Riparian Buffers

Almost every month there are variance requests before the Beaufort County Zoning Board of Appeals for waterfront buffer setbacks. It seems that many of the applicants do not understand the intent and importance of riparian buffers.

A riparian buffer is the land bordering waterways characterized by a cover of naturally occurring vegetation consisting of trees, shrubs, and native grasses.  The benefits include:

  • preventing erosion,
  • abating flood and storm damage,
  • providing wildlife habitat,
  • improving aesthetics of water corridors, which can increase property values, and
  • maintaining and improving water quality and overall health of the eco-system by filtering pollutants from runoff. According to the EPA, riparian buffers “act as natural filters of nonpoint source pollutants, including sediment, nutrients, pathogens, and metals to water bodies.”

Protecting our water quality is especially important when you consider that 222,080 of Beaufort County’s 590,720 acres are covered by water. In 1999, Beaufort County adopted the River Buffers and Natural Resource Protection in the Zoning and Development Standards Ordinance. The riparian buffer helps meet the values outlined in the comprehensive plan of preserving our natural systems, ensuring clean water and pursuing environmentally responsible development.

Best management practices for riparian lands according to South Carolina Department of Natural Resources include the following:

  • A minimum 50-100 foot riparian buffer should be established and maintained along both sides of the waterway.
  • The disturbance of the natural ground cover should be minimized and native vegetation should characterize the buffer. New native vegetation might need to be added to the buffer.
  • Lawn should be outside of the riparian buffer, at least 50 feet from the waterway.
  • New buildings should be located outside the 100-year floodplain and set back at least 100 feet from the waterway.
  • To protect the scenic quality in the river corridors, thinning in the riparian buffer should be limited to the lesser of either 75 feet or one third of the lot width.

Beaufort County and the municipalities within the county all have riparian buffer requirements that outline the minimum width of the buffer, vegetation requirements, and what is allowed in the buffer. The buffer is measured from the critical line established by the South Carolina Department of Ocean & Coastal Resource Management (OCRM). The requirements vary depending on the zoning district and can greatly impact the buildable area of a lot. Prior to buying waterfront property, it is recommended to have a surveyor, landscape architect or architect review the zoning requirements to determine the buildability of the site.