Michigan Land Use Institute

Thriving Communities / News & Views / Articles from 1995 to 2012 / The Anatomy of a Shoreline Overlay

The Anatomy of a Shoreline Overlay

How each part works and why

April 1, 2001 | By Jim Lively
and Patty Cantrell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

A shoreline protection overlay does two things: 1) It maps out sensitive coastal resources. 2) It requires all currently allowable land uses to take shoreline protection precautions.

The overlay uses four main tools to do this. The sections below describe what the tools are and how they work together to keep coastal communities free of the environmental and property value problems that can come with insensitive development.


The overlay zone boundary outlines the area that the ordinance protects. Local governments have two options for drawing the boundary.

The simplest method is to measure a certain distance back from the shoreline and apply the ordinance to all development activities that fall within it. This one-distance-fits-all method is the least expensive, but it can exact a hidden price. The distance might not be large enough to capture certain sensitive areas along the shoreline. It might also be too large in some areas of the shoreline, forcing zoning officials to apply restrictions where the terrain does not warrant them.

The most effective method for drawing an overlay zone boundary is to conduct an inventory of actual shoreline resources, such as wetlands, dunes, and habitat. The community then draws the boundary line to fit these resources so that the required setback distances make sense. (See Overlay Zone Boundary-->Overlay Zone Boundary)


Site plans show how structures will sit on and affect the land. A shoreline protection overlay requires all land uses — including residential — to submit site plans to local zoning officials for review and approval.

Residential property owners typically submit only general site plans to local authorities for approval of septic field and drinking water well locations and soil erosion control measures. A shoreline protection overlay requires them to obtain these approvals and then submit a final site plan that includes information about how their home fits on the land. (See Site Plan Review-->Site Plan Review)

The building setback is the distance required between structures and sensitive shoreline resources. Building setbacks are the most effective way to relieve construction pressure on fragile dunes, bluffs, and wetlands and on valuable forest and beach-lined coasts. Setting structures a reasonable distance back from shoreline resources balances private property uses with neighbors’ wants, wildlife needs, environmental concerns, and the possibility of damage from storms, erosion, and high water. (See Building Setback-->Building Setback)

The vegetative buffer zone protects important plants, grasses, and land features in the setback area. The buffer zone also includes standards for using coastal land without threatening natural erosion control, habitat, and appearance. It complements the building setback requirement by making room for native plant and animal inhabitants while allowing for human activity in the setback area. (See Vegetative Buffer Zone-->Vegetative Buffer Zone)


Local governments can include additional zoning requirements to address such concerns as stormwater runoff, the effects of residential and commercial lighting on the night sky, protecting wildlife habitat, and the need for additional enforcement tools. (See Extra Protections for Your Shoreline-->Extra Protections for Your Shoreline)

Overlay Zone Boundary

Michigan Land Use Institute

148 E. Front Street, Suite 301
Traverse City, MI 49684-5725
p (231) 941-6584 
e comments@mlui.org