Land Use Decisions


Land Use Decisions Come First in Regulatory Process


If you try to save wetlands in Virginia using the regulatory process, you’ll be disappointed.  We were when we started out and found that:

  • Once land is rezoned for development, in nearly all cases, the wetlands disturbances will be permitted.  State and federal regulatory law limits the ability of regulators to act once the land use changes have been made and, in a strong property rights state like Virginia, it is even harder to win these fights.
  • Only a small percentage of the wetlands in the state come into the regulatory process.  The survival of most wetlands is determined by things such as surrounding land use (too much pavement and development nearby  is bad), unpermitted losses (one of the largest sources of wetland decline in Virginia [DEQ 2005 Sec. 309 needs assessment]), and – for tidal wetlands -  sea level rise.
  • Did we mention that once land has been zoned for development, you are fighting an uphill battle?


The place to control wetlands losses is during local government decisions on zoning and development, processes that usually occur well in advance of wetlands permit applications. In fact, only one county in Virginia requires a wetlands map prior to approving rezoning or subdivision plans: everywhere else, wetlands are an afterthought.

This requires wetlands advocates to understand land use provisions (zoning codes, subdivision ordinances, comprehensive planning processes), land use decision processes and agencies (planning departments, planning commissions, board of zoning appeals), and know where wetlands are and what land use decisions will affect them.

Comprehensive Plans

Every five years, each Virginia locality has to review their long-range plan (usually looking 20 years into the future).  In the tidal parts of Virginia, these plans have to look at the shoreline environment – tidal wetlands and shoreline buffers.  And these plans lay out where the rest of the wetlands and natural resource features are.

Get a copy of the most recent comprehensive plan for your locality.  Find out when it is up for review again.  Start locating the wetlands and other natural resources you want to conserve.  Get involved in the comp plan process early – call your local planning department and elected officials.

Starting in 2013, these comprehensive plans will have to include shoreline management strategies,increasing the importance of knowing about comprehensive planning in your locality.

There are few guides to the land use and comprehensive planning process in Virginia. 

A citizen’s guide to planning and zoning in Virginia (Chesapeake Bay Foundation) 

Land use planning in Virginia

Land use planning tools to support conservation