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Boardwalks, walkways, stairways, and other structures built to provide beach access over dunes and banks can cause erosion and increase storm damage to coastal properties if they are not properly designed. Potential problems include limiting the growth of plants that stabilize the shoreline and creating damaging wind and water channels that lead to scour, erosion, and flooding of landward properties. Properly designed access structures, however, not only minimize these impacts, they actually provide significant benefits. They can help to define and maintain pedestrian access in one location, discourage widespread trampling of vegetation, and allow for natural movement of sand and other sediment—all of which help stabilize and maintain dunes and banks that protect coastal property from the destructive effects of waves, wind, storm surges, and flooding.
This tip covers the importance of vegetation for dune and bank stability, the benefits of elevated access structures, permitting requirements, and recommended design and construction methods for access structures.
Salt-tolerant plants with extensive root systems help stabilize dunes and banks—plant roots hold sediments in place and the leaves and stems reduce runoff erosion by absorbing water, breaking the impact of raindrops or wave splash, and physically slowing the speed and diffusing the flow of overland runoff. Plants can also help trap windblown sand, which is particularly important for building dune volume and increasing the dune’s ability to buffer inland areas from storm waves, erosion, and flooding. For more information on the benefits of coastal plants on dunes and banks, see the Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management's (CZM) StormSmart Properties Fact Sheet 3: Planting Vegetation to Reduce Erosion and Storm Damage.
American beachgrass is a particularly good plant for stabilizing dunes and banks because it is extremely hardy and grows readily on the coast. In addition, its fast-growing rhizomes (underground stems) effectively stabilize sediments and allow for quick establishment of new plants. (For more on the benefits of beachgrass for dune stability, see CZ-Tip - Dune Building with Beachgrass.) Though hardy, beachgrass is vulnerable to being trampled. Walking directly over or through a dune can kill beachgrass, which creates bare spots and the potential for dune blowouts (i.e., areas where strong winds “blow out" sand and form a depression) and lowers the overall height and stability of the dune. Similarly, walking over banks can also kill beachgrass, leading to landslides, erosion, and reduced bank stability.
Pathways at ground level do not define and designate pedestrian access to the beach as clearly as elevated structures and therefore do not discourage walking directly on and trampling the beachgrass and other stabilizing vegetation. In addition, since pathways are low and not always visible, pedestrians often inadvertently create additional pathways to get to the beach—creating cumulative impacts on the plants and landform. Simply walking on dunes can also lead to sand-landslides that can destabilize the area; while walking on banks (particularly steep banks) can reduce their natural resistance to erosion and decrease their value as a buffer to storms. Boardwalks, walkways, and stairways are therefore preferable to at-grade pathways. They are not only clearly visible and defined, they are also elevated to allow for the growth of stabilizing vegetation and the natural movement of sand and sediments beneath them. (In some circumstances, at-grade rollout structures used on a seasonal basis are a good option—see “Sectional, Adjustable, and Temporary Design Elements” below for more information).
Because activities on the coast can easily impact natural resources and neighboring properties, they are strictly regulated. The construction or replacement of a boardwalk, walkway, or stairway on or near a dune, bank, or beach will require a permit under the Massachusetts State Building Code, as well as a permit through your local Conservation Commission and the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection's (MassDEP) Water Resources Division. (Contact your city or town for local permit applications and requirements.) Though a permit is required, the Wetland Protection Act Regulations allow and encourage pedestrian walkways on dunes, provided that they are designed to minimize the disturbance to vegetation and promote the ability of dunes to move, shift, and migrate. Construction of structural accessways may also warrant review by the Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program (NHESP) to ensure there are no conflicts with bird nesting habitat or other species requirements. Depending on project location and the work involved, other permits or approvals may also be required, such as under the state’s Chapter 91: Public Waterfront Act and its Waterways Regulations (310 CMR 9.00) and the federal Rivers and Harbors Act and Program Regulations.
To rebuild pedestrian accessways in a way that minimizes impacts to coastal dunes and banks, follow these design and construction guidelines: