Researchers Develop Model for More Attractive Coastlines

Researchers at Texas Tech University report that they have identified a missing element in most of the state’s current coastal zoning laws. While filled to the brim with the nuts and bolts of cumbersome construction regulation, there’s apparently little to see in terms of scenic quality.

DATE: Nov. 29, 2006
CONTACT: Cory Chandler, cory.chandler@ttu.edu
(806) 742-2136

Model Coastal Zoning Ordinance to Aid Texas Seaside Community Growth

Researchers at Texas Tech University report that they have identified a missing element in most of the state’s current coastal zoning laws. While filled to the brim with the nuts and bolts of cumbersome construction regulation, there’s apparently little to see in terms of scenic quality.

So small, in fact, that the researchers are now writing a model coastal zoning ordinance to aid these fast-growing Texas seaside communities.

How good an area looks, or what’s technically called aesthetic quality, is part of a nationwide effort aimed at improving coastal zone resources. That effort gained traction 10 years ago here in Texas with the approval of the massive NOAA Coastal Zone Management Plan.

"In that plan there is absolutely no mention of scenic quality," said Louis Mills, an assistant professor in Texas Tech’s Department of Landscape Architecture. "The problem was there weren’t any benchmarks at the time. They had no priorities or comparisons between scenic resources and wildlife values."

The first task for Mills and his research team was to determine just what the people of Texas preferred in terms of scenic landscape quality. Using photographs and sketches of coastal scenes showing landscapes with varying rate of development from none to highly cluttered, some 500 survey respondents were asked to rates their preferences.

"As you would expect, the most natural scenes with sand beaches were preferred," he said. "And that was true across all age, gender, education and income groups."
Next Mills reviewed coastal land and building statutes, looking at zoning and construction codes to determine if aesthetics and scenic quality were mentioned. In most cases there was little or nothing on the books.

"In some instances, the codes called for a landscape plan, but didn’t say what needed to be in the plan," he said. "There weren’t any specifics such as percentage of tree coverage or what types of trees are acceptable."

As a result, the Texas Tech researchers are writing a model coastal zoning ordinance that will provide coastal communities with a more consistent set of land use controls that include protection of scenic resources. The model ordinance defines traditional types of land use, density, minimum lot requirements and zoning controls.

In addition, it will have protections for scenic quality, such as regulations for landscape planting and screening requirements and protection of existing vegetation, as well as architectural control, protection of historical structures and height and density limitations. Other considerations include building setbacks, dune restoration and litter removal.

"Right now the statutes to protect scenic quality have no teeth in them," Mills said. One of the rare exceptions is the state’s real property tax assessment for scenic easements, he said.

Today, the Texas Gulf coast is a mixed bag of rules and regulations. The 370-mile shoreline covers 18 counties, numerous municipalities, as well as state and federal lands.

There are laws on the books to protect the state’s scenic resources, such as the Texas Coastal Dune Protection Program, which provides a 1,000-foot protection line. On the other hand, laws such as the Texas Open Beaches Act of 1959 have resulted in poor scenic quality, as well as environmental, litter and erosion problems, Mills said.

In the future, Mills said, there will be a growing need for public acquisition or regulation of high quality coastal areas that protect scenic quality. "Based on our evaluation of scenic ratings, these areas will be habitats that are undeveloped and in a natural protected state," he said. "It’s also important to remember that high scenic values are directly and positively related to tourism demand."

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Contact: Louis Mills, assistant professor, Department of Landscape Architecture, Texas Tech University (806) 742-2858 or louis.mills@ttu.edu