Coastal Access FAQs

Frequently Asked Questions on Virginia’s Coastal Access

Collected here are common, general questions about coastal access. They are sorted by the category of people that most often asks them. You can also find more information in the Resources or Glossary sections.

Private waterfront landowner

Q: I have questions about the extent of my rights and my liability on my waterfront land.

A: You have the right to determine who can access your waterfront land to mean low tide while dry, by either inviting or licensing them. Those who access your property against your will may be considered to be trespassing. Your rights are limited by a colonial ordinance that, to this day, allows people to use private intertidal areas for fishing, fowling, hunting and taking of oysters and other shellfish. Limitations on your lands can occasionally be imposed by doctrine, including the potential for eminent domain, takings and prescriptive easements. Virginia landowners benefit from a strong law that protects landowners from liability, should someone become injured while using their land. The Virginia Landowner Liability law limits your liability, whether you knowingly or unknowingly provide access to your land for recreational or harvesting purposes, such as clamming.

Q: I can no longer afford the rising costs affiliated with my waterfront land and would like to know what my options are for reducing my costs, while retaining most of my interests in the property.

A: As a waterfront property owner, there are limited tools available to you that may help. Conservation easements can be used as an incentive for allowing public access. Tax incentives for senior citizens may include income tax deductions, lowered property or estate taxes, and use taxation for some land use. Click here for more information.

As a waterfront property owner, you can also sell an easement or partial property interest. There are a number of kinds of easements and ways that they can address access, including conservation easements, development rights, and floating easements. Because easements do not require the entire parcel, they would provide you with significantly less income than selling the full title to the property, but they would allow you to retain the property rights you identify in the easement. Click here for more information on easements.

Government or public interest entity

Q: I am the local planner (or member of the comprehensive planning committee or on the planning commission, etc.) and I need to know about incorporating public coastal water access needs and opportunities into the municiple plans and programs.

A: Public access to coastal waters as well as rivers and streams is a topic that is covered in a locality’s Comprehensive Plan. Click here for more information on how localities can address access in their overall planning process. Planning guidance can be provided by staff from the Department of Conservation and Recreation, Chesapeake Bay Local Assistance program. Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act requires Virginia localities to discuss public and private waterfront access as part of the Comprehensive Planning process.

Q: I am an elected official or code enforcement officer and I want to know how access needs can be addressed in ordinances and review and approval processes.

A: Actions needed to improve access to public waters should be spelled out in the locality’s comprehensive plan. More information on how localities can address access in their overall planning process can be found here. The implementation section of the plan may well specify what is needed in ordinances. Help with developing guidance for model language for inclusion in ordinances and related review and approval processes is available from the Middle Peninsula Chesapeake Bay Public Access Authority.

Q: I am the county administrator or town manager charged with gaining, improving and expanding access to coastal water. What tools are available to help me get that accomplished?

A: In addition to local resources, support for developing public access sites and facilities is available from the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation Division of Recreation and Planning, Virginia Coastal Zone Management Program, Virginia Marine Resource Commission and the Middle Peninsula Chesapeake Bay Public Access Authority. In addition the Virginia Department of Transportation incorporates water access improvements into bridge and road projects.

Waterfront user

Q: We use private land to get to the water and want to secure future access. What are our options?

A: To secure your access to private waterfront lands, you can either acquire the land outright or acquire partial rights to the land, such as in an easement. A number of programs exist to assist individuals and organizations buy land or acquire easements. Click here for more information.

As a user of private waterfront lands, you can also enter into a private agreement or contract with the landowner, either formally or informally drawing up specific terms as to who can use the land, when, and how. Click here for more information on private agreements and contracts.

Q: What does the phrase “fishing, fowling, hunting and taking of oyster and other shellfish” mean and how does it affect my rights to use the shoreline?

A: By virtue of an easement created by a colonial ordinance, the public has the right to use privately owned intertidal lands but only if they are engaged in “fishing, fowling, hunting and taking of oyster and other shellfish.”

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