Coastal resilience overlays may be a useful tool in helping communities become more resilient. 

Bristol waterfront

Rising sea levels and extreme storms due to climate change are predicted to flood coastal communities and businesses, and cut off vital emergency access in the coming years.

In order to adapt and recover to major events, low-lying coastal communities, such as in Bristol County, may want to consider the use of coastal resilience overlays to address current and future effects of climate change, according to a recent report by a Rhode Island Sea Grant Law Fellow and the Rhode Island Sea Grant Legal Program at Roger Williams University School of Law.

The report explores the possibility of towns in Bristol County (which include the towns of Bristol, Warren, and Barrington) creating coastal resilience overlays to assist in making those towns more resilient to changes in climate and weather.

Overlays are zoning districts that apply broadly to larger areas rather than specific lots of land that guide for what activities may or may not take place and are typically used for purposes other than those covered by traditional zoning ordinances, i.e., use restrictions.

Overlays for coastal resilience could include a floodplain overlay district, which is currently in effect in Barrington, which is to “ensure public safety, minimize hazards to persons and property from flooding, to protect watercourses from encroachment, and to maintain the capability of floodplains to retain and carry off floodwaters.” 

The report cites other examples of coastal resilience overlays that could help Bristol County move forward. For example,  South Kingstown established a coastal resiliency overlay district in order to “protect the public health, safety, and general welfare by promoting awareness of future projections of sea level rise and the associated impacts from flooding and storm surge to current and future property owners.” The area within the overlay district is designated as being “vulnerable to storm surge during a one hundred-year storm event with the presence of five-feet of sea level rise (SLR) that lies outside of the [FEMA] Special Flood Hazard Areas.” This overlay is specifically designed to address the effects of climate change in the overlay district.

Other examples include Norfolk, VA and Boston on how to craft coastal resilience overlay districts that are responsive to the needs of the community.