The Ocean State, with over 400 miles of coastline, is known for its beaches, bluffs, and scenic waterfronts. The water is a big a part of Rhode Island as the land, attracting long- and short-term visitors, and offering opportunities for recreation, industry, and simple enjoyment. As a result, the coastline is populated by businesses, important infrastructure, and many residences – and it’s these structures that are at risk when it comes to coastal hazards.
Being within a stone’s throw of the beach is a dream for many, but the realities of coastal living can be harsh. Coastal buildings may be more vulnerable to severe storms, erosion, and coastal flooding. Additionally, there are special policies and regulations that govern shoreline activities in order to preserve natural habitats, ensure public safety, and protect resources. As such, coastal residents and property owners face unique challenges and considerations.
THE OCEAN ISN’T ALWAYS THE BEST NEIGHBOR – With climate change causing increased storminess, proximity to the water also means frequent exposure to coastal hazards, like storm events and associated flooding. In addition, long-term changes like sea-level rise will continue to influence the coastal landscape so that today’s property lines may be inundated during future high tides.
THE COASTAL ZONE – The coastal zone in Rhode Island has special policies, regulations, and requirements that differ from inland areas. The Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council, or the CRMC, is the managing agency for the state’s extensive shoreline, and has produced regulations to govern building, permitting, and policy in coastal areas.
THE BOTTOM LINE – If you’re currently a coastal property owner, considering buying coastal real estate, or if you live, work, or even play along Rhode Island’s shoreline, you should be aware of the conditions that shape the coastal zone and the policies that protect it.
Ten Questions You Should Ask About Your Coastal Property
- What kinds of coastal features are on or near the property, and what setbacks or regulations apply?
- Are there restrictions on the property due to the adjacent CRMC water classification?
- Is the property in a flood zone according to FEMA maps?
- If I am in a flood zone, do I have to obtain flood insurance? How can I find out what my flood insurance premiums will be?
- How will erosion and sea-level rise impact the property and surrounding area?
- Can I install structures along the shore to protect the property and buildings from erosion or flooding?
- How will coastal storms and flooding affect the property and structures? Will I be allowed to rebuild in the event of a flood or storm that partially or completely destroys the building?
- How do I determine if the buildings on the property meet the current design and construction standards for the flood zone?
- What kinds of septic systems are permitted in the coastal zone? Can I repair or replace a damaged septic system?
- Can I make the existing building more resilient? How do I build a new resilient structure?
Coastal Property Topics & Terms
Building codes: The State of Rhode Island currently adheres to the latest edition of the International Building Code, which includes provisions for construction in flood zones. Building to the latest standards is required for both new construction and when a structure undergoes repairs or renovations that constitute more than 50% of the structure’s previous market value. See question 8.
Coastal features: From barriers to bluffs, the shoreline is comprised of an array of naturally occurring elements. The presence of specific features on a coastal property determines certain setbacks and regulations. See question 1.
Coastal hazards: A few of the hazards or processes that occur along Rhode Island’s coast include storms and severe weather, storm-driven erosion, tidal flooding, and accelerated sea-level rise. These hazards may threaten coastal property or activities in the coastal zone now or in the future. See question 5 (erosion & sea-level rise), and question 7 (storm impacts).
Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC): The CRMC is the managing agency for Rhode Island’s shoreline, and has jurisdiction within 200 feet of any coastal feature. Coastal property owners must obtain permits from the CRMC for various activities within this zone.
CRMC regulations: CRMC regulations and policy govern activity in the coastal zone based on area classifications and activities. Coastal features inform construction setbacks and buffers, while an area’s water type determines the size of buffer zones, whether or not property owners can install shoreline protection, and what activities may occur within tidal waters.
CRMC water types: All waters along Rhode Island’s coast are classified according to the CRMC. The six water types are determined by how the area is used, density of use, and presence of conservation considerations. See question 1.
Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) floodplain mapping: As part of the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), FEMA maps all risk zones, including the coastal floodplain. The resulting maps, Flood Insurance Rate Maps (FIRMs), trigger developmental/building code revisions and may illustrate whether or not a property owner has to purchase flood insurance for a structure.
FEMA Flood Hazard Zones: Flood zones are areas identified by FIRMs as being prone to flooding during storm events of given strengths. See question 3.
Increasing structural resilience: The practice of building or retrofitting properties so as to increase structural integrity in the face of coastal hazards, including storms and associated winds and flooding (sometimes referred to as “flood-proofing”). In some instances, resilience cannot be achieved, and other options, including relocation, must be considered. See question 10.
Renovating or repairing an existing building: Any addition to an existing structure within CRMC’s jurisdiction or in a flood zone is required to meet current building standards. If the cost of renovations or repairs to an existing structure equals or exceed 50% of the structure’s market value, the entire building must be updated to meet current standards, setbacks, and other CRMC regulations. See question 7 (rebuilding after storm impacts) and question 10 (resilience).
Septic systems (onsite wastewater treatment systems): If a coastal property is not connected to the municipality’s sewage system and relies on a septic system, property owners must adhere to certain regulations when constructing, repairing, or altering their septic systems in the coastal zone. The CRMC and the R.I. Department of Environmental Management jointly regulate the installation and maintenance of septic systems in the coastal zone. See question 9.
Shoreline protection structures: Shoreline protection structures are manmade formations such as revetments or seawalls designed to protect landforms or structures along the coast. The CRMC regulates the installation and maintenance of shoreline protection structures in Rhode Island. See question 5.
This website has been prepared by the University of Rhode Island’s Coastal Resources Center and Rhode Island Sea Grant for the R.I. Coastal Resources Management Council as a guidance resource. It is not intended nor should be used to give any legal advice nor to supersede any state or federal statutory or regulatory language or interpretation of such language. This website refers the reader to various regulations and policies adopted by federal and state regulatory agencies; the reader is encouraged to review the specific regulation and policy.