities in coastal VA, as directed by VA General Assembly. 

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.

Adapt Virginia (VIMS): A Virginia-specific resource containing science, legal guidance, and planning strategies for SLR adaptation. A Comprehensive Viewer allows users to map SLR projections, physical & ecological assets, shoreline management strategies, and more.


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., Hershner, C., et. al (2013). Recurrent Flooding Study for Tidewater Virginia. Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences. 

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