Section 3: Rules Applying to Development in Areas of Environmental Concern

The Coastal Resources Commission has approved development rules for each type of Area of Environmental Concern (AEC). These rules are outlined in this section.

Rules for specific types of development projects are in Section 4. Some projects may be exempted from CAMA permit requirements. These projects are covered in Section 6.

1. Estuarine and Ocean System AECs {15A NCAC 7H .0200}

What kinds of projects are allowed in the Estuarine System?

To protect our natural resources and public trust rights, only projects that must be on or near the water should be constructed in the estuarine system. Such projects include navigation channels, docks, piers, bulkheads, boat ramps, groins, breakwaters, culverts and bridges.

Projects such as restaurants, homes, motels, stores, factories, roads and parking lots should be built in upland areas where they are less harmful to public resources. There are some exceptions, for development in a historically urban area. Call the Division of Coastal Management office nearest you if you are interested in building over the water in a historically urban area.

The following requirements apply to all development in the Estuarine Waters, Coastal Wetlands and Public Trust Areas {15A NCAC 7H .0205 - .0208}:

  • The location, design and construction of your project must give highest priority to conserving the biological, economic and social values of coastal wetlands, estuarine waters and public trust areas, and protect public rights of navigation and recreation in public trust areas.

  • Your project should be designed and located to cause the least possible damage to the productivity and integrity of:

    • coastal wetlands;

    • shellfish beds;

    • submerged grass beds;

    • spawning and nursery areas;

    • important nesting and wintering areas for waterfowl and other wildlife; and

    • important natural barriers to erosion, such as marshes, cypress fringes and clay soils.

  • Your project must follow the air and water quality standards set by the N.C. Environmental Management Commission. Generally, development will not be permitted if it lowers water quality for any existing uses of the water (such as shellfishing, swimming or drinking). For more information, contact the N.C. Division of Air Quality or the Division of Water Quality. Telephone numbers are located in Section 9 of this handbook.

  • Your project must not significantly increase siltation or erosion, which can smother important habitats, block sunlight from aquatic plants, and choke fish and shellfish.

  • Your project must not create a stagnant body of water, which can effect oxygen levels and accumulate sediments and pollutants that threaten fish and shellfish habitats and public health.

  • You must time the construction of your project to have the least impact on the life cycles and migration patterns of fish, shellfish, waterfowl and other wildlife. The life cycles of animals that depend on the estuarine system are especially sensitive during certain times of the year. For more information, contact the Coastal Management office nearest you.

  • Your project must not cause major or irreversible damage to valuable archaeological or historic resources. Archaeological resources, such as the remains of Native and Early American settlements, shipwrecks and Civil or Revolutionary War artifacts, provide valuable information about the history of the coastal region and its people. Information on the location of these sites is available from the N.C. Division of Archives and History in the Department of Cultural Resources.

  • Your project must not reduce or prevent the use of, and public access to, estuarine waters and public trust lands and waters.

  • Your project must comply with the local land use plan. A land use plan is a "blueprint" developed by local leaders to help guide decisions that affect the growth of the community. CAMA requires each of the 20 coastal counties to prepare a local land use plan and update it according to CRC guidelines. More than 70 cities and towns have adopted their own plans.

The following requirements apply to all development along Coastal Shorelines {15A NCAC 7H. 0209}:

Note: These rules apply within 30 feet of the normal high water line along public trust waters, 75 feet of the normal high water line along estuarine waters. Along Outstanding Resource Waters, the rules apply within 575 feet of the normal high water line.

  • Your project must not cause significant damage to any estuarine resources.

  • Development for non-water-dependent uses shall be located a minimum of 30 feet landward of the normal high water line or normal water level, except along those coastal shorelines where the Environmental Management Commission adopts or has adopted its own buffer standards.

  • Your project must not interfere with existing public uses or access to navigable waters or public resources.

  • No project paid for (in any part) by public funds will be permitted if it is likely to require extraordinary public expenditures for maintenance and continued use – unless the public benefits of the project will outweigh the expense.

  • Your project should preserve, and must not weaken, natural barriers to erosion, such as peat marshland, resistant clay shorelines and cypress-gum fringe areas.

  • Hard surfaces, such as buildings, paved parking lots and roads, must cover no more than 30 percent of the project area within the Area of Environmental Concern, unless you can show that the design of your project limits runoff equally well. All projects should limit hard surfaces to the smallest area necessary.

  • Redevelopment of areas exceeding the 30 percent limit may be permitted if hard surface areas are not increased and the project meets the rule to the maximum extent feasible.

  • If your project is located on the shoreline of an Outstanding Resource Water (ORW), you may build on only 25 percent of the project area located within the AEC, and you may not use a stormwater collection system to gain buildable area.

  • Throughout the coastal shoreline AEC, projects must comply with applicable rules of the N.C. Sedimentation Pollution Control Act of 1973 and the stormwater management rules of the Environmental Management Commission.

  • Your project must not cause major or irreversible damage to valuable archaeological or historic resources, such as the remains of Native and Early American settlements, shipwrecks and Civil War artifacts. Information on the location of these sites is available from the N.C. Division of Archives and History. (See Section 9 for contact information.)

  • Your project must comply with the local land use plan.

2. Ocean Hazard AECs {15A NCAC 7H .0300}


A primary dune is the first mound of sand (measured from the ocean) that is six feet taller than the mean flood level for the area. Frontal dunes are the first mounds of sand that have enough vegetation, height and continuity to offer protection.

The crest of the primary dune and the landward toe of the frontal dune are determined on a case-by-case basis by the Division of Coastal Management.

Thefirst line of stable natural vegetationis the first area on the oceanfront where natural dune-stabilizing plants are present. Such plants include sea oats and American beachgrass.

The following requirements apply to all development in the Ocean Hazard AEC {15A NCAC 7H .0306}:

  • Your development must be located and designed to protect human lives and property from storms and erosion, to prevent permanent structures from encroaching on public beaches and reduce the public costs (such as disaster relief aid) that can result from poorly located development.

  • Your development must incorporate all reasonable means and methods to avoid damage to the natural environment or public beach accessways. Reasonable means and methods include: limiting the scale of the project and the damage it causes; restoring a damaged site; or providing substitute resources to compensate for damage.

  • Your project should be set as far back from the ocean as possible. At minimum, all buildings must be located behind the crest of the primary dune, the landward toe of the frontal dune or the erosion setback line - whichever is the farthest landward from the first line of stable natural vegetation (see Figure 3.1).

Figure 3.1

  • Your project must not remove or relocate sands or vegetation from primary or frontal dunes. These dunes help protect structures from erosion, flooding and storm waves, and they help maintain North Carolina's barrier islands and beaches.

  • If you want to move a building that is in an ocean hazard area, you will need a CAMA permit. Buildings relocated entirely with private funds should be relocated as far landward as possible. Buildings relocated with public funds must meet all AEC standards, including the setback requirement.

  • Your project must meet all local minimum lot-size and setback requirements. Counties and towns often require a setback from roads, property lines or dunes. For more information, contact your local building inspector.

  • Your project must comply with the local CAMA land use plan. A land use plan contains a community's goals, management policies and a map classifying land according to the types of development allowed.

  • You may not interfere with or block the public's ability to reach, use and enjoy the resources that belong to all the people of the state. These resources include the wet sand beaches and waters. No development is allowed seaward of the vegetation line, because the public has a right to use the sandy beach. Development also may not block established pathways to the beach.

  • Your project must not cause major or irreversible damage to valuable archaeological or historic resources. Information on the location of these sites is available from the N.C. Division of Archives and History in the Department of Cultural Resources.

  • The construction of publicly funded projects, such as sewers, water lines, roads, bridges and erosion control works, will be permitted only if they:

    • greatly benefit the public, nation or state;

    • don't promote additional development in ocean hazard AECs;

    • won't damage natural buffers to erosion, wave wash and flooding;

    • won't otherwise increase existing hazards.

Setback Requirements for all development in the Ocean Hazard AEC

Note:The erosion setback line extends inland from the first line of stable natural vegetation.

  • For structures of less than 5.000 square feet, the line extends landward a distance of 30 times the average annual erosion rate at the site. In areas where erosion is less than 2 feet per year, the setback is 60 feet.

  • The setback factor for all structures between 5,000 and 10,000 square feet is 60 times the erosion rate. The setback factor increases incrementally with structure size, reaching a maximum setback of 90 times the erosion rate for structures 100,000 square feet and greater. See the chart below to determine setbacks based on structure size and erosion rate.

  • Coastal Management determines erosion rates for different segments of the state's ocean shoreline by analyzing a time-series of aerial photographs dating back to the 1930s. Erosion rates are updated about every five to ten years and are adopted by the CRC.

  • The following types of development may be permitted between the oceanfront setback line and the vegetation line if they don't remove or alter primary or frontal dunes or plants, if overwalks are used to protect dunes, and the projects meet all other AEC general rules:

    • campgrounds with no substantial permanent structures;

    • public fishing piers;parking areas made from clay, packed sand or gravel;

    • beach access structures;

    • elevated decks with a footprint of less than 500 square feet;

    • uninhabitable, single-story storage sheds with a foundation or floor consisting of wood, clay, packed sand or gravel, and a footprint of 200 square feet or less;

    • unenclosed, uninhabitable gazebos with a footprint of 200 square feet or less;

    • temporary amusement stands;

    • swimming pools;

    • sand fences.

  • When the oceanfront setback requirement will not allow the development of permanent structures on lots that had been platted as of June 1, 1979, single-family homes may be permitted seaward of the setback line in ocean erodible areas if they meet the following conditions:

    • the structure is set back as far as possible from the ocean with the least possible encroachment into the setback area;

    • it is at least 60 feet landward of the vegetation line;

    • it is entirely behind the landward toe of the frontal dune;

    • all pilings used to support the structure are driven at least five feet below normal sea level (see Figure 3.2);

    • the footprint of the structure covers no more than 1,000 square feet or 10 percent of the lot area, whichever is greater; and

    • the project meets all other state and local requirements.

Note: The exceptions listed above do NOT apply to inlet hazard areas.

Figure 3.2

  • Session Law 2012-202, Section 3 allows for the replacement of single-family or duplex residential structures that cannot meet the setback criteria of 15A NCAC 7H .0306(a)(2). S.L. 2012-202 specifically targets single-family or duplex residential structures greater than 5,000 square feet. In order to qualify for the exemption, the structure being replaced cannot exceed its original footprint or square footage, must meet a minimum setback of 60 feet or 30 times the erosion rate, whichever is greater, and must be located as far landward on the lot as feasible. The provision only applies to single-family or duplex residential structures constructed prior to August 11, 2009.

  • If the development is to be served by an onsite waste disposal system, a copy of a valid permit for this system from your county health department must be submitted with the CAMA permit application.

NOTE: If you are applying to build in an Ocean Hazard AEC, you must sign an AEC Hazard Notice to acknowledge that you are aware of the risks and of the area's limited suitability for permanent structures.

The AEC Hazard Notice also states that you are aware that you may not build any permanent erosion protection, such as wooden bulkheads, seawalls and breakwaters. Preferred responses to oceanfront erosion are building relocation or beach nourishment. Temporary erosion protection devices, such as low sandbag structures, may be permitted if certain conditions are met. Those sandbags must be removed by a date set in the permit.

By granting permits for development, the Division of Coastal Management does not guarantee the safety of the development, and the Division and the Coastal Resources Commission do not assume liability for future damage.

Inlet Hazard Areas

In addition to the general rules for ocean hazard AECs, all development in inlet hazard areas must meet the following standards {15A NCAC 7H .0310}:

  • All development must be set back from the first line of stable natural vegetation a distance equal to the setback required in the adjacent ocean hazard area.

  • You may receive a permit for only one permanent commercial or residential unit per 15,000 square feet of land area on lots subdivided after July 23, 1981. Mud flats, salt marshes and beach areas seaward of the vegetation line are not included in computing a lot’s land area for the purpose of this rule.

  • Residential buildings of four units or less and non-residential buildings with less than 5,000 square feet of floor area are the only buildings allowed in the inlet hazard area. Access roads to those areas and maintenance or replacement ofexistingbridges may be allowed.

  • Development must not encroach on public accessways or restrict their use.

  • Small-scale, non-essential development that does not induce further growth, such as single-family piers and bulkheads that do not interfere with natural inlet movement, may be permitted within designated inlet hazard area shorelines that exhibit features characteristic of estuarine shorelines. Features can include the presence of wetland vegetation, low wave energy and lower erosion rates than in the adjoining ocean erodible area. Typically, these areas are on the back side of barrier islands and are not influenced by ocean waves.

3. Public Water Supply AECs {15A NCAC 7H .0405-6}


Small surface water supply watersheds protect coastal drainage basins that contain a public water supply classified as WS I - WS V by the N.C. Environmental Management Commission. The Fresh Pond at the Nags Head and Kill Devil Hills border, and Toomer's Creek near Wilmington are classified as AECs.

Public water supply wellfields are areas of rapidly draining sands extending from the earth's surface to a shallow groundwater table that supplies public drinking water.

Currently, one wellfield has been designated as an AEC on Hatteras Island at Buxton.

Rules applying to small surface water supply watersheds:

  • Septic tanks and drainfields must be located at least 100 feet from waters classified as WS IV by the Environmental Management Commission (see Figure 3.3). (Wastewater from the septic system can migrate through the soil and the water table, polluting a pond or stream.)

Figure 3.3

  • Land clearing, grading, surfacing and other land-disturbing activities must comply with the N.C. Sedimentation Pollution Control Act of 1973 (G.S. 113A-57). (Disturbing the soil near a public water supply can send sediment and other pollutants into the water during a rainstorm or high winds.)

  • If your project requires a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit, you must obtain the NPDES permit before a CAMA permit may be granted. The Division of Water Quality in the Department of Environment and Natural Resources has more information on NPDES requirements.

  • No sewers, septic tank fields or other sources of pollution may be built within 500 feet of the edge of the Fresh Pond in the Nags Head/Kill Devil Hills Fresh Pond watershed. Between 500 feet and 1,200 feet from the pond, septic systems are limited to one system serving a single-family home with no more than four bedrooms (or an equivalent volume of sewage) on a tract of land at least 40,000 square feet in size (see Figure 3.4).

Figure 3.4

Rules applying to public water supply wellfields:

  • Your project must not significantly decrease the quality of the water supply or reduce the amount of water available to recharge the wellfield. Your project must not use a septic tank system or other ground absorption system that is located inside designated AEC boundaries.

  • Your project must not inject pollutants below ground within the AEC boundaries.

  • Your project must not discharge toxic and/or soluble materials that could contaminate the water supply.

  • Your project must not let salt water leak into the public water supply.

4. Natural and Cultural Resource AECs

The standards for development in areas designated as a natural or cultural resource AEC are tailored to fit the management and resource protection needs of those particular areas. Management plans for Permuda Island and Jockey's Ridge, the only two natural and cultural AECs to date, are available from the Division of Coastal Management.

Any person may nominate an area as a Natural & Cultural Resource AEC. The area must meet specific criteria to be considered by the Coastal Resources Commission. For nomination information, call the Division of Coastal Management.