Integrating Water-related Climate Change Adaptation into Local Comprehensive Plans

Role of the Sensitive Areas Element

​​Under the Land Use Article, Sections 1-408 and 3-104, the Sensitive Areas Element of the local comprehensive plan shall “include the goals, objectives, principles, policies, and standards designed to protect sensitive areas from the adverse effects of development.” The Land Use Article, Section 1-101, defines sensitive areas as “(1) a stream or wetland, and its buffers; (2) a 100-year flood plain; (3) a habitat of a threatened or endangered species; (4) a steep slope; (5) agricultural or forest land intended for resource protection or conservation; and (6) any other area in need of special protection, as determined in a plan.”

​​To address climate change adaptation issues associated with water resources, the 100-year floodplain is especially important, keeping in mind that the boundaries of the 100-year floodplain will expand as sea level rises and precipitation increases due to climate change.

​​To support the WRE, the Sensitive Areas Element should be used to identify important areas to protect or safeguard water resources; communities and infrastructure vulnerable to water-related hazards (e.g., sea level rise, saltwater intrusion, and flooding); and opportunities to protect wetland and coastal forest adaptation areas (i.e., corridors along which coastal habitats are expected to migrate naturally as sea level rises). The Sensitive Area Element should include strategies to protect these areas, communities and opportunities. Also, the Sensitive Area Element should include strategies that support sufficient protection and restoration of natural spaces and natural features from the standpoint of providing needed local flood prevention services; these natural spaces and features can provide significant infiltration and attenuation of stormwater. The WRE and Sensitive Areas Element should be updated in a way to ensure a strong connection between the two.

​​Some sensitive areas, such as coastal wetlands and coastal forests, can protect communities from coastal flooding impacts; however, as sea level rises, these habitats are disappearing. When suitable landward habitat exists, these habitats can migrate inland, maintaining their community protection services. Local governments should make use of state maps of wetland adaptation areas and designate those areas for conservation within the local land use plan. See the Sea Level Rise Wetland Adaptation Areas layer within the DNR Coastal Atlas​ to access Maryland’s wetland adaptation areas. The Sensitive Areas Element addresses wetlands and forests, so there should be coordinated policies between the WRE and the Sensitive Areas Element.

​​Wellhead protection areas, reservoir watersheds, land areas underlain by karst geology, and other sensitive areas relevant to protecting water supplies, along with floodplains and stream buffers (and other sensitive areas relevant to flood management) should be discussed within the Sensitive Areas Element and, when not already protected through state requirements, proposed for protection through recommended strategies.

​​Also, the local Land Preservation, Parks and Recreation Plan might include land preservation projects that could support hazard mitigation and climate change adaptation.

​​Sensitive areas important for protecting Maryland’s biodiversity should be prioritized among those sensitive areas that are also important for climate change adaptation, water resources protection, and hazard mitigation. DNR’s Biodiversity Conservation Network (or BioNet) GIS layer (viewable in Merlin Online HERE and downloadable from iMap HERE​) is available for local governments to assist with proactive planning. BioNet systematically identifies and prioritizes ecologically important lands to conserve Maryland’s biodiversity (plants, animals, habitats, and landscapes).

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