Community Coastal Resilience in Guilford, Connecticut

Adam Whelchel
Posted on: 1/27/2015 - Updated on: 3/02/2020

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Adam Whelchel

Project Summary

The Town of Guilford, Connecticut released its Community Coastal Resilience Plan in May 2014. Utilizing The Nature Conservancy’s Coastal Resilience tool, the overall goal of the program undertaken by the Town of Guilford is to address the current and future social, economic, and ecological resilience of the town’s shoreline to the impacts of sea level rise and anticipated increases in the frequency and severity of storm surge, coastal flooding, and erosion. The town orchestrated a multi-year, broad-based community engagement process to create the Community Coastal Resilience Plan, and now serves as a replicable and effective model for shoreline communities faced with increasing threats from coastal hazards.


The Town of Guilford, located on the shoreline of Long Island Sound, is a combination residential and summer community in New Haven County, Connecticut. Five miles in width and 12 miles in length, the town contains 47.6 square miles and a population of 21,000. Guilford is a suburb of urban New Haven with a small-town, historic atmosphere highlighted by its distinct rural character and significant natural resources. Residential housing ranging in size from small cottages to luxury single-family homes dominates the shoreline. The overall density is moderate averaging two to four single-family dwellings per acre. Most homes are located on rocky shorefront landscapes adjacent to small tidal estuaries and salt marshes. Guilford also has a small commercial harbor with recreational boating predominating. The town seeks to maintain its value and character by balancing development of its commercial and industrial area in the southern section with knowledge and appropriate adaptations to a changing shoreline.  

Guilford has a long and successful history of planning and regulating land development through innovative and effective programs including the Coastal Zone Management Act and other growth management strategies, including an exemplary Natural Hazard Mitigation Plan. This led Guilford to be selected by The Nature Conservancy (TNC) as one of two Connecticut pilot towns in 2008 for instituting a coastal resilience process in Long Island Sound based on TNC’s Coastal Resilience Program. The four basic steps of the program are to:

  1. Generate awareness of coastal risks;
  2. Assess coastal risks and opportunities;
  3. Identify choices for addressing priority risks and vulnerabilities; and
  4. Implement an action plan to put selected choices into place. 

To accomplish these steps, the Town of Guilford and TNC divided the project into three Phases.

  1. Phase I began in 2011 and accomplished step one (generate awareness). Key Phase I activities included the formation of a core working team comprised of town and TNC staff. A series of meetings and workshops with town leaders and representatives of town boards and commissions were conducted as well as public and coastal neighborhood workshops. These activities significantly increased awareness and support for the coastal resilience process and project. 
  2. Phase II incorporated steps two (assess risk) and three (identify choices) and included development of detailed spatial information specific to the town, an analysis and feasibility study of adaptation tools in geographically explicit locations, technical review and assistance regarding adaptation tools, and development of a prioritized list of choices for adaptations. 
  3. Phase III is addressing step four (implement action plan) via the finalization of Guilford’s Community Coastal Resilience Plan.

Coastal hazard impacts addressed in this project include the vulnerability of existing residential and commercial development; ingress and egress to coastal properties; the vulnerability of coastal habitats, including tidal marshes, to sea level rise and storms, erosion, and incompatible development; critical transportation and other infrastructure vulnerability (e.g. septic system failure); changes in the tax base; changes in what constitutes compatible and sustainable economic development; and particular attention to locations within the town that have already experienced problems associated with flooding and storm damage.


The Town of Guilford worked in partnership with TNC to conduct a comprehensive assessment of risk and vulnerability using the Coastal Resilience Tool, which has been developed in conjunction with climate scientists from NASA Goddard Institute of Space Studies, NOAA Office for Coastal Management, Columbia University, Yale University, and Association of State Floodplain Managers, among others. The Coastal Resilience Tool is uniquely capable of combining sea level predictions through the 2080s with storm surge models. The assessment provided the best state-of-the-science understanding of immediate and long-term risks associated with sea level rise and storm surge for Connecticut’s shoreline.

The community engagement involved over six public meetings/workshops with local cable broadcasts, 17 town administration meetings, and opportunities for the public to review and provide input on reports produced over the course of the project. This high level of engagement over multiple years enabled the capture of perspectives from the town’s elected officials and staff, as well as residents, neighborhood associations, and businesses, among others. The current core project team consists of select town staff, TNC, Yale University’s Urban Ecology and Design Laboratory, and Milone and MacBroom, Inc.

Outcomes and Conclusions

The Guilford Community Coastal Resilience Plan’s principal outcomes and conclusions are focused on the translation of choices to improve the town’s resilience into actionable strategies. The attractiveness of the actions identified in the Community Coastal Resilience Plan is that they can be applied at the neighborhood scale and can be used for comprehensive solutions. Guilford’s coastal neighborhoods are diverse and each will be faced with a combination of vulnerabilities to sea level rise and the increased incidence and severity of coastal storms. A combination of adaptation measures will therefore be necessary in each neighborhood in order to reduce risks and increase resilience.

Through this process, the town has identified adaptation strategies that are most appropriate relative to its rural-to-suburban character, and organized these preferred adaptation strategies into a number of categories that are appropriate for the geography, population, and infrastructure found in Guilford. These include an initial focus on infrastructure such as roads, water supply, and wastewater; coastal real estate and buildings such as homes and businesses; and shoreline protection methods such as hard structures and living shorelines. 

The next steps for the Town of Guilford and the core project team are to seek ways to advance the identified actionable strategies detailed in the plan. Implementation of the plan will require important changes in the way the town manages land use and development in the coastal area, along with the selection of an appropriate agency or commission to administer the plan, extensive public education and outreach, funding, and measuring and monitoring of climate change and hazard risks.


Whelchel, A. (2015). Community Coastal Resilience in Guilford, Connecticut. Ed. R.M. Gregg [Case study on a project of The Nature Conservancy and partners]. Retrieved from CAKE: (Last updated January 2015)

Project Contacts

Position: Director of Science

Affiliated Organizations

The Nature Conservancy is the leading conservation organization working around the world to protect ecologically important lands and waters for nature and people.

This Long Island Sound shoreline town is a combination residential and summer community. Five miles in width and 12 miles in length, the town contains 47.6 square miles and a population of 21,000. Flanked on the west by Branford and on the east by Madison, these shoreline towns are suburbs to urban New Haven.

Guilford has a small, historic, charming atmosphere which is highlighted by its rustic character and individuality. The town seeks to maintain its value and character as it continues the development of its commercial and industrial area in the southern section.

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