The Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act (Bay Act) was enacted by the Virginia General Assembly in 1988 as a critical element of Virginia's non-point source management program.
The Bay Act program is designed to improve water quality in the Chesapeake Bay and other waters of the State by requiring the use of effective land management and land use planning. At the heart of the Bay Act is the concept that land can be used and developed to minimize negative impacts on water quality. The first sentence of the Bay Act serves as a theme for the entire statute:
"Healthy state and local economies and a healthy Chesapeake Bay are integrally related; balanced economic development and water quality protection are not mutually exclusive."
Virginia designed the Bay Act to enhance water quality and still allow reasonable development to continue. The Bay Act balances state and local economic interests and water quality improvement by creating a unique cooperative partnership between state and Tidewater local governments to reduce and prevent nonpoint source pollution. The Bay Act recognizes that local governments have the primary responsibility for land use decisions, expanding local government authority to manage water quality, and establishing a more specific relationship between water quality protection and local land use decision-making.
- The Bay Act is an extension of the public trust doctrine and, like many other environmental protection programs, allows the Commonwealth to manage certain aspects of the environment for the benefit of all Virginians.
The Bay Act Program is the only program in Virginia state government that deals comprehensively with the relationships between water quality, and land use planning and development. It is also the only program that assists local assists local governments with land use planning needs to meet water quality goals: the development of land use regulations, ordinances and comprehensive plans.
The Chesapeake Bay Preservation Area Designation and Management Regulations were originally adopted in 1989 and were amended in 1991, 2001 and in 2012 as part of the Integration Bill.
The Bay Act charges the State Water Control Board with the following responsibilities:
- Promulgating and keeping current regulations that establish criteria for local Bay Act programs
- Ensuring that local government comprehensive plans, zoning ordinances, and subdivision ordinances are in compliance with the Bay Act regulations
- These land use ordinances and plans comprise the local Bay Act program and must meet the requirements of the regulations.
- Providing technical and financial assistance to Tidewater local governments
- Technical assistance has been provided in a number of ways, including: publications, research projects, provision of computer equipment, providing training for local government planners and engineers, and other direct staff assistance. Financial assistance has been provided through (1) a competitive grants program for localities and planning district commissions that began in 1990, and (2) a grant program for Soil and Water Conservation Districts in Tidewater to develop agricultural soil and water quality conservation plans on farmlands within Chesapeake Bay Preservation Areas.
- Providing technical assistance and advice to regional and state agencies on land use and water quality protection
- Bay Act staff help the board and Tidewater local governments, planning district commissions, and Soil and Water Conservation Districts participating in the program. The staff also provides assistance in other regional efforts, including the development of watershed restoration plansand participation on committees and work groups of the Chesapeake Bay Program.
Local Bay Act Programs
The lands that make up Chesapeake Bay Preservation Areas are those that have the potential to impact water quality most directly. Generally, there are two types of environmentally sensitive lands: Resource Protection Areas (RPAs), and Resource Management Areas (RMAs). RPAs protect and benefit water quality, while RMAs have the potential to damage water quality without proper management. By carefully managing land uses within these areas, local governments help reduce the water quality impacts of nonpoint source pollution and improve the health of the Chesapeake Bay.
Each Tidewater locality must adopt a program based on the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act and the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Area Designation & Management Regulations. The Act and regulations recognize local government responsibility for land use decisions and are designed to establish a framework for compliance without dictating precisely what local programs must look like. Local governments have flexibility to develop water quality preservation programs that reflect unique local characteristics and embody other community goals. Such flexibility also facilitates innovative and creative approaches in achieving program objectives. The regulations address nonpoint source pollution by identifying and protecting certain lands called Chesapeake Bay Preservation Areas. The regulations use a resource-based approach that recognizes differences between various land forms and treats them differently.
Local Bay Act programs include:
- A map generally depicting Chesapeake Bay Preservation Areas.
- An ordinance containing performance criteria pertaining to the use, development and redevelopment of land.
- A comprehensive plan or revision that incoroporates the protection of Chesapeak Bay Preservation Areas and of the quality of state waters.
- A zoning ordinance that incorporates measures to protect the quality of state waters.
- A subdivision ordinance that incoporates measures to protect the quality of waters of the state.
- A plan of development process prior to the issuance of a building permit to assure that the use and development of land in Chesapeake Bay Preservation Areas is accomplished in a manner that protects the quality of state waters.