Waterfront Planning and Zoning

planning with community membersCommunity-based planning can help bring a community together to create a shared vision for the waterfront, protect economic interest, and build preparedness in the face of natural disaster. Planning a community that can adapt in the face of climate change adds another dimension of challenges and opportunities; for more information, visit Climate Adaptation.

Comprehensive or master planning

A comprehensive plan (or master plan) allows for coordinated decision-making in community land use. A successful planning process depends on the input of community members. Although decision-making authority resides with governmental bodies, waterfront stakeholders can raise issues of concern and offer potential solutions by actively participating in planning processes. To be effective, plans must be coupled with enforceable land use policies, such as zoning ordinances, building codes, and permits and licenses.

Plans to protect the waterfront

Local governments often use comprehensive plans — including waterfront master plans, harbor management plans, and special area management plans — to address specialized waterfront needs.

  • Waterfront master plans can guide land-based uses and ensure working waterfronts are preserved in future development.
  • Harbor management plans can complement waterfront master plans and ensure that activity in the water supports working waterfronts and may include guidance for the adjacent land area.
  • Special area management plans may supplement existing plans for specific areas.
  • Climate adaptation plans are used to develop and apply approaches to reduce the impacts and consequences of climate change and climate variability.

Future land use graphic

Future land use plan from St. Joseph, Mich. master plan. Light blue area is designated as water recreational district. (Source: City of St. Joseph)

Visioning for the future is a key component of the planning process. As a community, consider including waterfront goals in planning documents. With a shared vision, plan, and approach, communities will be more resilient. Here is an example of a waterfront goal: “Protect and enhance the natural aesthetic values and recreation potential of all waterfront areas for the enjoyment of area citizens, while recognizing private property rights of waterfront property owners.”


  • Master Planning for Resiliency and Sustainability — Michigan-specific information portal designed to help communities plan for, protect, and preserve their waterfronts. Includes information on how to include a waterfront in a master plan, the planning process (partners, roles of officials), creative zoning to protect sensitive areas, and resources focused on specific waterfront type.
  • Sustainable Working Waterfronts Toolkit — National information portal that contains a wealth of information about the historical and current use of waterfront space, the economic value of working waterfronts, and legal, policy, and financing tools.
  • Smart Growth for Coastal and Waterfront Communities — A guide to waterfront-specific strategies for development.
  • Michigan Association of Planning — An organization dedicated to supporting planning efforts in Michigan.

Zoning to protect shorelines and working waterfronts

Zoning is an important regulatory tool that can shape development. Where development goals are clearly identified — for instance, in a local comprehensive plan — zoning is an instrument to help realize the vision. For example, zoning can help ensure water-dependent uses, such as marinas and harbors, are appropriately sited and that other authorized uses are compatible.

After a comprehensive or master plan has been set, community leaders adopt formal policies or regulations to implement the plan, like zoning ordinances. Ordinances may impose requirements that preserve water-based use and increase resilience to changing environmental conditions.

Zoning may be used to:

  • Prevent development in expanded shore areas
  • Regulate parcel use
  • Determine setbacks
  • Specify type of construction (e.g., easily movable)
  • Require shore protection structures

A range of zoning practices are often adopted to protect waterfronts, including:

  • Hybrid Zoning Ordinance — Promotes waterfront revitalization by fostering mixed-use development along the waterfront to meet evolving community needs.
  • Zoning for Public Access — Can require visual or physical access to the waterfront in certain areas.
  • Innovative Zoning Districts — Form-based code districts; regulates structure, design, and form over land use and allows greater flexibility compared to conventional, use-based zoning.
  • Zoning to Establish Recreational and Commercial Marine Node — Zoning for water-related uses protects by preventing the encroachment of non-water-dependent uses.


Policy options for waterfront resilience

In addition to planning efforts, a range of policy and regulatory tools are available to increase waterfront resilience; tools should be matched to your community’s situation. Your local government will work closely with a municipal attorney in drafting any ordinances, regulations, contracts, or other legal documents — but you have a voice through elected representatives and the public commenting process.

It is possible to take advantage of regulations that are aimed at other outcomes (such as habitat protection, redevelopment, toxic site cleanup), but that have additional benefits for working waterfronts and increased climate resilience. Individuals can talk to legislators to advocate for the adoption of regulations that require new development or redevelopment to maintain the natural shoreline. State and local governments can use scenic easements or other policies to protect priority locations (e.g., sensitive lands, open spaces), facilitate transfer or donation programs, and impose design regulations


Law and policy

The following law and policy resources are available from the National Working Waterfronts Network, and may be used to advance sustainability measures:

  • The federal Coastal Zone Management Act requires participating states to give priority consideration to coastal-dependent uses when siting major facilities.
  • States, taking advantage of authority granted by the public trust doctrine, can enact policies that give preference to water-dependent uses and that enhance waterfront access.
  • Local governments using land use planning authorities can incorporate provisions that give preference to traditional waterfront businesses and uses into comprehensive plans and zoning.
  • Federal and state historic preservation laws can be used to preserve waterfront areas with significant historic value.
  • Land conservation and acquisition programs using legal tools such as conservation easements and eminent domain, and financing tools such as revolving loan programs, can help communities preserve or acquire valuable working waterfront real estate.
  • Federal, state, and local tax policy can provide incentives for maintaining working waterfronts through tax incentive or tax deferral programs.
  • Download a video tutorial guide (mp4) to these tools.