Along with a model ordinance for stream buffers, included on this site are sample stream buffer ordinances from various parts of the country:

Language from Baltimore County, MD   This includes language specifying the expansion of buffers for erodible soils and steep slopes.

Rhode Island  This is an example of a buffer ordinance in a coastal region.

Napa, CA  Here's a buffer ordinance for a region with few native trees. The ordinance focuses more on the preservation of other native vegetation.

Portland Metro Floodplain Preservation Ordinance This model ordinance focuses on management of the floodway.

Model Land Trust Agreement (Natural Lands Trust) Land trust agreements, or similar documents, are often needed to ensure the long-term integrity of the buffer.

Introduction to Buffers

Aquatic Buffers serve as natural boundaries between local waterways and existing development and help protect resources by filtering pollutants, providing flood control, alleviating streambank erosion, mitigating stream warming, and providing room for lateral movement of the stream channel. While there is often overlap between the role of buffers and conservation areas, buffers differ in that they are a specific planning tool to protect stream quality and aquatic habitat. The model ordinance specifies the size and management of the stream buffer.

The model ordinance provided here includes wording that can be used to establish stream buffer zones.  Each of the ten sections provides suggested language or technical guidance to create the most effective stream buffer zones possible. Much of the model is based on Baltimore County, Maryland’s regulations for the protection of water quality, streams, wetlands and floodplains. However, additional features and language have been added in certain sections to enhance the protective functions of the proposed stream buffer.

Stop!Where you see this symbol, you'll need to make a decision or get more information in order to apply this ordinance to your community.


The language in the sample model ordinance is intended to provide suggestions for possible wording of a community’s own buffer regulation, and is not meant to be adopted verbatim. Modification of the ordinance language will be required in order to address specific local situations and concerns. Coastal and estuarine areas will likely want to include more language dealing with the vegetation unique to their location, as well as important offshore features such as shellfish beds and migratory bird nesting areas that are influenced by nutrient and pollutant runoff. In addition, the establishment of buffer widths may vary depending on region, with areas that receive less rainfall making adjustments to their buffer width sizes. Consideration of political situations within a community may also influence the final choice of buffer width standards, and flexibility in establishing stream buffer zones is important.

While the wording of buffer regulations is flexible, several features were determined to be integral in developing the most effective ordinance possible:

  • The establishment of a minimum stream buffer width. A width of at least 100 feet is recommended in order to recognize all the benefits that the stream buffer can provide.

  • The creation of a three-zone buffer system with the functions, widths, vegetative targets and management schemes for each zone explained in detail.

  • Language that creates the ability to expand the buffer to include the 100-year floodplain, steep slopes, and any adjacent delineated wetlands or critical habitats.

  • A thorough explanation of the limits and uses of the stream buffer system and the requirements expected for any development plan during the entire development process--from initial plan review, through construction.

  • A system to permanently mark the buffer, both physically on-site and in the land records should be enacted.

  • A designated management system for the buffer, detailing permitted and restricted uses within the buffer, and an educational program that ensures that future residents know about the buffer.

  • Any waivers or variances which may be granted regarding the buffer should be explained in detail to avoid legal challenges.

  • Maintenance guidelines and enforcement procedures for buffer violations should be included.

A strong buffer ordinance is only the first step to preserving stream buffers. In addition, communities will need an effective buffer program to manage buffers and enforce buffer regulations. During the construction phase, communities need to ensure that the clearing and grading permit is well-integrated with the forest buffer application. After construction, programs that educate citizens about the importance of the buffer and how to manage it can help preserve the buffer’s integrity.