Coastal Access Toolkit

Plan and Zone for Access

The question of beach access is fundamentally one related to land use and how a city or county goes about regulating a valuable, but limited, resource. Traditionally the regulation of land uses has been viewed as something best left to local cities to manage as they see fit. State and federal regulatory bodies, such as the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, may have regulations of their own that place limits on the full public use of the beach, but these are generally restricted to a few specific environmental considerations. The general enjoyment of the beach is something cities are free to regulate through local ordinances and regulatory tools, such as easements and buffer zones.

Not all types of public access can be measured equally, though. A working waterfront may not occupy as much land area as a public beach, but it will generally be associated with more high intensity land uses. Public beaches don’t require as much city investment as boat slips or working waterfronts, but conflicts between public and private coastal interests over beach access can be a major headache for coastal municipalities. Cities can effectively resolve most of these issues through proper land-use planning and policymaking, which is pursued concurrent with the city’s general vision or comprehensive plan. The ordinances and comprehensive plan the city puts in place must also be backed up with a sound, day-to-day planning process, with enforcement apparatuses in place to ensure that the beach access policies are being followed. The information here is intended to convey a few basic policy recommendations related to the issue of beach access and to troubleshoot issues that can occur when balancing the various public interests and needs related to shoreline management.

How can local governments plan for access?

Local governments can make measures for beach access through comprehensive plans and zoning ordinances. Comprehensive plans are arguably the most important components of the land use planning process, a kind of policy blueprint cities can use to guide the decision making process over a 10- to 20-year time frame. It is during this planning process that communities can identify emerging issues and problems by evaluating various social and economic indicators, such as household and population size.

For coastal communities, this evaluation process may yield valuable information about the different types of waterfront uses. Once various activities have been quantified and measured, it becomes far easier to allocate land use categories in a zoning ordinance. Depending on a comprehensive plan’s findings, a community may choose to focus more on recreational access to the waterfront versus more access for fishing businesses, such as marinas or seafood processing areas. Also, if the comprehensive plan identifies an area that is prime for additional density, the city may create an additional zoning designation to make way for a more compact form of coastal development.

Efficient beach management and access starts with a comprehensive plan that clearly identifies various demographic trends taking place in the city. It is then, and only then, that a city should start building up its zoning ordinance and determining the type of land classifications that need to be created to ensure that the beach is used in a sustainable and responsible manner. 

As a local government official, how do I control public access?

Towns, the state, and the federal government can regulate in ways that address coastal access. Regulation may take the form of zoning, harbor management, or environmental regulation that protects coastal resources. Regulation is best used to limit the types of development that are either incompatible with access, or displace uses that have historically provided access. While creating and enforcing regulations is unique to the government, knowledge of the planning process will enable interested parties to lobby for effective regulations and plan for the future of their towns.

Governments have authority to use their regulatory power on behalf of the public, with restrictions. The legal doctrines involved include police power, common law, the public trust doctrine, and the protection of private property provided by the "takings" clause of the U.S. Constitution. For a more in-depth description of legal authority, visit Common Law and Statutes.

What is zoning and how can it be used as an incentive for protecting access?

Zoning is a system of developing a city or county plan in which various geographic areas (zones) are restricted to certain uses and development, such as water-dependent use zoning. By preventing certain uses, zoning can ensure that some land remains open for access or for the possibility of being acquired for access. Also, zoning can help prevent residential uses from competing with marine uses. Exceptions to zoning restrictions can be negotiated in exchange for a public good, such as a public boat ramp or path to the shore.

Zoning and other land use regulations are most effective when a community is able to take a comprehensive approach to its access needs. For example, a shoreline access plan might be part of a larger water-dependent use-zoning scheme for a region.

What kinds of ordinances can be used to address access needs?

Ordinances can be used in many ways to address access needs. A city, for example, may choose to elaborate on the acceptable uses and nature of those uses on the public waterfront. In Biloxi, the types of beach uses that are permitted are generally those that are temporary in nature. In areas where private uses or single-family homes predominate, a city may regulate the size and scale of individual boat docks. By attaching regulations to the potential size and impact of a large home or subdivision, cities can ensure that public waterfront access remains undisrupted.

How can the state government plan for access?

Through the Coastal Zone Management Act, Mississippi has adopted a state coastal program that qualifies the state to apply for § 309 CZMA grants. These grants can be used to enhance coastal access.

Also through the coastal program, Mississippi has identified what activities qualify as “water-dependent” uses along the coast. Through this authority, Mississippi can shape what type of industry is located along the coast and where development can occur. This management technique can assist the state in planning for coastal access. Interestingly, casinos are considered a water-dependent use in Mississippi, making the coastline a unique place.

More Information

Acquiring and Transferring Access

Land Trusts

Plan and Zone for Access

Using Tax Policy for Access

Case Study:
Acquiring Access

Case Study: