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Critical Area Program

In 1984, the Maryland General Assembly passed the Chesapeake Bay Critical Area Law in response to a decline in the overall quality of the Chesapeake Bay. This law created a special planning area, known as the Critical Area, located 1,000 feet landward from mean high tide or the edge of tidal wetlands, as designated on the State Tidal Wetland maps, and all waters of and lands under the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. The State Chesapeake Bay Critical Area Commission was created to formulate protective criteria for the use and development of this planning area and to oversee the development of Critical Area land use programs by local jurisdictions. The State law requires that local jurisdictions develop and adopt their own Critical Area Programs based on the State Chesapeake Bay Critical Area criteria. These local programs are approved by the Commission and reviewed every six years. Anne Arundel County's Critical Area Program was first approved in 1988.
Land Use Classifications
As directed by the State criteria, the County’s Critical Area Program designated three categories of land development within the Critical Area. Designations were based on existing development and public services available as of December 1, 1985.The three designations are Intense Development Area (IDA), Limited Development Area (LDA), and Resource Conservation Area (RCA). Grading, building, and land use must follow the Critical Area criteria specific to that designation. These criteria are more fully described in the County’s Land Use Ordinances. The Critical Area land use classifications are also denoted on maps that are available to view and to purchase through our office at the Heritage Complex in Annapolis.
  • IDAs can be developed with medium to high density housing, commercial, or industrial uses, according to the underlying zoning designation. Pollutant loadings must be reduced by 10% and Habitat Protection Areas (HPA) must be protected. A minimum 100 foot buffer is required.
  • LDAs can be developed with low to medium density housing (a maximum of less than 4 units per acre), commercial and small industrial uses according to the underlying zoning designation.
  • RCAs are limited to one dwelling unit per 20 acres, agricultural and forest uses and resource utilization according to the permitted use list.
  • LDA and RCA developments must limit impervious surfaces to 15% - 31% of the site. A minimum 100 foot buffer is required. HPAs are protected. Forest clearing is limited and must be replaced when removed. Unforested developments must establish 15% of the site in forest.
  • Anne Arundel County has a buffer modification program for areas where there is no existing functioning minimum 100 foot buffer. These areas are also denoted on maps and other buffer regulations apply. 
The Critical Area Program also has special regulations for the following specific areas: Water dependent facilities; Shore erosion protection works; Forest and woodlands; Agriculture; Surface mining; and Natural parks.
Habitat Protection Areas
The State criteria required that the County designate Habitat Protection Areas (HPAs). These HPAs include a minimum 100 foot buffer from tidal wetlands and waterways, historic waterfowl staging and concentration areas, colonial water bird nesting sites, threatened and endangered species and species in need of conservation, anadromous fish spawning areas, existing riparian buffers, forest areas used by forest interior dwelling birds, nontidal wetlands, Natural Heritage Areas and other areas of local significance.
Growth Allocation
Within the Critical Area, the County can alter a property’s land use classification through a growth allocation process. Under the State law, 5 percent of the County’s designated RCA classification (917 acres) may be used for growth allocation. Half of that acreage may be used to change RCA to LDA or IDA. The other half may be used to change LDA to IDA. As of 2005, 419 acres have been converted from RCA to LDA or IDA, leaving 40 acres available; and 375 acres have been used to convert LDA to IDA, leaving 84 acres available. In order to receive growth allocation an application must be made to the County. After a public hearing, if approved, the application is forwarded to the Critical Area Commission for their review. The project must meet the Critical Area Criteria for development in the new designation.
The Chesapeake Bay Critical Area is a resource protection program that governs land use within 1,000 feet of high tide or tidal wetlands. The program aims to minimize the negative impacts of new development on water quality and to conserve fish, wildlife and plant habitats. Additional information on the Critical Area can be obtained below.
  • FAQs - Most Critical Area questions are site specific.
  • Buffer Management Plans - A buffer management plan (also known as a Vegetation Management Plan) is needed for any tree or vegetation removal within the Critical Area. A buffer management plan is utilized for removing natural vegetation within the Critical Area on properties where a building or grading permit is not required. Natural vegetation includes trees, shrubs, vines, and herbaceous ground cover. You can obtain a buffer management plan by contacting the County’s Forester in Inspections and Permits at (410) 222-7441).
  • More information, including guidance publications, on the Critical Area Program can be found on the County's Inspections and Permits Environmental Programs Page at
    or at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, Critical Area Commission Home Page at:
  • Title 8 of the Anne Arundel County Code Article 17 (Subdivision and Development), and Title 13 of Article 18 (Zoning Ordinance) contain the specific requirements for development under the Anne Arundel County Critical Area Program.



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