Coastal Barrier Resources System

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In 1982, the U.S. Congress enacted the Coastal Barrier Resources Act (CBRA), to prohibit using federal funds for development on sensitive coastal barrier islands. Undeveloped sensitive areas are mapped and incorporated into the Coastal Barrier Resources System (CBRS). Areas so designated are ineligible for direct or indirect Federal expenditures and financial assistance, including flood insurance, funding for infrastructure or federal housing loans. As of 2008, the CBRS includes approximately 800 barriers, an area of almost 1.3 million acres. While the exclusion of federal funds has slowed development on these barriers, it is state and local governments that make the final decision on whether development occurs. Due to the high value of coastal lands and the need to pay compensation if development of private property is prohibited, state and municipal regulators often grant permits for development on barriers within the CBRS system.


Heavy federal subsidies poured into U.S. coastal development projects in the 1970s and 1980s helping to create a coastal development boom. Some members of Congress such as Senator John H. Chafee (Senate 1976-1999), of the coastal state of Rhode Island, recognized the vulnerability of coastal barriers to development and declared such subsidies a ‘travesty’. Chafee built bipartisan support for a non-regulatory approach to reducing such federal subsidies, in order to reduce development in high risk areas, and protect fish and wildlife and other natural resources [1]. The result was CBRA—a fiscally conservative, free market approach to coastal conservation—underpinned by the principle that taxpayers should not subsidize or bear the risk of development in areas highly vulnerable to coastal hazards.

Key Features

The Coastal Barrier Resources System (CBRS) includes undeveloped coastal barriers along the Atlantic, Gulf, Caribbean Territories and Great Lakes coasts. The Act does not include the Pacific Coast which has fewbarrier islands. Coastal barriers are unique land forms that provide protection for distinct aquatic habitats and serve as the mainland's first line of defense against damage from coastal storms and erosion. Coastal barriers are defined in the CBRA to include barrier islands, bars, spits, and tombolos, and include the associated aquatic habitats, such as adjacent estuaries and wetlands.

The CBRA prohibits federal financial assistance (e.g., loans, grants, insurance payments, rebates, subsidies, or financial guarantees), for roads, bridges, utilities, erosion control, and post-storm disaster relief for new development on designated “undeveloped” areas on coastal barriers. Existing insurance policies for properties within the CBRS remain in force until such time as that property is expanded or replaced, at which point insurance coverage is cancelled. In cases where newly built property is damaged, federal flood insurance assistance is available only if the cost of rebuilding is less than 50 percent of the value of the property.


In 1990, the Coastal Barrier Improvement Act (CBIA) amended the CBRA to include existing protected areas owned by the government, termed as ‘otherwise protected areas’ (OPA). This included national and state parks, national wildlife refuges and other conservation areas that contain coastal barriers. The inclusion of OPAs tripled the size of the CBRS. In 2000, the Coastal Barrier Resources Reauthorization Act required the development of digital mapping to improve the precision and accessibility of information about those areas in the CBRS. It also provided guidance for determining if an area was undeveloped at the time it was included within the CBRS. The Coastal Barrier Resources Reauthorization Act of 2005 directed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to produce digital maps for the entire CBRS.

Governance Framework of the Program

The United States Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), within the Department of the Interior, is authorized to implement the CBIA. FWS is the repository for CBRS maps. FWS also advises federal and state agencies, landowners, and Congress on whether properties are within the CBRS and on the types of Federal expenditures allowed in the system (FWS website). FWS approves exclusions in cases of emergency assistance, national security, navigability, and energy exploration. The CBIA is not implemented through regulations. However, agencies are required to consult with the FWS and secure their review and opinions on proposed actions.

The CBIA is not intended to prevent or regulate development in high-risk areas. It does not restrict the use of private, local, or state funding within CBRS units, although some coastal states have adopted legislation that limits state funding of certain projects. The intent of the CBIA is to ensure no federal dollars are spent on development in these areas.


Approximately 3.1 million acres of land and associated aquatic habitat are part of the CBRS and the FWS calculates that CBRA has saved over $1 billion in Federal subsidies. A 2007 study of the CBRA by the U.S. Government Accounting Office estimated that 84 percent of the area within the CBRS remains undeveloped, 29 percent has experienced some development, and approximately 3 percent has undergone significant development. The influence that CBRA has had in limiting development is unclear, however, as federal and state officials have identified other factors that are considered to play an even larger role in deciding development. These include (1) the lack of land suitable for development; (2) the lack of accessibility to the unit; (3) state laws that discourage development within coastal areas; and (4) group ownership of land within the unit (GAO, Salvensen). Reasons for development occurring in certain areas of the CBRS include: (1) strong demand by private and public groups to build, (2) a pro-development local government, and (3) the availability of affordable private flood insurance. In cases where federal funds were issued for areas within the CBRS, inaccurate maps are most frequently cited as the reason for such error.

See also

Internal Links

External Links


  1. Salvesen, David. 2005. The Coastal Barrier Resources Act: Has It Discouraged Coastal Development? Coastal Management, Volume 33, Number 2, April-June 2005, pp. 181-195(15).

The main authors of this article are Stephen Bloye Olsen and Glenn Ricci
Please note that others may also have edited the contents of this article.

Citation: Stephen Bloye Olsen; Glenn Ricci; (2020): Coastal Barrier Resources System. Available from [accessed on 23-04-2024]