Coastal Landscaping in Massachusetts - Do You Need a Permit?

Find landscaping options for controlling coastal erosion and preventing storm damage—provided by the Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management (CZM) StormSmart Coasts Program.

Before bringing in that backhoe (or even a shovel) to plant beachgrass, dig up invasive species, or start another coastal landscaping project, you need to determine if any permits are required. The most likely regulations that will apply are through the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act and Wetlands Protection Act.

Massachusetts Endangered Species Act

The Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife's Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program (NHESP) protects rare species and their habitats through the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act. For coastal landscaping projects, the most likely potential impacts are in shorebird nesting habitat designated on NHESP’s Regulatory Maps: Priority & Estimated Habitats. Projects in these areas may require a permit with conditions for planting—such as planting beachgrass before April 1 to protect breeding and nesting activities, selecting appropriate types of vegetation (e.g., grass vs. shrubs), and increasing the spacing between plantings to allow enough open sandy areas for shorebird nesting. Landscaping projects may also affect rare plants and other protected wildlife, such as the Diamond-backed Terrapin. Be sure to contact NHESP to determine if your landscaping project is allowed and what additional requirements may apply.

Massachusetts Wetlands Protection Act

The state’s Wetlands Protection Act (WPA) protects wetland resource areas (including beaches and dunes) and the beneficial functions they provide. These beneficial functions include flood control, storm-damage protection, pollution prevention, and protection of water supplies, groundwater, and habitat. The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) oversees administration of the law at the state level, and local Conservation Commissions review projects in each community.

Where landscaping work is located directly within a bank, dune, or other coastal resource area specified by the WPA, an approved Order of Conditions (or local permit) may be required by your local Conservation Commission and/or MassDEP. Within the 100-foot buffer zone to the resource area, a Determination of Applicability may be all that is necessary if the work is minimal and won't cause excessive land disturbance. Some minor landscaping activities are not subject to regulation at all—see the WPA Permit Checklist for Landscape Activities below. To ensure that you do not need a permit, check with your Conservation Commission regarding the procedures for your community.

According to the WPA, protective plantings designed to reduce erosion may be permitted on a coastal bank, and plantings compatible with natural vegetation are allowed on a dune. Although this type of work is usually encouraged by Conservation Commissions, this does not mean that a homeowner can perform the work without the proper approvals.

Definition of Resource Area

A resource area is defined under the Massachusetts Wetlands Protection Act Regulations as a bank, freshwater wetland, coastal wetland, beach, dune, flat, marsh, or swamp bordering on the ocean, an estuary, a creek, a river, a stream, a pond, or a lake. Resource areas also include land under any of the waterbodies listed above; land subject to tidal action, flooding, or coastal storm flowage; and riverfront areas.

Permit Checklist for Landscape Activities

This table includes permits required under state regulations. Stricter local standards may apply—check with your Conservation Commission.

Activities that Require State Permits* Minor Activities that Do Not Require State Permits
  • Planting trees, shrubs, and groundcovers in a wetland resource area (i.e., beach, bank, dune, salt marsh).
  • Clearing or pruning naturally vegetated areas (including removal of invasive species) within a resource area or the 100-foot buffer zone.
  • Filling or grading within a resource area or the 100-foot buffer zone.
  • Cutting a path to the shoreline.
  • Construction (buildings—including sheds, septic systems, seawalls, etc.) within a resource area or 100-foot buffer zone.
  • Planting native trees, shrubs, or groundcover (excluding turf lawns) in the 100-foot buffer zone (i.e., outside of any resource area).
  • Pruning of existing landscaped areas.
  • Mowing of established lawns.
  • Converting impervious surfaces to vegetated surfaces in the 100-foot buffer zone, provided erosion and sedimentation controls are used during construction.

*Under the Massachusetts Wetlands Protection Act Regulations, these permits include Determinations of Applicability or Orders of Conditions.

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