Planning for Sea Level Rise and Storm Surge in Worcester County, Maryland

Created: 3/05/2010 - Updated: 3/02/2020


In 2001, the Worcester County Planning Commission voted to update the county's Comprehensive Development Plan. The county assessed the threat of sea level rise as well as storm surge and incorporated these findings into the revised comprehensive plan. The final plan specifically calls for the development of a sea level rise response strategy including a two-foot freeboard requirement for properties in flood areas and a policy to discourage shoreline hardening. The plan also directs future growth to areas outside hurricane storm surge zones and floodplains. The plan aims to maintain and improve the county's natural resources while planning for sustainable use and growth.


The State of Maryland requires each jurisdiction to review and update its comprehensive development plan every six years. The state recommends each jurisdiction employ smart growth strategies in dealing with future land use needs and environmental threats. Worcester County has a history of coastal storms and flooding, an economy reliant on agriculture and tourism, and a continually growing population. The county aimed to incorporate these key issues in their comprehensive plan and relied heavily on state resources for information on climate change impacts and future environmental threats. In 2001, the Planning Commission voted to update the Comprehensive Development Plan, written in 1989 and amended in 1997. It was concluded that since the plan's adoption in 1989 many factors had changed and the understanding of these factors had also changed due to advancements in the science. The availability of information from state departments on climate change impacts in Maryland influenced the county to update its comprehensive development plan to include climate change threats to the county.


In 2001, the Planning Commission began updating the plan by completing a thorough review of the state's climate change publications, looking specifically for impacts relevant to the county. After assessing the projected threats of climate change to the county, the planning commission concluded that many of these threats would only be exacerbated by the area's growing population and continued sprawl. The commission sought to plan for these projected impacts jointly and incorporate future climate conditions and population growth into restoration and land use planning and policies. The commission relied heavily on resources from the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) including a Sea Level Rise Response Strategy for the State of Maryland in October 2000. The county also consulted with DNR and the U.S. Geological Survey as they worked to develop a technical report on sea level rise. Although the plan was finished before the Sea Level Rise Inundation Model was completed, the data will be available for the next iteration of the county's plan, which is due to be reviewed and updated in 2012. While the plan itself is not an implementation document, the county has since taken steps to achieve the programs, projects, and desired results laid out in the document. The commission is also tasked with monitoring the implementation progress and success and the plan's final chapter lays out a number of tools and strategies that can be used to achieve this goal. The current economic downturn acted as a facilitating factor and allowed the county to pass strict zoning and anti-development measures that have previously faced large opposition from developers and industry in times of economic boom. While the current economic situation facilitated the passage of strict zoning ordinances, the county finds the zoning code is difficult to enforce.

Outcomes and Conclusions

The projected outcome of the plan is to increase the county's resilience to climate change impacts and coastal hazards and to ensure continued economic prosperity in the face of these threats. Since the plan's release, the county has developed an updated and revised county zoning ordinance and responses to the threat of sea level rise based on a technical report by DNR and USGS.


Information gathered from interviews and online resources. Last updated on 3/5/10.


Hitt, J. (2010). Planning for Sea Level Rise and Storm Surge in Worcester County, Maryland [Case study on a project of Worcester County]. Product of EcoAdapt's State of Adaptation Program. Retrieved from CAKE:… (Last updated March 2010)


Scale of Project
Community / Local
Sector Addressed
Conservation / Restoration
Land Use Planning
Tourism / Recreation
Transportation / Infrastructure
Target Climate Changes and Impacts
Culture / communities
Habitat extent
Infrastructure damage
Range shifts
Sea level rise
Storms or extreme weather events
Climate Type
3-5 years
Type of Adaptation Action/Strategy
Natural Resource Management / Conservation
Incorporate future conditions into natural resources planning and policies
Capacity Building
Invest in / Enhance emergency services planning and training
Conduct / Gather additional research, data, and products
Infrastructure, Planning, and Development
Infrastructure retrofitting and improvements
Create or modify shoreline management measures
Create new or enhance existing policies or regulations
Sociopolitical Setting
Effort Stage