Public Walkways

Prepared by Regina Esslinger

The Chesapeake Bay Critical Area Commission encourages the creation of opportunities for interaction between people and natural environments which do not destroy the fragile components of natural habitats.

When properly sited, designed and constructed, public walkways within Maryland's Critical Area can engender an enhanced stewardship ethic in visitors while allowing them to learn about and enjoy the Chesapeake Bay's many resources.


A public walkway provides pedestrian access through town, county or state land and allows shoreline access to the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries for the purposes of education and recreation. Public walkways may include boardwalks and pervious or impervious walkways, which are designed in a manner which is consistent with the specifications contained in this guidance.

The Critical Area Act encourages public access to the shoreline. However, the need to protect sensitive habitats requires decision makers to locate and design boardwalks and other access points carefully.

The Commission developed this guidance to provide assistance to local jurisdictions on the establishment or enhancement of public walkways in the Critical Area. This guidance should be used by local officials, planners, consultants and contractors. It is intended to give this audience an understanding of the types of public walkways allowed within the Critical Area and of the process for Commission review of these projects so that project goals and Critical Area requirements are achieved simultaneously.

The design guidelines contained in this guidance are not mandatory requirements. They are, rather, recommendations on how public walkways in the Critical Area can most effectively meet the goals and requirements of the State and local programs.

The Commission recognizes that site-specific characteristics will dictate a jurisdiction's ability to meet all of these design recommendations.

Commission Notification

Before a local jurisdiction initiates or approves a public walkway, the local jurisdiction must send to the Commission a description of the proposed project which should include a site plan and certification that the public walkway is consistent with the local Critical Area program (COMAR 27.02.02). Commission staff can assist local jurisdictions in determining if this requirement is applicable. Projects on state land must be approved by the Critical Area Commission. A site plan checklist is included at the end of this publication.

Location and Design Standards for Public Walkways

Public walkways that intrude into the 100-foot Buffer must be located and designed to minimize adverse impacts on the Buffer, Habitat Protection Areas (HPAs) and aquatic resources. The recommendations below this drawing are written with this goal in mind:

[map of locations for designing public walkways]

  1. The preferred location for public walkways is in Buffer Exemption Areas.
  2. Public walkways should be located predominantly outside the Buffer, although the access way may be allowed to meander at intervals into the Buffer to provide opportunities for education and access to the water.
  3. If the public walkway is designed to extend out over the water, the walkway should be located and designed to minimize adverse impacts on submerged aquatic vegetation, intertidal vegetation, and other aquatic resources. Points of contact with the shoreline should be chosen to minimize adverse impacts to shore stability and habitat. The Tidal Wetlands Division of the Maryland Department of Environment should be contacted early in the planning stage regarding permits.
  4. Public walkways should be located so that the clearing of forest vegetation and impact to other Habitat Protection Areas is avoided or minimized.
  5. Public walkways that are located in forested areas should wind around existing trees, rather than removing them so the forest canopy can remain intact.
  6. Public walkways should avoid impacting other Habitat Protection Areas in the Critical Area, such as threatened and endangered species, plant and wildlife habitats of local significance, and natural heritage areas.
  7. Public pedestrian walkways may be constructed from a variety of materials. Whenever possible, pervious or semi-pervious surfaces should be used. Materials such as wood decking (with spaces between the boards), gravel, and porous pavers are considered pervious when used by pedestrian traffic and can generally meet accessibility standards required by the Americans with Disabilities Act. Native shrub and tree species should be planted along the edges of the walkway to filter run-off, control erosion, provide shade, and define the limits of pedestrian access.
  8. Structures such as restrooms, bandstands, gazeboes, and concession stands associated with the walkway should be located outside of the Buffer.
  9. Walkways should be the minimum width necessary to accommodate the anticipated use. Table 1 provides some guidelines based on existing pedestrian walkways.


Table 1: Guidelines Based on Existing Pedestrian Walkways

CA Designation

Buffer Exemption Area



RCA Non-BEA 6'-0" Moderate
RCA BEA 6'-0" Moderate
LDA Non-BEA 6'-0" Moderate
LDA BEA 16'-0" Heavy
IDA Non-BEA 6'-0" Moderate/Heavy
IDA BEA 16'-0" Heavy

NOTE: Minimum clearance width for two wheelchairs is 5'-0". Since most elevated boardwalks are constructed with pilings that encroach into the walking surface, 6'-0" should accommodate the pilings, railings, etc. and still leave a 5'-0" clear width.


Mitigation for public walkways in the Buffer should be provided, regardless of whether the walkway is in a Buffer Exemption Area, Intensely Developed Area, Limited Developed Area, or Resource Conservation Area. However, the mitigation ratios will reflect these categories. In Buffer Exemption Areas, mitigation should be twice the disturbed area or number of trees cleared, whichever is greater; elsewhere, mitigation should be three times the disturbed area or number of trees cleared, whichever is greater. Plantings should be native Buffer species, but can be a mix of grasses, shrubs, and trees. Ideally, mitigation should occur on site in the Buffer whenever possible. Providing plantings in the Buffer along public walkways can help to educate the public as to what a functioning Buffer should look like. When on-site planting is not possible, other Buffer locations offsite are appropriate. In some of the smaller towns with a significant percentage of Intensely Developed Area, there may not be any planting areas in the Buffer, and therefore alternatives may be appropriate. Stormwater retrofitting is one option that would help improve water quality. Alternatives should be used only when planting is not feasible.

Checklist for Public Walkway Site Plans in the Critical Area

Public walkway site plans should include the following information:

__ Statement of purpose of access way
__ Critical Area designation (i.e., Resource Conservation Area, Limited Development Area, or Intensely Developed Area)
__ Whether the project is located in a Buffer Exemption Area (BEA)
__ 100-foot Buffer
__ Expanded Buffer, if applicable
__ Other Habitat Protection Areas (i.e. threatened and endangered species, species in need of conservation, plant and wildlife habitat, and anadromous fish spawning waters)
__ Landscape plan
__ Proposed and existing structures (i.e. buildings, benches, fences, etc.)
__ Condition of shoreline ( bulkhead, riprap, natural marsh)
__ Total impervious surface both in and out of the Buffer
__  Type of surface to be used
__  Dimensions of access way (width, length)
__ Vegetation to be removed (including trees)
__ Mitigation, if applicable
__ Brief description of the project, including phases of the plan, if applicable

- July 1999

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