How Far From The Coastline Is Safe to Build A House?

If you are thinking of building a beach house on the coastline, you should know coastal setbacks apply. Several jurisdictions regulate coastal construction. To find out how far you can safely build a beach house from the coastline, read on; we explain in detail.

Before you build a house on the coastline, you should consult the Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management for your state to see how far from the coastline is safe to build. Each state has different regulations and can impose its own setbacks. Setbacks are typically between 15 to 100 meters.

Realizing the value of U.S beaches, state coastal construction control lines apply to protect the coastline from improperly located and designed buildings that can destroy or destabilize beaches. This article examines why regulation of shoreline construction is essential and describes coastal setbacks in depth.  

Restrictions on Coastal Construction

Federal regulation applies to any land that borders the Pacific, Atlantic Ocean, or Great Lakes and navigable rivers in the United States.

To find out if your land is subject to state or federal regulation, contact your state’s Coastal Zone Management office. Not only do setbacks protect sea turtle nesting habitats and shorelines, but coastal construction setbacks also greatly reduce the risk of property damage due to shoreline erosion.

Federal Laws Governing Coastal Construction

The Coastal Area Management Act is a federal agency that regulates coastal development along federally protected zones in the United States.

The Coastal Zone Management Act at  is managed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

They are responsible for coordinating state, federal, and county laws on coastal construction on federal lands.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) guarantees that federal regulations are upheld in the U.S.

State and federal regulations can be complicated, and the penalties for noncompliance can be highly costly. You should check online with your state’s environmental protection agencies before committing funds to anything other than a design plan to understand the regulations that will apply to your area.

Coastal setback regulations ensure that building is prohibited in protected coastal areas.  Setback regulations can differ between states depending on shoreline characteristics. Most setbacks fall between the 15 m to 100 m range. The shortest setback distances are generally linked to low rocky shorelines or cliffed coastlines.

Most states typically use coastal setbacks that require buildings to be located a minimum inland distance from the coastline, like high watermark, bluff crest, dune, or vegetation line. The distance can be a fixed number or calculated on the long‐term rate of erosion.

Coastal Setback Explained

A coastal setback is a regulated buffer zone where development is significantly restricted or prohibited by the U.S Coastal Zone Management.

A setback zone is generally calculated by a certain distance from the shoreline, like the highest watermark or permanent vegetation line.

The job of the coastal setback zone is to offer coastal protection against coastal flooding and erosion, maintain the natural functions of the beach, and preserve biodiversity. Setbacks are highly effective in minimizing property damage due to coastal erosion and flooding.

A setback allows the high-water mark to move inland without naturally affecting structures. Setbacks protect buildings that are in an area susceptible to flooding.

There are two types of setbacks: lateral setbacks to handle erosion and elevation setbacks for flooding.

Except for Alaska, the 23 oceanic states regulate their coastal zones under the federal Coastal Zone Management Act.

Some states require a setback zone that is calculated from long-term coastline erosion. The coastal setback area width can vary from 30 to 60 times the mean annual rate of shoreline decline calculated from a baseline which is the high-water mark.

However, the states have broad discretion in implementing the federal act’s aims, like managing development in high-risk areas, coordinating federal and state actions, and protecting natural resources.

Coastal setback distances are classed as:

  • Fixed setbacks prohibit development for a specified distance landward of a reference feature.
  • Floating setbacks use natural phenomena to calculate setback lines and are subject to change according to a coastal topography or measurements of shoreline erosion.

Coastal setbacks are at risk from the changing sea line and sea level rise. Because of this, coastal setbacks must be re-calculated over time to guarantee that they provide continued protection considering the changing environment.

Why is Coastal Setbacks Necessary on Beaches?

Coastal setbacks are necessary because they ensure that coastal development is prohibited on a protected shoreline. Coastal setbacks provide several acknowledged functions:

  • Coastal setbacks feature buffer zones between the sea and coastal infrastructures to protect the property.
  • Coastal setbacks protect the natural habitat and nesting sites of marine turtles and other animals that live on beaches.
  • Coastal setbacks prevent damage to coastline properties during hurricanes with high waves and strong winds.
  • Coastal setbacks offer better access along the beach and more natural views to people exploring the coast.
  • Coastal setbacks offer more privacy for coastal property owners.

Local Zones

Beach towns can have independent zoning regulations. When your beach property is in an area listed as Environmental Concern (AEC), you must apply for a Coastal Area Management Act (CAMA) permit before building your beach house.

Most shoreline and waterfront properties require a federal CAMA permit and local setback regulations in place before being constructed.

These are necessary to will regulate a building’s footprint. Also, to determine how deep and wide a beach house is allowed to be constructed near the water.

Construction Building Codes for Coastlines 

U.S shoreline construction is controlled under the International Building Code. These regulations and codes are in place to ensure that structures can withstand flooding, strong winds, soil erosion, and high waves.

Code ASCE 24-05 – Is typically used with IBC Section 1612.4. This building code requires coastal structure foundations to be built from flood-resistant materials and manufactured to withstand flood impacts.

Code IBC Section 1603.1.6 – This construction code requires all documents to list relevant information regarding elevations and flood conditions.

Code IBC Section 1612.4 – This building code applies to structures in areas of High-Velocity Wave Action, also referred to as V zones. It should have all the information related to the lowest elevation listed that can be used for a horizontal structure.

Code IBC Section 1612.5(2) – This code requires specific documentation to show the constructed building can withstand flooding and strong winds, is structurally sound, and will not collapse or move out of its position laterally and float.  

Flood Zones

Before you decide to build a house on the coastline, you should research the flood zones in that area. Most coastal structures are in flood zones. However, this isn’t an obstacle if specific building codes are followed.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) classes four flood zone categories as follows:

  • Low to Moderate risk.
  • High-Risk Areas.
  • High-Risk Coastal Areas.
  • Unknown but suspected flood risk areas.

These flood zone categories are broken down as follows:

Low to Moderate Risk – The zones C and X are low flood risk areas, generally above the 500-year flood level.  Zones B and X are moderate flood risk areas between the 100-year and 500-year flood level limits.

High-Risk Coastal Areas – These high-risk coastal flood areas are zoned V, VE, and V1-30. These zones have a more than 1 percent chance of flooding annually. They are recognized as having a twenty-six percent chance of flooding once every 30-years

High-Risk Areas – The High-risk areas not in coastal areas include structures along lakes, rivers, and levees. These zones include AE, A, AR, AH, A1-30, A99, and AD.

Unknown Risk – Zone D areas are designated on flood maps to have some flood risk, but the exact risk has not yet been calculated.

Once you find the type of flood zone your beach house is being built on, you can correctly plan and design your beach house.

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Does a Beach House Need to Be Elevated?

Homes built on the waterfront need to be elevated to protect against high waves and flooding. The National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) requires homes in floodplains to be elevated to the BFE, which is the expected water line during a 100-year flood.

How High Can a Beach House be Built?

The first floor of the beach house should be above the Base Flood Elevation (BFE). The height of the house, including the roof, should not be above the mandated height as per the NFIP.

The total height limitations for beach homes can vary between 28 – 50 feet. The limitations set on the full height of the building aren’t necessarily connected to protecting the buildings in an area from storms or strong winds; however, that can be part of the reason.

Most commonly, height limitations on beach houses are designed to prevent blocking the sun from other buildings. Some height limitations can affect the design of your beach house. Make sure you determine the local height limitations before committing to a design.

Get a Professional Coastal Builder to Build Your Beach House

Once you have gathered all the permits, are familiar with the coastal setbacks and height limitations, and are ready to start building your dream beach house, it is crucial to get a professional builder who has experience building beach houses.

Working with a coastal builder is vital if you want a beach house that is built solid and ready to handle stormy weather, high waves, and floodwater. He will already know the local and federal setbacks in your area.

A professional coastal builder is familiar with the coastal building codes and regulations, which will help a beach house pass the inspections during building and the final inspection with ease.

Coastal builders already know what types of foundation and materials to use and the general BFE in that area.

Professional coastal builders know that current flood maps and soil testing are essential. Trying to save money by skipping out on a professional coastal builder will cost you more later.

Suppose your custom beach house is built, and then you discover that the incorrect foundation pillars were used or an outdated BFE was used to calculate the height of the foundation piles.

These kinds of mistakes can cost you dearly; make sure you invest in a professional coastal builder to build your dream beach house perfectly.

Beach houses require the following:

  • Beach houses must be built in accordance with federal and local setback limits.
  • Beach houses cannot be built on traditional inland foundations. 
  • Beach houses must be built in accordance with height limitations.
  • They must have deeply anchored pile foundations.
  • They must be elevated higher than the Base Flood Elevation (BFE) in that area.
  • They must be free of excessive load forces that can cause the structure’s foundation and building to collapse.
  • Beach houses cannot be built on solid wall foundations, even if the foundations are elevated. The water forces during flooding can destroy the foundation walls quickly.


Along with the beauty of a beach house comes a plethora of limitations and regulations when it comes to building on the coastline. Coastal setbacks are in place to protect the environmentally sensitive areas that create that natural beauty of a pristine shore we all so love.

Understanding the environmental characteristics of a coastal area is vital for the sustainable use of the coastal regions. Coastal setbacks provide that security.

Coastal setback zones offer protection by lowering the number of buildings in high-risk areas. Coastal setbacks also provide a buffer zone to erosions and coastal flooding that can cause severe damage to buildings.

The application of coastal setback zones, mainly when carried out together with dune reconstruction and wetland restoration, also creates new beneficial habitats. 

A consultation with an experienced environmental agency is essential before committing to building a beach house. You must contact the Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management to determine the determined setback in your state to clearly understand how far from the coastline it is safe to build your beach house.

We hope you found this article informative and that you understand the importance of coastal setbacks before you start building your dream beach house.