Sea Level Rise Guidance for Dorchester County, Maryland
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Posted byJessica Hitt
Dorchester County is Maryland’s second-largest county and includes over 350,000 acres of wetlands, tidal marshes, creeks, and other low-lying lands. Around half of the county’s landscape lies at elevations below 4.9 feet, making it one of Maryland’s most at-risk counties to sea level rise. With financial and technical support from Maryland’s Coast-Smart Communities Initiative grant program, the county developed the report, Sea Level Rise: A Technical Guidance for Dorchester County. This document covers four planning phases and strategies: Vulnerability and Impact Assessment; Long-Range Comprehensive Planning; Codes, Regulations, and Development Strategies; and Public Education and Outreach. The county reviewed existing plans, development codes, regulations, and laws to ensure the necessary policies and codes were prepared for the reality of the county’s climate future impacts, specifically sea level rise and coastal storms.
In 2009, Maryland launched the CoastSmart Communities Initiative to provide a support center for local governments dealing with the impacts of climate change. The CoastSmart Initiative initially undertook three projects in Somerset, Worchester, and Dorchester counties, some of Maryland’s most at-risk coastline areas. The CoastSmart program provided financial support for the county’s adaptation planning processes through the Coastal Communities Initiative (CCI) grant program, as well as much needed technical support.
The county conducted a vulnerability assessment prior to writing the sea level response document and found that the county and its infrastructure, natural resources, and economy were extremely vulnerable to climate change. The county is already experiencing many impacts of climate change including sea level rise, flooding, erosion, salinization, coastal storms, infrastructure damage, and economic losses. The technical guidance document addressed the vulnerabilities identified in the assessment and made recommendations for the county.
The technical report identifies four distinct planning strategies/phases that need to be addressed when planning for the long-term implications of sea level rise: Vulnerability and Impact Assessment; Long-Range and Comprehensive Planning; Codes, Regulations, and Development Standards; and Public Education and Outreach. The recommendations in the Long-Range and Comprehensive Planning and the Codes, Regulations, and Development Standards sections of the guidance document address the vulnerabilities identified in the county’s vulnerability assessment. The recommendations focus on sea level rise, flooding, and storm surge issues.
The Long-Range and Comprehensive Planning section of the guidance document instructs all agencies whose mandate is affected by changes in landscapes to (1) conduct vulnerability assessments to identify and quantify the extent to which their programs will need to adapt to climate change and (2) incorporate future conditions into future planning, management, and policies. The guidance document recommends the creation of a Sea Level Rise District using 25-year high scenario inundation maps from the Dorchester County Inundation Study. The district would have specific policies and ordinances, such as infrastructure improvements to sewage systems, wells, roads and bridges, and houses to prepare for impacts such as inundation, storm surge, and sea level rise. The guidance document also outlines the need for low-impact development along shorelines including setback requirements and support for abandonment, relocation, or raising efforts for any infrastructure that will sustain damage by inundation. The SLR District will also identify suitable areas to accommodate sea level encroachment and work to restore barriers islands to act as buffers for the county.
The guidance document also includes an extensive section on Public Education and Outreach using a variety of mediums to reach different generations and economic classes. These efforts focus on educating people about the impacts that climate change will bring and information on the options county residents have to abandon, relocate, or raise their property.
While the plan itself is not an implementation document, the county has since taken steps to achieve the programs, projects, and desired results recommended. For example, the county’s 2017 Land Preservation Park and Recreation Plan and Hazard Mitigation Plan update both emphasize the importance of preserving land in floodplains to minimize detrimental coastal flooding impacts. The Hazard Mitigation Plan contains a chapter focused specifically on coastal events including sea level rise, storm surge, and shoreline erosion. A vulnerability analysis of critical facilities was included in the plan, estimating that over $8.7 million of critical and public facilities is at risk.
The Dorchester County Planning Commission and Department of Planning and Zoning are updating the comprehensive plan. The July 2021 version includes climate change and sea level rise impacts on and strategies for the county. Examples include considering climate change in the design and site of new and retrofitting of existing roads, conducting assessments to evaluate shoreline protection measures best suited for different communities, restricting development in areas that are highly vulnerable to sea level rise, and incentivizing nature-based shoreline protection measures on private properties.
Outcomes and Conclusions
Since the technical guidance document was written in 2008, the county has included the majority of the recommendations into its management codes and plans. Dorchester’s population, housing, infrastructure, and critical facilities are better prepared for future climate conditions and impacts as a result.
Hitt, J. (2021). Sea Level Rise Guidance for Dorchester County, Maryland [Case study on a project of the Maryland Chesapeake and Coastal Program]. Version 2.0. Product of EcoAdapt’s State of Adaptation Program. Retrieved from CAKE: https://www.cakex.org/case-studies/sea-level-rise-guidance-dorchester-county-maryland (Last updated October 2021)
Project DocumentsDorchester County 2017 Hazard Mitigation Plan Update.pdf Sea Level Rise - Technical Guidance for Dorchester County.pdf
Chesapeake & Coastal Service
Maryland Department of Natural Resources