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Critical Area Program

Critical Area Program

Critical Area is 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.

  • Overview

    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. 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.
    • Buffer Management Plans: A buffer management plan (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.
    • Visit Anne Arundel County Inspections & Permits' Environmental Programs or at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources Critical Area Commission for more information about the Critical Area Program.
    • 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.
    • A Critical Area Planner is available for walk-in customers on Tuesdays and Thursdays to discuss issues related to property within the critical area. Inquire with the "Planner of the Day" at 2664 Riva Road, 3rd floor in Annapolis. 
  • Critical Area FAQs
    What is the Chesapeake Bay Critical Area?
    The Critical Area is the land area 1,000 feet inland from tidal water or tidal wetlands. The Chesapeake Bay Critical Area Program promotes more sensitive development within the Critical Area to help protect water quality and wildlife habitat. Of particular importance are restrictions on construction, clearing, and vegetation management within the minimum 100-foot buffer along the shoreline.
    What is a buffer in the Chesapeake Bay Critical Area?
    The minimum 100’ buffer is a naturally wooded area or a forested area specifically established or managed to protect aquatic, wetland, shoreline, and terrestrial environments from man-made disturbances. The Chesapeake Bay Critical Area buffer is located 100 feet inland from the mean high water line of tidal water, tidal wetlands, or tributary streams. The 100-foot buffer is expanded to include any contiguous sensitive areas, including all land within 50 feet of the top of a steep slope.
    I live in the Critical Area and I have a dead tree that I want to remove. Do I need a permit?
    Yes. All vegetation removal including dead or damaged trees requires an approved Vegetation Management Plan prior to removal.
    If I propose to remove a live tree or clear live vegetation in the Critical Area, will I have to replant anything?
    Yes. Critical Area law requires replacement planting for any clearing activity in the Critical Area. Replanting is to be accomplished with native plant species.
    My realtor told me that I could cut any trees on my waterfront lot that are less than 4 inches in diameter, and I don’t need a permit. Is this true?
    No, this is NOT true! We hear this question at least several times a week. All trees of any size, as well as shrubs and vines, are considered habitat in the Critical Area and are subject to the Critical Area law requirements. Please contact the Forester in the Compliance Division of Inspections and Permits (410) 222-7441 BEFORE you cut any trees on your waterfront lot.
    When is a vegetation management plan (or buffer management plan) required in the Chesapeake Bay Critical Area?
    Any disturbance in the 100-foot or expanded buffer will require a buffer management plan approved by Inspections and Permits. Disturbance includes cutting or removing vegetation (trees, shrubs, vines) and any grading or filling activity.In addition to a buffer management plan, a property owner may need approval from the Department of Inspections and Permits. This approval comes in the form of a grading permit for disturbances greater than 5,000 square feet. For disturbances under 5,000 square feet, a property owner may seek approval of a more simplified, standard grading plan (also known as standard lot sheet) instead of a grading permit.
    Who prepares a buffer management plan?
    For removal of individual trees, construction of nonstructural water access paths, and small-scale tree pruning, the property owner can prepare and sign a standard buffer form. For removal of a large number of trees, large scale pruning, and replacing vines and briars with desirable understory plants, the property owner will likely need a buffer management plan prepared by a professional.
    Can I remove invasive species (phragmites, English ivy, poison ivy, greenbriar) from my buffer?
    Yes. The County encourages the removal of invasive species. However, you must have a County-approved vegetation management plan and plant the area with native species that suppress the re-growth of the invasive species. Contact the Forester in the Compliance Division of Inspections and Permits at (410) 222-7441 for a list of native species plants or see the For more information Link below. .
    What does the County do with the fees it collects from property owners for the removal of trees in the Chesapeake Bay Critical Area?
    The County uses that money to replant trees elsewhere within the Chesapeake Bay Critical Area