Coastal Area Permitting: Protecting & Preserving Coastal Zones

Permitting regulations can be difficult terrain to navigate, especially in coastal areas where additional layers of permits are often required. Three Oaks’ permit specialists have extensive experience working with clients on projects in the coastal plain. In this article, we’ll break down the complexities and walk through an overview of coastal permitting, coastal zone consistency, and common events that trigger consistency reviews in North and South Carolina. 

What is defined as a “coastal zone”? The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) segments the term into two primary subsections—coastal waters and adjacent shorelands. This encompasses coastal waters, inland zones that directly and significantly impact coastal waters, and all water and land that fall in and under those areas. North Carolina specifically uses the term “coastal area” while South Carolina utilizes “critical area.” North Carolina’s coastal areas that are protected under the Coastal Area Management Act (CAMA) include Beaufort, Bertie, Brunswick, Camden, Carteret, Chowan, Craven, Currituck, Dare, Gates, Hertford, Hyde, New Hanover, Onslow, Pamlico, Pasquotank, Pender, Perquimans, Tyrrell, and Washington counties. In South Carolina, Beaufort, Berkeley, Charleston, Colleton, Dorchester, Horry, Jasper, and Georgetown counties fall into critical areas as declared by the Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC). The coastal zone maps for each state can be seen in the below figure (see figure 1 below). 

Figure 1: Coastal Zones – NC & SC

Projects in coastal zones require additional permitting beyond those required by the Clean Water Act and are subject to Coastal Zone Consistency Certifications through each state’s respective Coastal Zone Management Program, authorized through the federal Coastal Zone Management Act (CZMA) of 1972 to protect, restore, and responsibly develop coastal zones. There are two programs that may affect your project—Federal CZMA Consistency Review and State Coastal Zone Consistency Reviews. Common triggers for consistency reviews are any projects in coastal zones, projects significantly impacting coastal lands and waters, and projects receiving federal funding (see figure 2 below).  

Figure 2: Federal, North Carolina, and South Carolina general triggers*

Navigating coastal permitting laws can be a challenge, but Three Oaks can help keep your project on track, on time, and on budget. A prime example of successful Three Oaks task completion is the Rodanthe Bridge project in Outer Banks, North Carolina. One of the main concerns for the project from NCDOT and partnering agencies was sub-aquatic vegetation (“SAV”), particularly a special seaweed that grows locally to the project site and provides resources to microorganisms and various wildlife. The seaweed was handled delicately and rehomed to continue prosperous growth. Additionally, sea turtles were a concern, so alternative lighting methods and revised timelines were used to mitigate harmful impacts to sea life during construction. Three Oaks provided the permitting and compliance assistance to ensure successful and efficient execution for the $145 million project. 

If there is anything Three Oaks Engineering can assist with, reach out to either or our Durham, NC, or Columbia, SC, office anytime at or, respectively.  

*Always make sure to check your federal and state’s specific triggering actions before starting a project, or refer to a knowledgeable, licensed professional. Sources: (NOAA), (NOAA), (NC Consistency), (NC CAMA Counties), (SC Consistency),, (SC Critical Areas),Horry%2C%20Jasper%2C%20and%20Georgetown, (Federal Consistency) , (Jug Handle Project details)

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