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Stunning Shorelines that Save the Bay: The Changing Landscape of Waterfront Home Ownership

Jul 14, 2015 09:00AM ● By Lisa Lewis
By Lisa A. Lewis

When Lisa Marie Ghezzi describes the living shoreline that was installed in 2009 on the waterfront property that she owns with her husband, Keith, she fondly refers to it as an important structure that supports the ecosystem and serves as habitat for a vast array of wildlife. The completed project represents an enduring symbol of the couple’s decision to beautify the landscape of their home. The property, which is located in Easton, consists of 1,000 linear feet of shoreline, three coves, and is a haven for wildlife. An animal lover’s paradise, it’s not uncommon to see rabbits darting to and fro, red foxes roaming the fields, and turtles basking in the sun. The Ghezzi’s property is also a veritable sanctuary for several species of birds, including ducks and osprey as well as smaller birds, such as American goldfinches and Eastern bluebirds.

In addition to wildlife, the landscape abounds with native plants. Lush grasses—smooth cordgrass and salt meadow hay—sway in the gentle breeze. A variety of shrubs, including American beautyberry, red and black chokeberry, and silky dogwood, adorn the property, and trees, such as tulip poplar, white oak, and sweetbay magnolia, provide shade on summer days.

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“What was once an unsightly piece of shoreline that was strewn with litter and overrun with several species of invasive plants is now absolutely stunning,” says Ghezzi, a master gardener. “Our living shoreline was very important to my husband and me. We were committed to a project that would improve the water quality of our creek, protect the environment, and increase the value of our property.”

Changing Trends

While Ghezzi’s description of her waterfront property certainly conjures up a lovely mental image of a peaceful retreat, the issue of living shorelines is not without controversy. Change is never easy, and it can be difficult to adapt to and accept new methods and concepts. Waterfront homeowners who were accustomed to rip rap (stone revetment) may not feel comfortable with the idea of a living shoreline.

It’s no secret that erosion is a major problem for waterfront homeowners. Shorelines are continually eroded by the movement of water, wind, and waves, so measures must be taken to protect them from erosive processes. In 2008, the Maryland General Assembly passed the Living Shoreline Protection Act, which made living shorelines the required method of shoreline erosion control. As most waterfront homeowners are probably aware, living shorelines are environmentally friendly and creative methods of protecting shorelines. The projects use native plants and materials to prevent erosion and absorb wave energy. They also create habitat for wildlife. But many waterfront homeowners aren’t used to the idea of living shorelines. Plus, there is more maintenance involved than there is with rip rap.

Indeed, the issue of erosion control is a very sensitive subject among waterfront homeowners. Nevertheless, it’s an issue that needs to be discussed at length—one that should be at the forefront of any conversation about shoreline erosion. It’s important for all waterfront homeowners to understand the most effective methods of preventing erosion, so they can make informed decisions that will not only protect their property investment but also safeguard the overall health of the Chesapeake Bay and future development on the Shore.

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Benefits of Living Shorelines

One organization that strives to raise awareness about the benefits of living shorelines is Environmental Concern (EC), a not-for-profit organization located in St. Michaels. As stewards of the Bay, EC has been dedicated to improving water quality and increasing habitat by creating living shorelines for 42 years.

“The future health of the Bay is dependent upon the construction and enhancement of wetlands, and living shorelines are a type of wetland,” says Suzanne Pittenger-Slear, president, EC. “Living shorelines offer beneficial habitat for wildlife living in and around the Bay and provide a beautiful and resilient erosion control measure for waterfront homeowners. They minimize coastal erosion and maintain coastal processes while enhancing the natural shoreline. Vegetation increases habitat and improves water quality. Living shorelines are beneficial to both homeowners and the Bay. They’re a win-win.”

In order to help Marylanders understand the importance of living shorelines—and see what they look like—EC created two living shorelines in Oxford. The Morris Street Park and Oxford-Bellevue Ferry Landing living shoreline projects offer opportunities to raise awareness. The public is welcome to visit these areas to learn more about the benefits of living shorelines.

Property Rights of Waterfront Homeowners

According to the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE), Maryland law requires that a specific preference is followed when selecting a shoreline stabilization method. A shore erosion control project must consist of nonstructural shoreline stabilization measures that preserve the natural environment, such as marsh creation or a living shoreline. However, property owners aren’t required to use such measures if a waiver is obtained from MDE or the shoreline in question has been mapped by MDE as an area appropriate for structural shoreline stabilization measures, such as revetment or bulkhead. (Maps are available on MDE’s website at www.mde.state.md.us.)

Rip Rap or Bulkheads

Typically, replacing a bulkhead is a process handled by MDE. The amount of input that waterfront homeowners have is site specific and depends on environmental features and the type of problems on site. Rip rap is a more extensive process. However, per the Living Shoreline Protection Act of 2008, living shorelines must be considered before any other options.

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Piers/Docks

All waterfront homeowners have a right to access the water—unless, of course, there is some special circumstance, which would be rare. When homeowners need to make decisions regarding shore erosion control, they don’t need to worry about choosing between recreation, such as a dock, and restoration since most designs can accommodate both.

The Critical Area

In 1984, the Maryland General Assembly passed the Critical Area Act, which established the Critical Area as the first 1,000 feet from Mean High Water or the edge of tidal wetlands, and also created the Critical Area Commission (CAC). Waterfront homeowners who are interested in learning if their property is in the Critical Area can view a map at www.dnr.state.md.us/criticalarea.

“The Critical Area Commission regulates development in the Critical Area,” says Julie Roberts, natural resources planner, CAC. “Counties and towns are responsible for upholding CAC law and regulations through their own programs and zoning ordinances. CAC also provides support and oversight to the counties and towns and works closely with MDE.”

All waterfront homeowners who are considering any type of shore erosion control on their property must apply directly to the local jurisdiction. Whether or not they live in the Critical Area, all waterfront homeowners are subject to the same regulations and must follow the same procedures. Since several permits are required before the work can be completed, homeowners often choose to hire a contractor who can obtain the necessary permits on their behalf—thus expediting the process.

A Contractor’s Perspective on the Issue

Bailey Marine Construction, Inc. is a fifth-generation, family-owned business that specializes in shoreline stabilization throughout the Eastern Shore. With more than 100 years of experience, they have seen methods improve and have witnessed the shifting trends firsthand.

“We’re definitely installing living shorelines more than rip rap,” says Mark Hill, manager of Bailey Marine Construction in Easton, whose father-in-law, Lee Bailey, is the owner of the company. “Everyone wants to do their part to protect the Bay and their property investment. Plus, living shorelines are aesthetically pleasing. Every shoreline is different and has its own characteristics. So when we do a site evaluation, we give our clients various options based on the erosion and come up with the best possible solution for that particular property site.”

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Future Outlook

The issue of shoreline erosion control will probably continue to be a sensitive topic among waterfront homeowners. But it’s an issue that must be addressed. Environmental issues often lead to changes in attitudes, and waterfront homeowners need to determine their role in the larger effort of preserving the Bay.

“This is such an important issue—not only for development on the Shore but also for the overall health of the Bay,” Pittenger-Slear says. “Since habitat loss is occurring, we need to make a conscious decision to do what is best for the future health of the Bay and develop it in a more sustainable manner.”
Before (Left) and after (Right) photos show a bulkhead (not in good condition) on the San Domingo Creek—homeowners wanted to replace it with living shoreline—the after picture.

 

(Left) The concrete wall had degraded over time, contributing to the eroding shoreline. (Right) The citizens of Oxford enjoyed the new living shoreline.

 

(Left) The Oxford Ferry Landing shoreline erosion was the result of many years of wind driven wave action and boat wake. Concrete structures had failed, offering no protection from the continued erosion. (Right) Environmental Concern restored the Ferry Landing shoreline using native plants suitable for the conditions at the site—in this case, Spartina alterniflora (Cordgrass) and Spartina patens (Salt meadow hay). Additional upland plants were included for diversity and habitat enhancement. The stakes and flags prevent geese from disturbing the plants until they have become established.