Critical Area

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.

Contact Information

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.

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.

The 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.

  1. Critical Area Index and Maps 
  2. 100-foot Buffer and Critical Areas 
  3. Reference the Interactive Resources section on this page for other tools.
  1. Critical Area is all land and water areas 1,000 feet landward of tidal waters or tidal wetlands.
  2. Critical Area Buffer is 100-foot landward from: a) the mean high-water line of tidal waters, b) the edge of each bank of a tributary stream, and c) the upland boundary of a tidal wetland unless otherwise noted in state or county regulations. Generally, an approved variance is required prior to authorization for disturbance in the Critical Area Buffer.
  3. Expanded Buffer is the expansion of the 100-foot Critical Area Buffer to include contiguous sensitive areas, such as steep slopes, nontidal wetlands, hydric soils, and highly erodible soils. If there are contiguous slopes of 15% or greater, the buffer must be expanded four feet for every 1% of slope beyond the 100-foot buffer or 50 feet from top of slope, whichever is greater. Similar to the Critical Area Buffer, an approved variance is generally required prior to authorization for disturbance in the Expanded Buffer.
  4. Buffer Modification Area (BMA) is a designation established on a map maintained by the Office of Planning and Zoning for certain locations of the Critical Area Buffer, such that the buffer is not expanded and specific development criteria apply as set forth in Article 17 of the County Code and COMAR.
  5. Environmentally Sensitive Areas means the area of a site which contains tidal and nontidal wetlands, bogs, 100-year floodplains, streams, steep slopes, and all associated buffers, and in the critical area, also includes the habitat protection areas.
  6. Steep Slope in the critical area is a 15% or greater slope that is over six vertical feet as measured before development.
  7. Lot Coverage is, per the Critical Area Law (8-1802), the percentage of a total lot or parcel that is: a) occupied by a structure, accessory structure, parking area, driveway, walkway, or roadway; or b) covered with gravel, stone, shell, impermeable decking, a paver, permeable pavement, or any manmade material. Lot Coverage includes the ground area covered or occupied by a stairway or impermeable deck. It should be noted that Lot Coverage is separate from, and calculated differently than, coverage by structures, which is a zoning criteria.
  8. Forest means a biological community dominated by trees and other woody plants covering a land area of 10,000 square feet or greater.
  9. Developed Woodlands means an area of trees or an area of trees and natural vegetation that is interspersed with residential, commercial, industrial, institutional, or recreational development.
  10. Reforestation is the reestablishment of forested areas by planting trees and other woody plants.
  11. Afforestation is the creation of forested areas where no forest exists or has not existed for some time.
  12. 100-year Floodplain means the area that will be inundated by the flood event having a 1-percent chance of being equaled or exceeded in any given year.
  13. Forest Interior Dwelling Birds (FIDS) require large forest areas to breed successfully and maintain viable populations.
  14. Bog means a nontidal wetland characterized by organic soils, accumulated peat, and soils saturated to the surface throughout the year with minimal fluctuation in water level. The County has a bog protection area overlay to identify the location and classifications of a bog and the corresponding regulations related to development.

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. Some of these features can be found on the MyAnneArundel, Anne Arundel County GIS, or MERLIN tools within the Interactive Resources section on this page.

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 Monday through Friday to discuss issues related to property within the critical area. Inquire with the ‘Planner of the Day’ at 2664 Riva Road.

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.

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.

Yes. All vegetation removal including dead or damaged trees requires an approved Vegetation Management Plan prior to removal.

Yes. Critical Area law requires replacement planting for any clearing activity in the Critical Area. Replanting is to be accomplished with native plant species.

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.

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.

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.

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.

The County uses that money to replant trees elsewhere within the Chesapeake Bay Critical Area.

Heritage Complex - Building 2664

Location and Hours 

Heritage Complex, Building 2664   
2664 Riva Road, Annapolis, MD 21401

Open: Mon - Fri, 8am-4:30pm  
Customer Support: Mon - Fri, 8am - 3:45pm, or by appointment

Telephone Numbers 
Residential (410) 222-7458 
Regional (410) 222-7485 
Critical Area (410) 222-7960 
Transportation (410) 222-7462